Irish Travellers in America: Scammed by Society

One of the only books about Travellers written by somebody who has regularly interacted with their community.

One of the only books about Travellers written by somebody who has regularly interacted with their community.

I should take a moment to mention “Scammed by Society: A Moral Ethnographic Study” by John M. Stygles, a Memphis-based pastor in the United Catholic Church, who, thanks to his clerical work, has much direct experience with Irish Travellers. His book is a combination of direct observations and material drawn from other sources, many of them academic. According to Stygles, and I am paraphrasing, much of the most accurate information about this ethnic group is locked away in obscure academic texts, while what appears in more popular publishing venues tends toward gossip.

Stygles book is especially interesting in that he puts a lot of the Travellers’ social activities in the context of assimilation — or, more properly, the tools small groups use to protect themselves from becoming assimilated.
Stygles book is especially interesting in that he puts a lot of the Travellers’ social activities in the context of assimilation — or, more properly, the tools small groups use to protect themselves from becoming assimilated. This is something that sometimes seems extraordinarily difficult for many Americans to understand; they seem to be unable to conceive of why any group would not willingly abandon a cherished cultural, national, or ethnic identity in favor of joining the undifferentiated American masses. You will see it sometimes on online forums where Travellers are discussed, in the United States but also in Great Britain and Ireland, where the authenticity of the Traveller identity is often questioned or dismissed as simply being a lifestyle choice.

This is something that anyone who has a nonmainstream identity will experience. The Irish-American identity, as an example, probably couldn’t be much more popular in the United States, as it is claimed by roughly 33 million people. And yet you’ll often find people who insist that these sort of hyphenate identities are nonsense, that you are either Irish or American, and anyone who insists that the Irish have had a particular, identifiable history and culture in America is indulging in some delusional nostalgic fantasy. There is special pressure –internally and externally — for ethnic whites to give up their ethnic identity. When they refuse to do so — in fact, when they take heroic efforts to keep distinctive elements of their culture — they are sometimes met with suspicion. This is especially true when these groups engage in behavior that is seen as being exclusionary or “clannish.”

But, as Stygles points out, this behavior is the mechanism that Irish Travellers have chosen to keep their culture. They are an extraordinarily tiny group and they seem to have two anchors, the family and the Catholic Church. They have a history and a culture that is far enough outside of the mainstream that it runs a tremendous risk of simply being swallowed up, and so they keep their group identity by keeping the group small, close-knit, and exclusive. This shouldn’t be surprising, as these are precisely the tactics many similar groups use. I’ve known quite a few members of Orthodox or Fundamentalist religious sects, and they likewise tend to prefer to marry others from their own group, and mostly keep to themselves.

Nothing the Travellers do is unique to them, even given that some of it is unusual by mainstream standards, including arranged marriages, marriages at a young age, and marrying distant family members. In fact, by international standards, the Irish Travellers are in some ways decidedly mainstream: UNICEF estimates that 90 percent of marriages in India are arranged, and the practice is still common in many places worldwide; In the Middle East and African, marriage between second cousins is still common (in some nations, half of all marriages are between cousins), and Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University estimated that 80 percent of marriages in history were between cousins. Stygles also points out that these marriages were once quite common in Ireland, and so it is not so much that Irish Travellers adopted these marriage practices to battle assimilation, but that they simply maintained these practices because they were culturally useful.

There is a tendency to exaggerate how much this happens as well. From other reports, you would think that Irish Travellers sell child brides to leering adults as soon as the girls reach puberty, but Stygles — who has officiated at these events — describes marriages between girls age 15 and up and young men in their early 20s. Certainly this is young by the standards of many Americans, but, with parental approval, these marriages are entirely legal in the states where they take place. In the context of an effort to rebut assimilation, this solution may not be ideal, but is understandable, and seems related to the Travellers’ tendency to remove their children from public school at relatively young ages. It is not because Travellers have any demonstrable preference for teen brides or despise education, but instead because the longer a child is exposed to the outside world, the greater the risk of assimilation. Again, I have often found similar stories among religious minorities, with them favoring private school and tending to marry at a younger age. And many of these groups live in relatively settled communities — imagine how much harder it is to keep a group identity when you are part of an ethnic group who are partially defined by being independent and itinerant.

Stygles also addresses the question of Traveller criminality, although he addresses it late in the book, seemingly out of a sense of unhappy obligation. He starts out by addressing Don Wright’s book, “Scam,” devoting a fair amount of space to authors who find Wright’s book to be less-than-credible, such as Larry Otway, a paralegal and activist who has worked with Travellers since 1977. Otway dismisses the books as being an example of writing about Travellers by “sensationalist press, authors without credentials, or the police.” Otway makes no bones about his belief that Wright has no credibility as a writer, and decries his book as factually inaccurate.

“Everybody always knows of a better deal,” he says, “but we get holding the bag for their complaint …”
Stygles own discussions with Irish Travellers has them distressed by these charges, arguing that while there are some who self-identify as Travellers and are criminals, “they don’t belong to this community.” Worse still, because of warnings about Travellers engaging in home-repair scams, one complains that he finds himself ob the receiving end of a bad deal. He will meet with somebody to do some work, agree on a price, and then, when the work is done, they will complain that they have decided they are being overcharged. “Everybody always knows of a better deal,” he says, “but we get holding the bag for their complaint …” The Traveller ends up getting paid considerably less than was agreed upfront, or sometimes must eat the cost of the job altogether or face unsympathetic police officers. This happens often enough that the subject of the interview finds himself wondering who the real con artists are — the Travellers, or the people who demand a cheaper or free job once the work has already been started or is complete.

This is a side of the story we never hear. Even contractors who were for established companies with stable headquarters regularly must deal with clients who default on payments, and the history of itinerant and migrant employment is one of relentless abuse directed toward the worker. Don Wright, in “Scam,” was quick to do some back-of-the-envelope math and come up with the preposterous figure that Travellers are responsible for a billion dollars in stolen revenue per year, but he didn’t bother to investigate how often scrupulous or competent itinerant workers are paid less than the agreed price, or not paid at all. He didn’t consider the possibility that some of those who claimed to have been scammed might themselves be justifying their decision to refuse to pay an itinerant worker.

Of course, part of the issue is that Travellers don’t have any sort of united mechanism for presenting their experience — there is no Anti-Defamation League for Travellers. Not that they don’t individually address these charges — the Amazon page for Wright’s “Scam” has a review from someone who claims to be a Traveller and criticizes the book for being “based entirely on hearsay.” I see these sorts of comments often; Travellers are not entirely mum on their own experience, although they do tend to prefer anonymity when commenting. But the Travellers are famously private, and, moreover, approach decision-making with what Larry Otway described to USA Today as being anti-bureaucratic and based on “consensus democracy.” Couple this with a culture that discourages extensive contact with non-Travellers and it is easy to imagine that Travellers would not feel comfortable taking on the role of community spokesperson, not would they feel the need to constantly answer ludicrous charges from outsiders based on gossip and conjecture.

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Max Sparber

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