What is an Irish Traveler?

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Sept. 24 2002 1:17 PM

What Is an Irish Traveler?

Madelyne Toogood, the woman accused of beating her 4-year-old daughter in an Indiana parking lot, is an "Irish Traveler." What's an Irish Traveler?

Irish Travelers, also known as "White Gypsies," are members of a nomadic ethnic group of uncertain origin. Scholars often speculate that they are descended from a race of pre-Celtic minstrels and that their ranks were swelled by displaced farmers during Oliver Cromwell's bloody campaigns of the mid-1600s. Travelers once roamed from town to town in horse-drawn carts, earning their keep by busking and tinsmithing; because of the latter vocation, they were nicknamed "Tinkers," a word that's now considered something of a slur.

Modern Travelers in Ireland, who number around 25,000, frequently live in ad-hoc trailer encampments, though some have settled in permanent housing. Though prejudice against Travelers has abated over the years, they are still widely stereotyped as thieves and troublemakers; according to a recent poll, 70 percent of Irish citizens wouldn't accept a Traveler as a friend. A new law which criminalizes trespassing, thus making it easier for police to shut down encampments, has been criticized by Travelers as an attempt to destroy their culture.

A few Irish Travelers emigrated to America during the Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. Their 7,000-10,000 descendants still speak the secret Traveler language, a dialect alternately known as Shelta, Gammon, or Cant, which includes elements of Irish Gaelic, English, Greek, and Hebrew. They are also devout Roman Catholics who rarely marry outside the group. Their tightknit, insular clans spend the winters in such sunny locales as White Settlement, Texas, and Murphy Village, S.C., then hit the road come spring. Many U.S.-based Irish Travelers, including Toogood's husband, work as itinerant roofers, pavers, and painters.

Police frequently warn the elderly about home-improvement scams operated by a few Irish Travelers. Wandering contractors have been known to charge gullible customers thousands for "sealants" that are nothing more than watered-down lubricant; the con artists quickly leave town once the check is cashed.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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