I recently wrote about a film that Jimmy Cagney planned to make but didn’t. It wasn’t described well in the sources I found, just that it was about Irish Travellers and would be a musical. I have become convinced that this was to be a film adaption of a novel called “The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin.”
I have no solid evidence for this, but some circumstantial evidence. Firstly, the book is about two Irishmen who travel to America, one older, one younger, and Cagney’s film was to star him as an older man and Dennis Day as a younger man. Secondly, the book concerns itself with the community of Irish mule traders who met annually in Atlanta, and that was to be the subject of the film; the book explicitly references Peachtree Street, as did Cagney when talking about the film.
The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.
The book was published in 1949, a few years after Cagney made his announcement about the film he wished to make, and so it is likely the book was being shopped around when Cagney gave his interview. And the book’s author, Charles O’Neal, was a screenwriter. I can’t find any direct connection between him and Cagney, but I have managed to get my writing into the hands of some very established actors and I am nowhere near as established as O’Neal was — in fact, O’Neal has a son who is a very famous actor named Ryan O’Neal.
I contacted the O’Neal family to see if they knew more, but haven’t heard back, and might not. So, for now, we can say that either O’Neal’s novel was the basis for Cagney’s unmade film, or it wasn’t an is just an example of the enormous coincidences that sometimes occur.
The book was made into a musical called “Three Wishes for Jamie,” but I will address that in a future essay. For now, I will discuss the book.
Firstly, a quick summary of the plot: It tells of a fanciful young Irishman named Jamie McRuin and his older cousin, a matchmaker. Jamie believes himself to have been given three wishes by the queen of the fairies: That he will travel; that he will marry the girl of his dreams; and that he will have a child who speaks Irish. Each wish comes true, after a fashion, and never in the way you might expect, and this quickly leads Jamie and his cousin to join the Irish Travellers trading mules out of Atlanta.
O’Neal told the press he had never been to Ireland when he wrote the book, and I think it shows: His Irish characters are the sorts of twee, florid, half-comic and half-cosmic figures Americans love, speaking in a lilting brogue about ancient battles and fairy folk. But O’Neal is supposed to have spent two years researching the Irish Travellers in his novel, which means that, despite it being a fiction, the novel would show an intimacy with its subjects that I have yet to find elsewhere.
The book’s Travellers are suspicious and clannish, but hard-working an honorable. They are explicitly linked with Travellers back in Ireland, who are also livestock traders, and while both groups are superstitious and quick-to-fight, the novel treats this as a typically Irish affectation, rather than one specific to Travellers. In fact, the characters who engage in the sorts of behavior usually associated with Travellers, including thieving and dishonest dealing, are the heroes, Jamie and his cousin, who are everyday Irishmen.
The book is set around the time of the Spanish-American war and shows the Travellers growing rich providing mules for the US Army — a story from Traveller history that I have read elsewhere, but have yet to find confirmation for. O’Neal has the Travellers set out in Gypsy-style caravans, taking their mules and their belongings with them and living in tents when they stop for any length of time. In his telling, the Travellers have a reputation for excellence when it comes to dealing mules, although mostly this comes from them tending to their animals and treating them well. Mules who belong to outsides are not treated as well, staved and worked to death, and one gets the sense that the real genius of the Travellers is simply that they buy mistreated animals and tend to them until they are healthy again, at which time the animals sell for a considerable profit.
O’Neal’s Travellers are fiercely Catholic — each tent has a Crucifix on the center tentpole, and an Atlanta priest is one of their few friends outside the world of Travellers. They prefer life on the road, and when their fortunes rise as a result of the war, they grow uncomfortable with the fact that this interrupts their annual perambulations around America. And they are very Irish — so much so that Jamie McRuin — with his hot temperament, flowery Irish oratory, and fantastical worldview — fits in very quickly and is accepted as a fellow Traveller, despite being an outsider.
In fact, I don’t know how correct any of this is. It is consistent with newspaper accounts of Travellers of the era, which tended to treat the group as honorable and hardworking but Gypsy-like and mistrustful. It is possible that O’Neal’s research consisted mostly of the same sort of research I do: he just read about the subject in newspapers. A Greensboro Daily News article from August 14, 1949 explicitly states that O’Neal had very little dealings with Travellers.
But, then, this book does not claim to be a documentary, and is so filled with fancy and whimsy that nobody would ever mistake it for one — there is a moment when one of the characters literally transforms into a fairyfolk. So the book is probably best understood as a fiction inspired by then-common perception of Travellers and less by real encounters.
It’s hard not to wonder how much truth there might be in the book, though. O’Neal may not have had many direct encounters, but he demonstrated himself to be a superlative researcher. For a non-native Irish speaker who had never been to Ireland, O’Neal filled “Three Wishes” with so much Irish language that he really should have provided a glossary at the back of it; based on my own experiences with the language, he seemed to use it right, too.
Ultimately, what works best in the novel is how effectively O’Neal transfers Irish myth to American soil — or, at least, his version of Irish myth. The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.
This book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.
This works because O’Neal set the story among the Travellers, even if he fictionalized them. Jamie McRuin is able to stay as Irish as he is in America because the Travellers, by very nature of the fact that they have clannishly maintained their culture, are so Irish. McRuin’s cousin carries a satchel with dirt from Ireland wherever he goes, but he really needn’t have bothered, because the Irish Travellers might as well just be carrying an Irish county around with them wherever they go.
It’s an interesting conception of Travellers, who are usually treated as being rootless and peripatetic. But this book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.
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.”
Jimmy Cagney, Irish Traveller? Almost, in a film that was never made.
To the best of my ability to tell, the first time Irish Travellers in America were represented on screen it was in the 1997 film “Traveller,” which, as I have detailed, represents the group as a loose-knit criminal enterprise.
But I recently discovered that there was very nearly an earlier film that would have presented Travellers far more favorably. It went unmade and forgotten, but it looks as though a fair amount of preproduction work was done on it, and I’d love to find out more.
The film would have been made in the late 1940s and would have starred James Cagney — indeed, he was the driving force behind it. A nationally syndicated interview in 1947 tells us the following:
After “The Stray Lamb,” Cagney plans a picture on the life of a group of Irish Gypsies who roam the southern states.
“They meet once a year at a sort of national headquarters on Peachtree Street in Atlanta,” says Jimmy, and hold all their weddings and funerals that have accumulated throughout the year. They conduct their tribal business, then set out for another year of trading horses, mules, second hand cars and anything else that comes to hand.
“They’ve adhered to the old Irish traditions, and around their campfires they still sing the songs that are as old and as beautiful as Ireland itself.”
Both Burl Ives and Dennis Day are “very interested” says Jimmy, and his writers are busy on the story.
The film certainly sounds like it would have been consistent with the way Irish Travellers were seen in the mid-Twentieth century, as exotic and fascinating but not criminal. Cagney was still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars — he was just two years from doing “White Heat,” one of his definitive roles, and he had one more Oscar nomination ahead of him, in 1955 for “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Burl Ives, in the meanwhile, gets a lot of the credit for the revival of interest in folk music in the mid-20th century, and released his own collections of Irish music. Dennis Day was a popular comic performer and singer on the Jack Benny show, and was about as well-known for his Irish ancestry as Cagney was for his. Their presence suggests the film was intended to be both a musical and lighter in tone than Cagney’s crime films, closer to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — a fact confirmed by Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas on June 23 on 1947.
And that’s it. I can’t find any more information about this project, which presumably was shelved for some reason. It’s tempting to speculate that the film might have encouraged positive American interest in Travellers, rather than the suspicion and hostility they are burdened with now. But, then, there is no real sense that Irish Travellers wanted to be represented in a film musical starring Jimmy Cagney, and there is no real cause to think the film would now be remembered. Cagney did a film called “Torrid Zone” about the same time, about revolution in a banana republic. Nobody remembers that film now, and it doesn’t seem like it affected the way anybody felt about bananas or republics.
Still, it’s hard not to feel some regret that the film was never made, and curiosity about what it might have been. If I ever find out more about the film, I will follow up.
Paul Connolly: Would you trust this man to represent your ethnic group?
I have an alert in my news feed that tells me when new stories are published about Irish Travellers. The feed is indiscriminate — I get stories from Ireland, where the comments section are a cesspool, and America, where the comments sections are rarely better. This being springtime, stories have started to pop up warning people of home repairs scams, and, as happens every spring, this warnings are accompanied by unresearched charges against Irish Travellers.
The documentary is an awful piece, filled with faceless people in the shadows saying terrible things about Travellers, none of which they are willing to say on record, and little of which Connelly bothers to fact check.
A story popped up today about murder and insurance fraud in Colleyville, Texas, that has started to make the reprint rounds. The suspects in the case are, according to the author, Irish Travellers, although the source of this information is unstated. The story then goes on to reprint all the typical charges against Travellers, and turns to a source I have seen showing up here and there: Irish journalist Paul Connelly.
Connelly made a short documentary for TV3 called “Travellers in America: A Secret Society,” which has a sinister sound to it. I have tried to track down the documentary, but it is not available in the United States, and so I have not felt that I could write about it. But this news report does not quote the documentary either, instead quoting a press release and a news article about the show. The charges made in this show are troubling: That Travellers marry children off at age 13, and that their wealth comes from a sort of massive gaming of the insurance industry. The source for the former charge is unnamed, but it is clear that the source is not a Traveller. Based on the only video from the episode currently online, the source might be Tamara, the same young woman who married into a Traveller family in “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.” But I haven’t seen the episode, and cannot say where the information comes from.
The second charge is worth exploring, because the accusation of insurance fraud is important to this current murder case. The suggestion that Travellers engage, as a group, in bilking insurance companies is a serious one, and could have a prejudicial effect if this case ever goes to trial — in fact, journalists are supposed to be cognizant of the way their writing might affect public sentiment, and be cautious about this. The story about the murder in Colleyville did not bother with caution, and their source, Connelly, has even less use for it.
Again, I have not seen “Travellers in America: A Secret Society” and cannot respond to it directly. But journalists are supposed to vet their sources, and Connolly is a troubling one. We can start out simply, with a review on the Sunday Times that begins with this delightful dismissal of the show:
As culture clashes go, it must be among the loudest: the age-old confrontation between settled respectability and vagabond fecklessness. Without a bye or leave, roaming ne’er-do-wells invade the property and lives of decent people, disturbing the peace with their crass shenanigans and shifty intent. The interlopers are invariably shrill, brazen and aggressively disdainful; bareback riders of high horses. Despite the provocation, however, Irish travellers living in America’s southern states displayed remarkable tolerance in the face of intrusion by a shabby TV3 bandwagon.
If I can’t look at “Travellers in America,” I can certainly look at some of Connolly’s other work. There is a similar documentary on YouTube just now called “The Town the Travellers Took Over,” about the growth of a Traveller ethnic enclave in Rathkeale, County Limerick. There is a history of suspicion there between Travellers and non-Travellers, but also a history of mutual interdependence, and it’s a complicated story. But, as Connolly’s sinister title suggests (and you might be noticing that his documentary titles are often sinister), he’s not interested in complications.
No, the documentary is an awful piece, filled with faceless people in the shadows saying terrible things about Travellers, none of which they are willing to say on record, and little of which Connelly bothers to fact check. He relentlessly lobs accusations at the Traveller community, often hiding behind unnamed critics (the phrase “some people think” and “some people say” shows up with alarming frequency.) He insinuates evil-doing by raising thrilling, suspicious questions that then go unanswered, such as asking how much Traveller wealth comes from crime. Well, if we’re just guessing, it can be any amount, from zero to a hundred percent. But by raising the question and letting it hang, Connolly suggests it is significant, rather than speculation.
The Limerick Leader was duly alarmed by Connolly’s documentary, although they allowed that it was lacking. “Anecdotal evidence is not the same as proof and these claims need to be investigated, and urgently,” they wrote. I should note that it is now nearly three years later and none of the charges Connolly brought up in his supposed documentary have been demonstrated.
It is useful to watch Connolly’s documentaries with an awareness of just how profound anti-Traveller prejudice can be in Ireland — it often verges on what we would describe as racism. Reading through the comments section of Irish publications, the sorts of comments that people demonstrate comfort in making are genuinely awful, genuinely cruel, genuinely hateful. And Connelly taps into this prejudice and feeds it. With “The Town the Travellers Took Over,” he didn’t make a documentary — it’s astonishing how few actual facts there are to be found in the piece. He created a series of dog whistles. He’s not a journalist; he’s a wanna-be demagogue, building his career by pandering to the worst of human nature.
Because “The Town the Travellers Took Over” isn’t a one-off. He’s also responsible for “The Travellers’ Secret Cash Stash” and “The Travellers’ Secret Millions,” so you can see that this is a subject of ongoing interest to him. And lest you think he limits himself to Travellers, there was also “Ireland’s Bogus Beggars: Paul Connolly Investigates” that mostly targeted Roma Gypsy women in Dublin and included as interview subjects Michael Quinn, the founder of the anti-immigrant Nationalist Movement Ireland, and Ted Neville of the Immigration Control Platform, who likewise holds ultranationalist and anti-immigrant viewpoints. Neither have popular support, even in their own communities; if your show is reliant on testimony from the fringe of the far right, there’s a real chance that that is the demographic you are pandering to. At the end of the piece, Connolly admitted there was scant evidence of any of his charges, leading another journalist, Diarmuid Doyle, to write:
In the end, reporter Paul Connolly had to hold his hands up and agree that there was nothing there – no gang, no Mr Big at the head of it and no huge money to be made from begging in Ireland. Instead he found a world of “extreme poverty, desperation and a community struggling to survive”.
Sometimes, even when you’ve put months of work and no little resources into an investigation, there’s still no story. In those circumstances, you don’t do the story.
Another example: Connolly was responsible for the seizure of a child from a Roma family in 2013. An anonymous tipster on his Facebook page claimed that there was a blonde, blue-eyed child in a a Roma household in Tallaght. Now, the idea that Gypsies abduct children is an awful historic slander against Roma, the equivalent of the blood libel to Jews. But Connolly took the anonymous tip at face value, turned the information over to the police, and they took the child into custody. DNA tests later demonstrated that the child belonged to the family, which was the source of enormous embarrassment for authorities, especially when they repeated the same mistake a few weeks later.
So this is the journalist whose unavailable work is being cited as a source in a high profile murder case, and whose dazzling investigative skills are unquestioned when he claims that Travellers are involved in gaming the insurance system in America.
Elysian Fields in Hoboken, 1859; the approximate date and location of this story.
I don’t like to use the word “tinkers” to refer to Travellers — like “pikeys” and “knackers,” the word is disparaging. But I am ever looking to find the oldest reference to Travellers in this county, and the oldest I have so far found calls them tinkers.
The article is from the New London Daily Chronicle from New London, CT, from September 1, 1851, and the text is as follows:
It would appear from several statements which we see in the New York Express that the little colony of what have been called Gipsies at Hoboken are not Gipsies at all, but a band of Irish Tinkers, who have been counterfeiting the Zingalan trade, and done it very bunglingly. A person acquainted with lingo which the Gipsies speak, has been among them, and found that they know no more of it that they do of Choctaw.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press. The Daily National Intelligencer of Washington DC seems to have been the first to notice them, writing about the group on August 5, 1851. The article claimed they have recently immigrated and their point of origin was Dunham and Newcastle, England. “The women and children are said to possess the peculiar physical features of their strange race, having slender figures and an abundance of black hair,” the article reported. The men were tinkers, according to the article, and left the writer uncertain as to their future: “[I]t may be reserved to the United States to solve the problem whether it is possible, under any form of social and political institutions, to amalgamate with other races a strange order of cosmopolites, who have, immemorially, been nomadic in habit, and intolerant of any admixture with a different people.”
While the Intelligencer worried if these so-called Gypsies might ever integrate into mainstream America, the first appearance of this group in the New London Daily Chronicle is decidedly certain that trouble is ahead, writing on August 8, 1851:
Vagabonds of the worst order themselves, they will find the rowdyism of the city too much for them, and if there are not several murders within a short time we shall be very much mistaken.
At the same time, the New York Herald delighted at the possible spectacle, writing:
Those who wish to see a real novelty, and a real curiosity in this country, can do so by taking a walk on the road north of the cricket ground, above the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, where they will see, close by the margin of the adjoining grove, a small colony of genuine Gipsies, living in that filthy and degraded style peculiar to that singular, and often troublesome, class of bipeds. There are, in all, three families, numbering about twenty-five persons, young and old.
The author, despite their frankly racist misgivings, actually entered into the encampment and interviewed a few from the group. He reported that two were born in Egypt, most of the rest were from England, and two from Ireland. One of these Irishmen claimed he had joined the Gyspies in England when he was a boy, and that he was perfectly happy to be part of the group.
I need not reprint all the articles. They share a mixture of fascination and horror about the new Americans in their midst, and jokey accusations that this group is a band of thieves abound. Additionally, the word “Zincali” is thrown about here and there, or variations (this is likely what “Zingalan trade” referred to in the first story). This is from a book called “The Zincali” by George Borrows, published in 1842 and detailing the Romani people of Spain.
On August 21, 1851, the Baltimore Sun reported with some alarm that all but seven of the encampment had returned to England with the idea of gathering up more Gypsies to bring back to America with them. From that point on, the press’s attention wanes — there were no reports of murders or mass theft. Gypsies are occasionally reported as being in Hoboken from that point on, but it is impossible to tell if they are in any way related to this initial encampment.
Apparently, there was some fortune-telling, if the Middletown, CT, Constitution is to be believed. On September 3, 1851, they wrote that “Ambitious young men, and hopeful young women are particularly victimized by the old hags of the encampment.” Further, “It is contended very strongly by some that they are not gypsies, but a pack of juggling Irish.”
It’s also hard to know what to make of these stories. They are so blinkered by popular prejudices as to be nearly useless as reportage. Perhaps they were right that some in the encampment were Rom, all came from England, and some were Irish. Maybe all were Irish. I suspect their employment as tinkers is true — it shows up a few times in the stories.
Beyond that? I don’t know. The first Irish Traveller to come to the United States is supposed to have been Tom Carroll somewhere around 1849, which is just about the the members of the Hoboken encampment arrive (they tell several interviewers that they have been in America for about a year), but there is nothing to connect Carroll and this group. It’s impossible to say for sure if the Irish who are part of the group are Travellers.
Regardless, this is the oldest newspaper record I have located that identifies a group as Irish tinkers, and, uncertain though it may be in the facts it presents, it nonetheless demonstrates that America in the mid-nineteenth century already had its anti-Gypsy prejudices in place, and was ready to apply them to anyone who fit the bill, even if they weren’t sure of the group was actually Gypsy.
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.
Author Don Wright wrote and self-published “Scam! Inside America’s Con Artist Clans” back in 1996, and for some reason it is still kicking around. As you can guess, Wright had a specific meaning when he used the phrase “America’s Con Artist Clans” in the title: He was talking about Irish-American Travellers. And he would continue to talk about them for years afterward, popping up here and there in the media when the subject was discussed, claiming he had spent 15 years researching his book, claiming that he had interviewed dozens of Irish Travellers, and claiming every single one of them, man, woman, and child, was a con artist. As an example, here are a few quotes from a 2002 interview Wright did with CNN:
I’ve never met an Irish Traveler who wasn’t a con artist, and I have been associated with them for about 25 years now. …
If you talk with an Irish Traveler that you know and one who knows you, as I’ve done, and you ask that person if he has ever known an Irish Traveler who wasn’t an con artist, the answer is no. …
As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller.
Wright has said this sort of stuff for a while to whatever news outlet would listen. In the Dallas Morning News in 2000: “They have no legitimate source of income.” In 2002, speaking to the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “Irish and Scottish Travelers go around swindling people.” In the Indiana Post-Tribune the same year: “Their scams are just never-ending … These people are con artists from the cradle to the grave. They’re always thinking of ways to scam people.” And again in 2002, in The State in Columbia, SC: “That’s the way they were trained from birth – to be master scam artists. They are taught that anyone who is not an Irish Traveler is a potential victim.”
I don’t know what has become of Wright. There hasn’t been a peep from him in quite a while, and perhaps he is no longer with us. His book is, however, and it claims to be an in-depth look at the private world of this American ethnic group. The claims Wright makes in the book still have considerable currency and are still parroted into the unmoderated comments section of online versions of newspapers. I am convinced that Wright’s book — or his earlier writing on the subject, which appeared in RV enthusiast magazines — are the uncredited sources for the 1997 movie “Traveller,” which duplicates many of the claims of the book.
So I read the book. It was, I must say, quite a slog: Almost 500 gormless pages, with a few storylines arbitrarily spread out over the course of the book, which doubles back, again and again, to several claims: That Irish Travellers regularly engage in RV scams (this subject is worried to death over the course of the book), that they are responsible for a majority of home improvement scams in America, and, in their free time, they engage in hundreds of little con jobs and regularly shoplift.
As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller — although his identification is fraught with problems, which we will discuss in a moment. There are endless examples of contradictory and incomplete reportage in the book, and there is some remarkably unethical reportage as well. And this may be understandable in regards to the author, as he experiences as a writer seem limited to publishing in RV magazines — but it is simply astonishing that the mainstream press has ever treated Wright as a credible source, especially since all he had to say to them is that an entire ethnic group is simply a collection of criminals. I find it hard to believe that anybody saying the same thing about any other ethnic group would be given ink or airtime, and it says a lot about how poorly understood Irish Travellers are that Wright was not simply thrown out of the press room as a racist.
I don’t know Wright’s motives in writing this book. Charitably, I think they were honorable. I think he had seen people lose money to con artists and wanted to write a book to expose the fact. I think he stumbled on a few bad sources, a few renegade lawmen who were engaged in a mixture of conspiracy theorizing and group profiling, and he just went down a rabbit hole that he refused to leave. I expect it was exciting for Wright to believe that he had cracked a secret, that he was privy to an otherwise unknown gang of outlaws, and this is where my charity ends. Because Wright did not author a true crime book. He authored a vicious slander, supported by a chain of weak and questionable evidence, and spent years demonizing an already despised minority group. This does not make him a lone truthteller, revealing a hidden, evil world. It makes him just another version of Henry Ford republishing the anitsemitic “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or Lothrop Stoddard publishing the anti-Asian “The Rising Tide of Color.”
There are a few insurmountable problems with Wright’s book, and the largest is one of sources. He mostly relies of law enforcement and victims of scams for his interviews, and the only usable information he gets from them is that there are indeed itinerant con artists engaged in a variety of scams in the south. The people in law enforcement have wildly different and often contradictory theories about what is going on, with some calling any itinerant con artist a “gypsy,” some crediting most of the cons to the near-mythical Terrible Williamsons, and only a few evidencing any knowledge of Irish Travellers. The victims just know they have been conned. It is Wright himself who glues all of these stories together into an overarching narrative of a rampantly criminal ethnic minority.
But he doesn’t show his work. He tells of con after con after con (again, mostly involving the sales of RVs), and, whenever he names a con artist, he appends the word “Traveler” to the front of their name. But how does he know? It’s not as though the Traveller population in America has some sort of master list of members that he can consult, and he admits that the con artists travel under a variety of false names and IDs, and that few of them are ever caught. So, again, how does he know who these con artists are, where they come from, or what their ethnicity is? I suspect he worked in reverse: That is somebody engaged as a con Wright had identified as being something typical of Travellers, he went ahead and blamed them for it, especially if they had an Irish name. Never mind that the Irish are the second-largest ethnic group in America, and that much of the south was settled by Scots Irish, so it is no surprise to hear Irish names down there, and there’s no reason to assume that they are Travellers.
There are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar.
Wright does have one Traveller as a source, a character he becomes obsessed with. This is Jimmy Burke, a career con artist who Wright meets when Burke is in jail, and Burke proceeds to obsessively badmouth Travellers to him. At the outset, there are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar. Burke’s tells Wright a number of stories in which Burke lies to get what he wants, and yet Wright never seems to think that Burke might be lying to him too. This is the case even when Wright investigates the South Carolina Traveller neighborhood of Murphy Village, which Burke had described as a sort of criminal slum, and discovers it to be filled with middle class homes and professionals who are in the middle of putting down long-term roots. And yet Wright continues to believe everything that Burke tells him about Travellers, even when he admits that he had paid Burke for his testimony and sent him care packages in prison. There is reason to believe that Burke was simply telling Wright what he wanted to hear, and Wright gives us little reason to think he isn’t a gullible stooge for these stories. Burke’s own life stories feel improbable and largely fabricated, but they are reprinted without any indicated that Wright investigated them. Additionally, as a reporter, you are generally not supposed to pay your source, and if you do, the fact should be highlighted, rather then mentioned as an aside.
But even by his own testimony, Burke was an outside in the world of Travellers. He was a product of mixed marriage and spent much of his childhood away from other Travellers, who he had painful memories of treating him as a non-Traveller. His stories of adult criminality have him inevitably partnered with non-Travellers — there are points in this story when non-Traveller con artists seem to outnumber Traveller con artists two to one. But they are treated as supporting characterd, their presence unremarkable, and this is one of the most damning things about the book: For author Wright, when most people commit crimes, they are individually responsible for it, and it reflects back on nobody but themselves; when Travellers (or even outsiders with Traveller roots, like Burke) commit crimes, it condemns all Travellers, and they are collectively guilty for it.
Burke was involved in a notorious scam, an attempt to defraud Disneyland in Florida by staging a rape and then suing the company for a then-predictable incompetence in their response. This is a story that Wright returns to again and again, in florid but frequently numbing detail. The scam is inconsistent with any of those Wright describes elsewhere in the book, was cooked up by Burke and a few of his family members, all of whom were as distant from the Traveller world as he was. And yet, because Wright bookends the story with this failed con, it is held up as being some sort of culminating event, a necessary and inevitable outcome of a certain type of criminal lifestyle. Wright claims, or Burke claims, that the reason for the scheme was to pull some sort of ultimate Traveller confidence game, something that would be legendary in Traveller communities. This is never supported by any other Traveller that Wright speaks to.
Although, frustratingly, he speaks to very few. His list of acknowledgements at the end of the book spans several pages, but lists only “[s]everal members of the Traveler clans.” He does not name them, and, indeed, they do not appear in the book as unnamed sources. They are apparently just floating in the background of the book, verifying Wrights’ reportage in a way he does not feel he needs to do in the text, despite some claims that are so dubious as to be idiotic.
Most egregiously, because Travellers have a well-documented tendency to marry within their own group, Wright repeats claims that this leads to higher rates of retardation in the Traveller community. He provides no sources for this, and later claims it is common for Travellers to be born with one leg due to inbreeding. Now, there is an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in tight-knit groups, but almost all documentation regarding Travellers insists they do not marry first cousins, and neither is there any evidence of an increase in these disorders. In fact, in 2003, the National Traveller Health Strategy concluded a two year “Traveller Consanguinity Working Group” by determining that intermarriage in the Traveller Community of the British Isles had not proven to be inherently harmful and that the risks of two parents carry the same genes for certain illness can be addressed with health counseling — which was true of both the Traveller and non-Traveller communities.
Afew actual Travellers do show up in the book, always protesting their innocence, always met with scoffing by Wright. Several of them contacted him after he initially published his exposes in the RV magazines, livid, accusing him of bad reportage and racism. He dismisses these, insisting that the critics are not credible, mostly because they are Travellers. It’s a wonderfully circular world wright created, where Travellers are, by their natures, con artists, and so the only thing that they can be trusted to be truthful about is their criminal activities. It doesn’t really make any sense — if anything, a con artists is more likely to lie about his or her crimes, rather than less. But it means that Wright could accept any information that supported his thesis and reject anything that didn’t, which you see him do again and again in the book. If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.
If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.
Once in a while there is a voice that contradicts Wright, and this bewilders him. Regarding the RV scam, despite Wright going on an on about it, it’s sort of hard to get a handle on what his complaint is. The con artists buy RVs directly from the manufacturers — often knock-off brands — which they then sell to the public, generally with a hard-luck story about having to let the RV go at a vastly reduced price. It’s a sketchy way to make a hard-sell, yes, and I dislike hard-sells as much as the next person. But it’s hardly unique to these so-called Travellers, as anyone who has been pressured into making car repairs they do not need can attest, as can anyone who found their car salesman tacking on all sorts of unneeded extras when a car is being sold.
Instead, the complaints mostly come from RV dealers, who complain they are being undersold. Now, firstly, despite Wright’s repeatedly claims that this is one of the primary sales ventures of Irish Travellers, he doesn’t prove it. No, these unlicensed dealers are referred to as “Gypsy” dealers by both the RV industry and law enforcement, and some of them have Irish names. Additionally, Burke claims he occasionally stole and sold RVs, and Wright just connects the dots. In his world, it must be Irish Travellers.
But he speaks to one of these RV dealers, who says that what is happening is that established RV companies are trying to lock down competition by spreading rumors, and also seem to have created a licensing system that benefits them but not independent dealers. There is some proof of this, too: One law enforcement agent advises a young couple not to buy one of these, or at least to check it out to make sure everything works on it, and is astonished when they check it out and buy the RV anyway. Wright names several of these gypsy dealers who eventually start their own licensed RV dealerships, and he reports with amazement that they have good reputations with the local Better Business Bureau. Wright and local law enforcement scratch their heads over the fact that so few of these gypsy RV owners lodge criminal complaints, and theorize that they are embarrassed to have gotten scammed, or are too ignorant to realize that they were scammed at all.
I have an alternative theory, and it is that the buyers were simply happy with their purchases. That they bought perfectly functional RVs at well below the costs they would have had to pay at an RV dealer, and even with the questionable sob story, they weren’t unhappy with their transaction. That what Wright obsessively describes as a “con” is just independent RV dealers creating their business in an environment stacked against them by an established industry. I might be wrong about this, of course, but, then, Wright hasn’t proven his case either. He hasn’t even proven these salespeople are Travellers. And, ultimately, if there are so few complaints about these RV sales, how serious is the crime? Is it really serious enough to take up so much of such a large book? Is it really so much that, by a process of inept amateur sleuthing, it should be enough to damn an entire ethnic group.
We find similar problems with Wright’s stories about home improvement scams, shoplifting, and other con games: Wright relies repeatedly on rumor, conjecture, and questionable sources. He insists criminals are Travellers without showing how he knows this to be a fact. He ignores other participants in these cons if he cannot insist they are also Travellers, as though they are incidental to the story. We end up not with a document of criminal conspiracy, but with an elaborate conspiracy theory, and any value it might have had as a warning about certain criminal activities are thoroughly undermined by the fact that Wright only cares about them if they support his thesis: That Irish Travellers are, in his words, “con artists from the cradle to the grave.”
There are a few very serious crimes described in the book. In one, a man named Billy O’Roarke wins several games of pool in Tampa and is confronted by a gang of men in the streets, demanding their money back. They beat O’Roarke so severely that he wanders into the street, where he is struck by a speeding car and killed. O’Roarke was Jimmy Burke’s brother in law.
Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life.
There is also the story of Peggy Burke, who reported having been raped by a police officer in Florida. The officer stalked Burke and murdered her, shooting her three times while she was sitting in a car. Peggy was Jimmy Burke’s sister.
Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life. There are other ways to look at it. One way is that it demonstrates that there is no racial or ethnic component to crime, but that terrible deeds are done by all sorts of people, and it is just as preposterous to claim that all Travellers are con artists based on Jimmy Burke and his family as it is to claim that all police are rapists and murders based on Peggy Burke’s awful ending. Another is that the life of any itinerant — con artist or honest dealer — is a fraught one, filled with danger, and, regardless of who you are, if you are on society’s margins you can be driven into oncoming traffic by a mob or raped and murdered by those in power.
Those are lessons worth learning. They represent a humane way to see the world, a way to see the world that is easy to research and demonstrate, a view of the world in which people on its margins are sometimes victims and sometimes victimizers, regardless of their background.
That’s not the story that Wright wanted to tell. No. Over the course of fifteen years, in what he admits in the book (but conveniently forgets to mention everywhere else), in fits and starts, with long gaps when he did no research at all, he concocted a conspiracy. And he dumped every single scrap of supposed evidence he could find, and cobbled it together with suppositions and rumors and gossip. And, from this mountain of mediocre journalism and incompetent policework, he pointed a finger at an entire ethnic group. He didn’t write a crime book, or an expose of scam artists.
One woman’s experience 80 years ago; apparently still applicable.
You don’t often find Irish-Americans referring to Irish Travellers, but I did find a February 14, 1908, article in the Washington DC Evening Star in which the Gaelic League of the District of Columbia invited a speaker, Dr. Joseph Dunn, to speak about Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers. He “illustrated his talk with specimens of their written and spoken language.” From other publications I learn that Dunn was Professor of Celtic and Lecturer on Romance Philology at the Catholic University of America.
There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers.
There have been occasional non-Travellers who have developed an interest in the Traveller language, such as folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who I have mentioned before. Online slang books regularly reference Cant, another name for Shelta, although almost always as examples of the language of criminals. There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers. I shall likewise respect this privacy, and so will simply discuss the moments when the press became aware of the language without revealing too much about the language itself. I couldn’t anyway, as I am neither a linguist nor versed in Shelta, although I understand some of it is derived from Irish.
In 1946, journalist Westbrook Pegler, writing for the Idaho Statesman, mused on the doubletalk and
bafflegab of politicians, mentioned an Irish-American tradition he had heard about called “swerve” in Boston, which consisted almost entirely of nonsense phrases. Pegler dug deeper and discovered Shelta, and, upon being informed that there were still speakers of the language in New York, set out to find some. He fails to find any and ends his article asking “why the tribe of tinkers vanished from the earth.”
Of course they hadn’t, although interest in the use of the language mostly languished, but for some scholarly interest in it. Joey Lee Dillard mentioned use of the language in 1985’s “Toward a Social History of American English,” where he claimed that most American Irish Travellers spoke Cant, a derivative of Shelta consisting of about 150 “secret words,” and few could speak the more than 1,000-2,000 Irish-derived words of Shelta. I’m not sure how correct this is, or even if there is any way to gauge its accuracy, without communities of Travellers who are willing to discuss the language and its usage, and that seems unlikely.
There was an uptick in discussion of the language after the release of “Traveller” in 1997, such as a series of letters written to The Dallas Morning News on October 10, 1997, in response to an article about itinerant con artists. The helpful but bigoted letter writers wanted to alert the author to the fact of Irish Travellers, Murphy Village, the movie “Traveller,” and the language Shelta, which one letter writer, with supreme confidence in their own unsourced knowledge, claimed is a “kind of a backward slang — ‘pig Gaelic’ — invented by Gaelic-speaking tinkers a couple of centuries ago to confuse the Irish and Scottish authorities.”
A 2000 truck accident that killed five young Travellers also brought the language to the fore, as newspapers caught a whiff of controversy when family members proved less than eager to talk to the press, especially as some of the boys may have had false IDs. The Dallas Morning News, in a story on January 23 of that year, wrote “The discrepancies fanned long-held suspicions that the Irish Travelers are more than they seem. Don Wright, an Elkhart, Ind., writer who spent more than a decade investigating the group, says they’re accomplished professionals at running assorted home-improvement scams and other frauds.”
We’ll come back to Don Wright, a travel writer and self-declared expert on Travellers who has probably been the single-most pernicious defamer of Travellers, ever eager to get in front of cameras and claim that every single Traveller is a criminal. But for now, back to the article:
They share a secret language – alternately called Shelta , Gammon or Cant – a linguistic cauldron with roots in English, Gaelic, Hebrew and Greek. It can still be heard on certain citizens band radio channels.
And this is how it goes: News articles that insist Travellers are a criminal conspiracy then bundle their language in as part of that conspiracy, implying if not stating outright that the language is mechanism for hiding their wrongdoings. The New York Daily News provided a depressing example of this in writing about Madelyne Toogood, the woman who was caught on camera beating her child in 2002. “Monster Mom is the Product of a Sad Irish Subculture” read the September 24 headline, authored by Denis Hamill, an author of thrillers who had written a book called “Fork in the Road” which tells the story of an Irish-American who falls in love with a Traveller in Ireland, who turns out to be a thief from a family of thieves. Hamill presents himself as being an expert on the subject and insists that Toogood isn’t an aberration, but comes from a world ” where women and children are often abused.”
He offers no evidence, although he claims he met many “tinkers” (a word he insists on using despite admitting that it is considered pejorative) when he spent a semester in school in Dublin, and “there was something sad, lost and heartbreaking in the eyes of many tinker children.” Apparently, one semester in Dublin and seeing a few sad-looking children is enough to make him a specialist in the subject, although he also cites a book called “Nan: The Life of an Irish Traveling Woman,” which he describes as definitive. In fact, in “Fork in the Road,” he credits the book as one of his primary sources, and in the article Hamill claims the book “reveals a life of squalor, beatings, infant mortality, childhood illnesses, alcoholism, incest, illiteracy and general unbearable sadness.”
The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Firstly, to get this out of the way, “Nan” is the story of one Traveller, mostly set during the 1930s, in Ireland and England, and the abuse she suffers is almost entirely at the hands of one man, her second husband, an alcoholic. The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Hamill has this to say about Shelta: “The research for this novel was complicated because very little has been written about this subculture, the history of which exists almost entirely in oral tradition, and which has its own impenetrable language called Gammon or Shelta, a kind of Gaelic pig Latin.”
I can’t help but read a sort of casual contempt in this phrase. There is evidence that Shelta dates back quite far. As early as 1904, Irish scholars were noting that Shelta seems to have more in common with Old Irish than modern Irish, which puts its origins back somewhere around 900 AD. Modern English, by comparison, only dates back to about 1500 AD. While the sorts of Shelta words that are regularly published do seem to involve some pidgin language uses and some backslang, it is a private language used by a private culture, and so little of it is broadly known outside the Traveller communities.
I generally feel it is a good idea to be cautious when discussing a language you know little about from a culture you’ve mostly read about, and calling the language a “Gaelic pig Latin,” especially as part of an article that argues that Travellers everywhere are impoverished, pathetic, and abusive, is not that.
As you may have noticed, part of the difficulty in surveying news stories about Irish Travellers is that the press gave them so many names, and knew so little about the group, that stories about Travellers appear under a variety of search terms (just the endless ways newspapers chose to spell “Gypsy” is enough to have the researcher buffaloed), and it can be hard to tell if the story is about Travellers or just about itinerant Irishmen.
It is very possible that the earliest stories about Irish Travellers in America had them identified as “Irish pedlars,” but I base this on a March 19, 1794, article in the Philadelphia Gazette that spoke of pedlars in the contemptuous way Travellers are historically spoken of, and name them with the nationalities we now identify as Traveller. I quote: “Would a farmer differ with his wife & daughter about the pedlar they would give a preference to in purchasing their gewgaws; whether they would employ the English, Scotch, or Irish pedlar when one of them was stealing the sheep, and wantonly sporting with the property on the farm. No, certainly they would unite and drive the thief off.”
This is actually not the earliest mention I find of Irish pedlars. Decades earlier, on August 22, 1771, the Boston News-Letter printed the following ad:
Stolen out of a Pasture in New York, last Monday Night, a large black Mare, with a strip of white in her Face, and some on her Legs, Wall Eyes, Paces mostly — the Person supposed to have stole her, is a small Irish Pedlar. Whoever apprehends said Thief, so that the Mare may be had again, shall have SEVEN DOLLARS Reward, and and all necessary Charges paid by me, JOHN CARLILE
The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty.
It’s interesting to me that the Old World prejudice against Irish Travellers seems to have been transported to the New World — I will note that while both these articles accuse pedlars of crimes, in the first case it is simply based on suspicion, and in the second case it is simply as a rhetorical move.
By the 19th century, the Irish pedlar was a well-known enough character in the United States to appear in jokes, such as the following, printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser on September 3, 1823, and widely reprinted after that:
An Irish travelling merchant, alias a Pedlar, asked an itinerant pouleter the price of a pair of fowls. “Six shillings Sir.” “In my dear country, my darling, you might buy them for sixpence a pace.” “Why don’t you remain in your own dear country, then?” “Case we have no sixpences, my jewel,” said Pat.
We have not met an actual Irish pedlar yet, and the first one to appear is one Peter McArdle in a property dispute published in the New York American in 1825. There’s not much to the story: McArdle seems to have been in a dispute with one Mrs. Elizabeth Hunt over some missing property, and when Hunt denied having it, he allegedly assaulted her. The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty. So, again, a story of a crime, but in this instance our pedlar was not only not guilty, but was, himself, victim of a crime.
From this point on, there are a series of criminal complaints, the most notorious of which was the 1843 murder of Ebenezer Bacon, a wealthy farmer who was stabbed to death during a robbery. Two Irish pedlars, William Bell and Bethuel Roberts, were arrested, and Roberts — an alcoholic suffering from Delirium tremens — confessed. “The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut” by Lawrence B. Goodheart summarized the case: Bell and Roberts looked likely to be hanged until Lucian Hall, an ex-convict, confessed. For a while, it looked like all three would go to the gallows, despite the fact that Bell and Roberts now maintained their innocence. Finally, Hall offered up a confession exonerating the other two, and they were released.
Let me note again that I cannot say for sure that anybody in these stories were Irish Travellers. They are identified as Irish pedlars only, although this is almost universally associated with a rootless, itinerant lifestyle, which eventually took simultaneous pedagogic and poetic form in the 1850 book “Old James, the Irish Pedlar,” written by Mary B. Tuckey, a native of Cork, for the American Sunday School Union. I won’t say too much about it, as it was written and is set in Ireland, but it’s interesting that it is meant for an American audience. It presents the character of an Irish pedlar whose peripatetic lifestyle both mirrors and teaches the story of Christ.
Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty, who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs.
It could also be a dangerous life, as the Alexandria Gazette pointed out on July 4, 1851, when it told of an Irish pedlar who was found naked and dead on the side of the road by some passers-by, who decided he had died of smallpox and buried him on the spot. The grave was reopened some time later and revealed that he was murdered, and that his belongings were later found on someone else. The following year the Connecticut Courant published a December 11 story about an Irish pedlar was “assailed and throttled” by two armed robbers; they made off with $75 cash and $100 worth of jewelry — about $5000 total in today’s money. Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty (sometimes Klaftery), who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs. It’s not surprising to discover that peddlers, who carried a lot of cash and merchandise, were the targets of theft; the future would bring many stories of Irish peddlers who are robbed and sometimes murdered. I would document more of these — and there are many — but for the following fact:
In the 1850’s, the spelling of pedlar converts to the more familiar peddler, and increasingly seems to reference immigrant Irish who sell miscellaneous supplies in their neighborhoods, rather than the itinerant travelling pedlars of the earliest stories. These characters are caught up in the hum and thrum of city life, and the press treats them about as it treats the rest of the Irish community, and immigrants in general: Sometimes as victims, sometimes as criminals, sometimes as local color. Once in a while there is a hint that the Irish peddlers may be Travellers, or still associated with Travellers, such as a March 10, 1871, society story in the Vermont Phoenix that told of a social event that included costumed presenters, including an Irish peddler and a Gypsy woman “in their antique costumes,” which hints that the peddler in this instance was seen as being a sort of kin to the Gypsy.
We start seeing an increasingly theatricalized Irish peddler from this point on. Irish dialect comics added peddlers to their collection of comic characters, such as Vaudevillian Roger Imhoff, who toured in 1917 with a sketch in which an Irish peddler has a troubled stay at an inn overnight; the sketch was called “The Pest House.” There were also more traditional theatrical versions, such as the comic opera “The Highwayman” from 1905. Perhaps the last example of the stage Irish peddler was a children’s play called “Run, Peddler, Run” that debuted in 1939 at Princeton and proceeded to enjoy productions for the next few years at America high schools. This, in turn, was based on a novel, “Bound Girl of Cobble Hill” by Lois Lensky, published in 1937 and telling of an “bound girl” — a sort of indentured servant — in Connecticut in the 1780s. From what I can tell, at least in the stage version, the titular girl is the sister to an Irish peddler, and the play is about his attempts to find her.
I will close with exactly the same caveat that I opened with — that it is extremely difficult to decide whether Irish Travellers are the subjects of news stories, because they were so poorly understood and there was such a variety of words used for them. But there are some lessons we can take from looking at the stories Irish pedlars. Firstly, they were certainly viewed with the sort of mixture of suspicion and romanticization that Irish Travellers were (and are). But, more importantly, despite the fact that they were often treated as an especially criminal class, they were often the victim of false allegations and real crimes, as they were especially good targets for robbers. We’ve seen this in other circumstances — the mentally ill and the homeless, as an example, who are still often treated as potential sources of crime or violence, but tend to be victims of crime and violence far more often than they are perpetrators.
I don’t know how often Travellers are targets of crime and violence — the press is happy to identify their ethnicity when they are suspects of crimes, but doesn’t seem to have the same eagerness when they are victims.
Before you write about Irish Travellers, ask yourself a few questions.
Hello, journalists! Spring is right around the corner, and there is a good chance your newspaper is going to try to tackle that hoary spring cliché, the story of how Irish Travellers are descending on your town to bilk old people with a series of con jobs.
Please stop and read the following. Because you run the very real risk of writing an inaccurate piece that slanders an ethnic minority in this country.
There is a good chance that a representative of law enforcement, the Better Business Bureau, or a self-declared expert on con artists will have brought the story to you, and their press release will sound authoritative. It will identify Irish Travellers as an itinerant dynasty of roving con artists who travel America in the warmer months committing a variety of crimes, including home improvement scams.
A cursory search of earlier news stories will produce an abundance of similar stories, all telling roughly the same story. And so you’ll set to work, warning your readers to watch out for these modern-day mobile thieves and their nefarious ploys.
Before you write this article, please stop and read the following. Because you run the very real risk of writing an inaccurate piece that slanders an ethnic minority in this country. So before you begin, let me ask the following:
1. Is the ethnicity of the scam artists essential to the story?
This should always be your first question — it is, in fact, a well-established principle of journalistic ethics. The Poynter Institute’s Keith Woods pointed out that identifying a subject’s race or ethnicity rarely has any intrinsic value and instead tends to reinforce stereotypes.
Irish Travellers are repeatedly painted as being a criminal class, but this is an identification that has no evidence to back it up. I defy any organization to produce any statistics that show that Irish Travellers perpetrate crimes at any higher rate than anybody else. Their ethnicity has no bearing on the story, but printing it reinforces some longstanding and hateful stereotypes about the group, some of them borrowed from racist stereotypes about Roma Gypsies, who are not related to Irish Travellers.
2. Are you sure the con artists are Irish Travellers?
If you decide that their ethnicity is, in some way, essential to the story, have you determined that the subjects of the story are, in fact, Irish Travellers? Author Richard J. Waters, author of the Travellers’ Rest website, has pointed out that con artists are often identified as Irish Travellers without any evidence whatsoever, based on them being itinerant, working in home repair, and driving a pickup truck.
Do not presume that law enforcement officials or self-declared experts have any real expertise in this. There is a long and tragic history of these agencies profiling entire groups as criminal, and it is our job as journalists to make certain we do not pass along this profiling uncritically.
“Irish Traveller” is not just another word for itinerant con artist; it describes a specific ethnic group. If someone claims they were conned by Irish Travellers, ask them how they know, and, keep in mind, even if the con artist identified as a Traveller, they are a con artist, and should not be taken at their word.
3. Is there a reason to link them to Murphy Village or another Traveller neighborhood?
Police enforcement officers will often mention Murphy Village, which is predominantly Traveller, and it is tempting to use that fact in the story. But unless the con artists have been proven to be Traveller, have been proven to come from a Traveller neighborhood, and these facts are essential to the story, publishing the name of the neighborhood merely serves to criminalize an entire group of people.
4. If you are going to publish information about Irish Travellers, are you sure of your source?
Don’t simply assume that because something was published, it is correct. Irish Travellers in America make a virtue of privacy, and so very little information about them comes from real Travellers. As a result, a lot of misinformation, or information that lacks context, is out there.
It is incumbent on journalists to approach this subject with extreme caution, as they would writing about any poorly understood minority culture. If you can’t track down the source of a fact about Travellers, or if that source is someone who has limited or no direct, long-term experience with Travellers, you may be reprinting slander.
Generally, it is advisable to have somebody from the minority group vet your writing, but this may be impossible with Travellers, who prefer not to talk to the press. You may be able to report around this by speaking to members of the community that regularly interact with Travellers — Priests, as an example — but it is also worth asking if the private world of the Travellers is essential to the story, and, if not, leave it out.
5. Are you sure a crime has been committed?
A whole range of behavior is often classified as flim-flammery where Travellers are concerned. There is a difference between overcharging or doing shoddy work and committing a real crime. Be cautious in conflating these things. If everyone who overcharged could be arrested, then inner-city convenience stores are engaged in a massive criminal conspiracy. If shoddy work were a crime, then most of us would have looked at prison time at one moment in our life or another.
Additionally, it is worth recognizing that itinerant workers will often refund money or pay fines when they are innocent of any wrongdoing, simply to speed up the process of moving on to their next job. Being held over in a town not only prevents an itinerant worker from making any new income, but can actually cost a lot of money thanks to hotel costs, parking fees, etc. The fact that an itinerant worker left quickly — even if they jumped bail — should not be assumed to be an admission of guilt, but rather a decision that was forced by the economics of the profession.
6. Is it necessary to bring up other cases?
There will be a temptation to mention high-profile cases, like that of Madelyne Gorman Toogood, who was caught on video abusing her child in 2002. But there is no evidence that Travellers are abusive toward their children in any greater number than any other group, and mentioning unrelated cases simply perpetuates the idea that there is something inherently criminal about Travellers.
Knowing this …
By all means, write a story about itinerant con artists who commit home repair scams. They do exist and readers should be alert to the various scams they perpetrate. But before you associate Irish American Travellers with these scams, please remember to ask these questions:
Is the ethnicity of the con artist essential to the story?
Are you sure the con artists are Irish Travellers?
Is there a reason to link them to Murphy Village or another Traveller neighborhood?
If you are going to publish information about Irish Travellers, are you sure of your source?
Are you sure a crime has been committed?
Is it necessary to bring up other cases?
Asking and answering these questions will make sure that you have been appropriately diligent in reporting your story, and will help make sure that you are reporting conscientiously and ethically, and not perpetuating stereotypes and slanders about a little-understood ethnic group.