Cultural History

Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies

Irish Travellers are a traditionally nomadic group with origins in Ireland who possess a separate identity, heritage and culture to the community in general. An Irish Traveller presence can be traced back to 12th Century Ireland, with migrations to Great Britain in the early 19th Century. The Irish Traveller community is categorised as an ethnic minority group under the Race Relations Act, 1976 (amended 2000); the Human Rights Act 1998; and the Equality Act 2010. Some Travellers of Irish heritage identify as Pavee or Mincier, which are words from the Irish Traveller language, Shelta.

Romany Gypsies have been in Britain since at least 1515 after migrating from continental Europe during the Roma migration from India. The term Gypsy is a corruption of “Egyptian” which is what the settled population perceived them to be because of their dark complexion. In reality, linguistic analysis of the Romani language proves that Romani Gypsies, like the European Roma, originally came from Northern India, probably around the 12th century. French Manush Gypsies,  have a similar origin and culture to Romani Gypsies.

There are other groups of Travellers who may travel through Britain, such as Scottish Travellers, Welsh Travellers and English Travellers, many of which are able to trace a nomadic heritage back for many generations and who may have married into or out of more traditional Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy families. There were already indigenous nomadic people in Britain when the Romany Gypsies first arrived hundreds of years ago and the different cultures/ethnicities have to some extent merged.

There are also Traveller groups which are known as ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers. These include ‘new’ Travellers and Showmen. Most of the information below relates to ethnic Travellers but ‘Showmen’ do share many cultural traits with ethnic Travellers.

Show People are a cultural minority that have owned and operated funfairs and circuses for many generations and their identity is connected to their family businesses. They operate rides and attractions that can be seen throughout the summer months at fun fairs. They generally have winter quarters where the family settles to repair the machinery that they operate and prepare for the next traveling season. Most Show People belong to the Showmen’s Guild which is an organization that provides economic and social regulation and advocacy for Show People. The Showman’s Guild works with both Central and local governments to protect the economic interests of its members.

The term New Travellers refers to people sometimes referred to as “New Age Travellers”. They are generally people who have taken to life ‘on the road’ in their own lifetime, though some New Traveller families claim to have been on the road for three consecutive generations. The New Traveller culture grew out of the hippie movements and free-festival movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Bargee Travellers are similar to New Travellers but live on the UK’s 2,200 miles of canals. They form a distinct group amongst the many users of the canal network and many are former ‘new’ Travellers who moved onto the ‘cut’ after the changes to the law made the free festival circuit and a life on the road almost untenable’. Many New Travellers have also ‘settled’ into private sites or rural communes although a few groups are still ‘travelling’.


How many Gypsies and Travellers are there in Britain?

Census 2011 included a “Gypsy and Irish Traveller” category for the first time. The Census puts the combined Gypsy and Irish Traveller population in England and Wales as 57,680. This is reckoned to be an underestimate for various reasons. For instance, it varies greatly with local recently collected data such as Gypsy Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, which total the Traveller population at just over 120,000, according to a Traveller Movement research (see our policy section for the report).

Other academic estimates of the combined Gypsy, Irish Traveller and other Traveller population range from 120,000 to 300,000. Ethnic monitoring data of the Gypsy Traveller population is rarely collected by key service providers in health, employment, planning and criminal justice.


Where do Gypsies and Travellers live?

Although most Gypsies and Travellers see travelling as part of their identity, they can choose to live in different ways

  • Some Gypsies/Travellers are permanently ‘on the road’, moving regularly around the country from site to site.
  • Others live permanently in caravans or mobile homes, on sites provided by the council, or on private sites.
  • Some Gypsies/Travellers live in settled accommodation during winter or school term-time and then travel during the summer.
  • Others may be settled altogether in ‘bricks and mortar’ housing, but still retain a strong commitment to Gypsy/Traveller culture and traditions.


Do Gypsies and Travellers speak a separate language?

Although Travellers speak English in most situations, they often speak to each other in their own language which for Irish Travellers is called “Cant” or “Gammon, *” and for Gypsies, Romani, which is the only indigenous language in the UK with Indic roots.

* Sometimes referred to as “Shelta” by linguists and academics.


What are the values and culture of the Irish Traveller and Gypsy communities?

Family and extended family bonds and networks are of high importance to both the Gypsy and Traveller way of life, as is a distinct identity from the ‘settled’ ‘Gorja’ or ‘country’ population. Family anniversaries, births, weddings and deaths are usually marked by extended family or community gatherings with strong religious ceremonial content. Gypsies and Travellers generally marry young and respect their older generation. Contrary to frequent media depiction, cleanliness and tidiness are valued highly in Traveller communities. Many Irish Travellers are practising Catholics. Some Gypsies and Travellers are part of a growing Christian Evangelical movement.

Gypsies and Traveller culture has always adapted to survive and continues to do so today. Rapid economic change, recession and the gradual dismantling of the ‘grey’ economy have driven many Gypsy and Traveller families into hard times. The criminalisation of ‘travelling’ and the dire shortage of authorised private or council sites have compounded this. Some Travellers describe the effect that this is having as “a crisis in the community”. A recent study in Ireland put the suicide rate of Irish Traveller men as 3-5 times higher than the wider population. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same phenomenon is happening amongst Traveller communities in the UK.

Yet Gypsies and Travellers are also adapting to new ways, as they always have done historically. Most of the younger generation and some of the older use social network platforms to stay in touch and there is a growing recognition that reading and writing are useful tools to have. Many Gypsy and Travellers utilise their often remarkable array of skills and trades as part of the formal economy. Some Gypsies and Travellers, often supported by their families, are entering further and higher education and becoming solicitors, teachers, accountants, journalists and other professionals. There have always been successful Gypsy and Travellers businesses, some of which are household names within their sectors, although the ethnicity of the owners is often concealed. Gypsies and Travellers have always been represented in the fields of sport and entertainment.


Are Gypsies and Travellers different to Roma?

Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are often categorised together -under the “Roma” definition in Europe- and under the acronym “GRT” in Britain. These communities and other nomadic groups, such as Scottish and English Travellers, Show People and New Travellers, share a number of characteristics in common: the importance of family and/or community networks; the nomadic way of life; a tendency toward self-employment; experience of disadvantage; and having the poorest health outcomes in the United Kingdom.

The Roma also originate from India from around the 10TH – 12TH century and have historically faced persecution, including slavery and genocide, and are still marginalised and ghettoised in many Eastern European countries (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania etc) where they are often the largest and most visible ethnic minority group, sometimes making up 10% of the total population. However, ‘Roma’ is a political term and a self-identification of many Roma activists. In reality, European Roma populations are made up of various subgroups, some with their own form of Romani, who often identify as that group rather than by the all-encompassing Roma identity.

Travellers and Roma each have very different customs, religion, language and heritage.  For instance, Gypsies are said to have originated in India and the Romani language (also spoken by Roma) is considered to consist of at least seven varieties, each a language in their own right. In recent years, there has been increased political networking between the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller activists and campaign organisations.


How are Gypsies and Travellers disadvantaged?

The Traveller, Gypsy and Roma communities are widely considered to be among the most socially excluded communities in the UK.  Life expectancy is much lower than that of the general population, with Traveller men and women living 10-12 years less than the wider population. Travellers have higher rates of infant mortality, maternal death and stillbirths than the norm. Travellers experience racist sentiment in the media and elsewhere, which would be socially unacceptable if directed at any other minority community. Ofsted consider young Travellers to be one of the groups most at risk of low attainment in education. Government services rarely include Traveller views in the planning and delivery of services.

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