Irish Travellers in America: Going Toward Cadiz

On the Chattahoochee River rises the magic city.

On the Chattahoochee River rises a magic city.

As I have noted, one of the many terms applied to Irish Travellers in America is “Irish horse traders,” and the earliest use of this I find is from the Semi-weekly south Kentuckian., April 20, 1886. It is a brief item, so I shall reproduce it in entirety:

Two families of Irish horse-traders have been camped out east of the city for several days. They passed through the city yesterday going toward Cadiz. They are well equipped for travelling and have some good horses.

They go unmentioned, as far as I can tell, for another 12 years; their next mention is in the Macon Telegraph on April 2, 1908, and the article mentions they are “often confounded with Gypsies.” The purpose for this article: A funeral, which the author assures us is an annual event. occurring on April 1 of each year and always in Nashville or Atlanta. “Every available hack and carriage has been hired for the procession, and the visitors have organized a big camp at the corner of Bellwood and Asby avenues.”

These will be the two sorts of stories we see most often for the next 70 years or thereabouts: Stories about Travellers as honest horse dealers, and stories about annual funerals, which always attracted attention.
These will be the two sorts of stories we see most often for the next 70 years or thereabouts: Stories about Travellers as honest horse dealers, and stories about annual funerals, which always attracted attention, in part because the funerals were so picturesque, involving Gypsy-style wagons and large encampments and big gravestones. In fact, the following year a story would be republished nationally in April about the O’Hara clan, “numbering about 200,” gathering in Atlanta to bury 17-year old Anna O’Hara.

In April of 1911, just two years later, another O’Hara funeral story went national, this time claiming the family had 500 members. The story not only more than doubled the number of O’Hara’s, but added greatly to their legend, pointing out that four large wagons were required to haul all the flowers for the funerals, and that many of the Travellers are very wealthy, including “at least two [that] are rated as millionaires.”

There was another story in May. This one was longer and fascinated by the exoticism of the Travellers, starting “Beyond the ourskirts of the city where the Fortified Hills look down upon the Chattahoochee, a magic city has risen, a city of tents and wagon tops.” The author describes the gathering as looking like a combination military encampment and circus gathering, and identifies the funerary custom as being at least 20 years old, of not older.

The author describes the funeral procession:

Promptly at noon the other day the Clan O’Hara, 500 strong, wended its way from the camp near the river to the Church of the Immaculate Conception. They did not ride the horses of the camp, nor drive the buggies so plentiful among them. They rode in carriages, for which every undertaker and liveryman was drawn upon, and they gave little appearance of being the Bohemian strollers that they are. Suits of sober black and gowns of finest silk were here and there a shawl woven in old Ireland and worth its weight in silver.

The women wore “[j]eweled crucifixes and rosaries” when the men wore diamond rings. “They are not poor,” the author states, but own large tracts of land. Twelve had died in the previous year, and all were named and mourned at the church. “It has always been the warm brown earth for the O’Haras,” the author states, “out under the open sky, with the spring grass for a coverlet; the mating birds for choirsters. There they sleep — a long line of several generations now, and there will their brothers and their sons finally come to join them.”

 

Email this to someoneShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on Facebook

Comments

comments

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.