Travellers through Time

[ A guest post by Tony Hennessy, a friend and a colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland who specialises in magnificent bespoke family trees. See the end of this post for an example. His work deserves to be much better known and he should be stinking rich. More at his FaceBook page.]

Once upon a time, not so many years ago, it was believed by some that to have a family history worthy of exploration one must be in possession of a large country estate, a glorious military career or at the very least a double-barreled surname and a magnificent moustache.  Happily we have discovered in more recent times, with the help of television programmes and the wonders of the internet, that every family has a story to tell.  That being said, many stories simply remain untold and become lost to posterity.

1950s Traveller camp

I’ve been engaged of late with a group of Traveller men from Pavee Point, investigating their family histories and recording the results in the form of large family tree charts.  While the process is both enjoyable and fascinating, the business of researching Traveller genealogy can also be challenging, to say the least.  Where a ‘countryman’ like myself may expect to find their ancestors firmly ensconced in the parish and townland of origin for two, three or more generations a Traveller family might include ten children baptized in six different parishes in four different counties!  And don’t expect to find them in the 1901 or 1911 censuses.  Only the most zealous of census enumerators ventured forth beyond the confines of bricks and mortar to include those living in barrel-top wagons and makeshift shelters in camps and along the byways of Ireland.

Another challenge is the limited amount of surnames – and first names too.  How many Martin McDonaghs or John Reillys can one family contain…?!  It may be for this reason that Travellers might refer in conversation to ‘Mikey’s Martin’ or ‘Oul Davy’s Mainey’s John’, not unlike native speakers of the Gaeltacht areas, the name becoming a miniature family tree in itself. For the same reason nicknames are also quite common and so I’ve met Bullstail, Fewsticks, The Needle Collins and the Longtail Quinns and others along the way, all of whose soubriquets we’ve included on the family trees.

Those who died in tragic circumstances or children who died in infancy are so often part of a family’s story, whether they be Travellers or settled people, and while their names may be rarely spoken they – and maybe their photograph – can find a home on a family tree. As well as a genealogical record of one’s ancestors, a family tree becomes a Document of Remembrance.

It is a striking fact that over the course of just one generation the traditional nomadic way of life of the Travelling people has simply ceased to exist.  Today’s older generation, whose lives have straddled two very different worlds, are a rich repository of living history and folk memory – and a wonderful source when compiling a family tree – and it is important that their first-hand accounts of Traveller life from that earlier period are not lost as time inevitably rolls on.  The story of the Irish Traveller is an intrinsic part of the Story of Ireland itself.  On 1st March 2017 the status of the Travelling community as an ethnic minority within the Irish Nation was finally recognized by the State.  And there is a Bill currently working its way through the Dáil which, if passed as expected, will include the teaching of Traveller heritage and history as part of the school curriculum.  These are big steps along the road to a more understanding and inclusive society and are very much to be welcomed.

Collins family tree compiled in partnership with Michael Collins, son of Hughie Collins

At the request of the National Library of Ireland the three completed family trees will be presented to the NLI.

19 thoughts on “Travellers through Time”

  1. Cool. I hope the elderly members give DNA samples as it would be most insightful to learn how genetically separate they are from the rest of Irish people and implicitly how long they have been separate.

  2. This is fascinating; go raibh maith agat. I tried to zoom in close enough to read but could not. I’m interested to know whether you have been able to get back to a “settled” generation for anyone, and also what you are finding for earliest geographic locations. In other words, where was it bad enough that folks took to the roads and met enough others in the same circumstances to make it a way of life?
    Is this a case of widespread homelessness developing its own culture?

  3. Fascinating! As a descendant of an Irish travelling showbusiness family I have experienced the same situation of children of one family being born all over the country in different parishes, also burials and marriages scattered throughout Ireland! Challenging but very interesting too.
    Sinéad

  4. Deirdre I kept the resolution low on the family tree for privacy purposes. In answer to your question occasionally I discover an early marriage between a Traveller and a settled person but in terms of arriving back at some sort of starting point for the travelling community we would be looking at the early / mid 1600s according to the latest (limited) DNA research by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. This was a time of great upheaval in Ireland. Other sources have proposed a gradual divergence began some 1500 years ago. The notion that Travellers came into being as a result of the Famine has long since been debunked. – Tony

    1. Thank you very much for the reply, Tony. Here is another great use of DNA, to give relative dating to Traveller origins. BTW, I too have Hennessey roots (ours had the extra e), a line we still have been unable to trace to its origins in west Co. Clare. Our Hennessey-McInerney couple were displaced by the Famine, settling in Bristol as laborers, from whence further emigrations. It is interesting, the results dislocation took in Ireland.

  5. Fascinating. And brave! I would reel in horror at trying to research folks who move so much. But, I expect this will fill a large void in Irish history.

  6. Hmm. Interesting. My mother’s father had 11 siblings, born in across four counties in Ireland. I’ve only found a few in baptismal records. His father was a rag picker/draper in different records. He and his wife were from neighboring counties, but I’m not sure how close they actually lived to each other. I assume he was an itinerant trader. I’ve often wondered since discovering this, and since finding evidence that the same last name is found in Traveller immigrants to southern America, if the family weren’t travellers themselves. However, they settled in Belfast by the late 1890s. And thanks to the recently opened Irish records, I’ve been able to track them all down and most of their descendants. Sadly, and surprisingly, there aren’t that many, but they are spread over three continents…

  7. Does anyone know whether it is possible to get one’s DNA analyzed for Traveler ancestry. My great great grandfather’s occupation on his daughter’s marriage certificate is stated as traveler, which i guess means a traveling salesman, if such existed in the 1850s in Derry. But sometimes I wonder, as he seems to have left little trace of himself in Irish records, whether he was in fact a Traveler in the ethnic sense.

    1. I stand to be corrected on this, but I think that is unlikely. The term traveller and the travelling community as commonly used terms are of later, 20th century, origins.

      The term ‘itinerant’ would have been the closest to an official term to describe the community in the 19th century and well into the 20th century (1946 & 1956 censuses both include this classification), along with some offensive slang terminology, would have been more common in the 19th century records.

  8. I wonder were the traveller families descendents of the Garran Ban who were the Irish displaced people who had their land confiscated by Cromwell and lived in the forests and attacked the English/Scottish settlers

  9. The term “traveller” would not have been used in 1800’s. Usually they were referred to according to their trade, which often was tin smith. So Tinker was frequently used. When that became derogatory term , traveller became official description

  10. A traveller, as found in the census records, was a commercial traveller or “Rep” who went from town to town representing the firm that he worked for, selling wine, spirits, tea, medical products etc. They only dealt with the shops (or chemists or doctors if they sold medical products) showing samples of their goods so they weren’t dealing with the general public. It was considered quite a repectable job and the commercial travellers were the lifeblood of a great many small hotels around the country where they were regulars until at least the 1970s. So if there is someone in the family who never seemed to be at home, you may find them in hotels or as “lodgers” in the censuses.

  11. Beautiful post and wonderful, so needed work — and of course, a magnificent family tree. Thank you, Tony, and thank you, John!

  12. John, I like all who responded above, very much enjoyed the article. My introduction to the Irish Travellers first came in May of 2005 when my husband and I took or 2nd trip to Ireland 21 years after our first trip with our then young son. My O’Meara and Mantons are from County Tipperary and my Mulcahys and Hurleys from Limerick, Rathkeale parish and the tiny community of Riddlestown that is now farm land. We stayed at a B & B located on a family owned dairy farm a few miles from Adare chatting with the husband after he settled us in our room. He asked what brought us here and I told him about meeting some Mulcahy people at church the next day to which he says he knows them well. He said he wanted to inquire in case my families might be one of the Travellers – I had no clue what he was referring to. He just wanted me to be informed and so I wouldn’t be surprised by ‘anything’. When we asked about a suggestion for dinner in Rathkeale, he pauses then says we should eat in Adare as the Travellers had taken over Rathkeale, buying up property and businesses then leaving the majority of the town vacant. Apparently Rathkeale is regarded as the Travellers home base in Ireland where they congregate in droves from all over not just Ireland, for the holidays and party in their large, gated homes absent of furniture while living in their new sprinters and caravans (this told to me by my cousins whose families have lived there for many generations). After the holidays the homes are locked up and the distant families (like those living in England and trading in Europe) leave. My cousins drove us around the area before we went to Riddlestown to hear and see the neighborhoods and be given a background. A few years ago I did a program on the Travellers in my genealogy study group, it was eye opening when someone like myself who has worked on my Irish lines for years to be introduced to this group.
    Again, thank you for bringing the topic to your blog.
    Mary O’Meara Mamalakis Yes, I went from Irish to Greek!

  13. Hello,

    My family was from Limerick, and I have done a great deal of research.
    My question is about burial. While I have searched the burial of cemetaries around Limerick for many of my grand, and great grandparents- I am not finding anything.
    Any suggestions about how I find out the burial sites so that I may pay my respects?

    Lori Centrella Lori @ Centrella.com ( Nee Doran)

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