There’s a lot of magic and mystery attached to the past. People think back on how the world must have been like or what the people who used to live then were like. Sometimes, they wonder about those who seem to get lost in the course of history like people who somehow end up without homes in countries with established cultures. Who are these people who keep themselves separate from the rest of society? Why do they do it? What is the secret behind these Irish Travellers?
In truth, not so much is actually known about the Irish Travellers, or the Irish variant, the people known as Tinkers. Nothing much is known about where they came from, although there are many theories. Some people believe that they are descendants from Irish people who had been evicted from their own lands during some war or another. Some people believe that they were the children of traveling merchants or children of the bards who traveled Ireland sharing stories.
There’s no doubt that the Tinkers are Irish because their names and their appearance confirms this. The Tinkers are known in Irish society for being almost homeless and begging for money and, in older times, for milk or eggs. As a result, the name Tinker has a bad association, with such negative meanings as “lawless” beggars who “abused Ireland.” The name Tinker comes from the fact that they often provided tinsmith services to people, tinkering, in other words, mending tin pots and pans for money.
It is also known that their health is generally poorer than that of the rest of the Irish public. According to recent studies, less than half of all Travellers live past the age of 39. They have a high mortality rate as a result of congenital and metabolic problems as well as accidents. In particular, female Travellers seem to pass away prematurely at a high rate and according to recent studies, Traveller women were shocked to discover that rape or emotional abuse within marriages was considered “emotional abuse.”
They are recognized in British law as a real ethnic group but Ireland does not classify them as such. They are classified as a “social group” instead and are called “tinkers,” “gypsies” or “knackers,” all terms that are considered very offensive in modern-day Ireland. The term “knackers” actually comes from the act of acquiring horses solely for slaughter, something that is looked down upon.
Irish Travellers have their own language, known as Sheta, a language with two dialects, Gammon/Gamin and Cant. It dates back to at least the 18th century although it could be older. Interestingly, Tinkers are very good dog breeders, especially adept at breeding lurchers and greyhounds. They also have a large presence in the horse trading world.
Not much is known about Tinkers to the outside world. Some of this due to the derogatory attitude the Irish public has towards them. Who would want to reveal their secrets to those who hate them? More will be learned as the Tinkers allow the outside world in but firstly, the world has to let them in.