Hidden World of Traveller Girls

A new story from The Hidden World of Girls.  This one from Ireland.
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters & Mixed by Jim McKee
In collaboration with Nuala Macklin in Dublin, Nathan Dalton and Laura Folger
Aired on April 29, 2010 on NPR’s Morning Edition

The Hidden World of Traveller Girls by The Kitchen Sisters

Travellers. The people of walking. Sometimes called the gypsies of Ireland. They speak of non-Travellers as “the settled people.” Mistrusted for the most part and not well-understood. Nomads, moving in caravans, living in encampments on the side of the road. They are the breeders and traders of some of Ireland’s best horses. They have their own language and their tradition as “tinkers” or tinsmiths goes back hundreds of years. As times change in Ireland, and the notions of private and public space change and contract, the culture no longer accepts the Travellers on public and private lands and has begun to create “halts” where they can settle.

Helen Connors lives in Hazel Hill Halting Site, a new government experiment in Traveller housing on the lower slopes of Dublin Mountain, with her husband and two children. She is 21. She left school at 11. “I was bullied a lot in school. You were a “knacker” or a “pikey” that’s all you’d hear everyday. You’d be in trouble nearly every day fighting. I didn’t learn a lot in school. I had one teacher that said to me, “Well a Traveller won’t do nothing with their life. Why would you want to know how to read and write. You’re going to go off and marry young and have loads of children.”

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Helen showed us her wedding album. “Whatever you want on your wedding day you have to get,” she said. “When I got married I got to design my own wedding dress – my dream dress. It had a 50 foot train it was all diamonds and lace. Travellers have a mini bride. That’s a girl you just dress up to look just like yourself for the day. Your mini bride has to look like you.”

Helen grew up in a family of seventeen children. When her parents married 47 years ago her mother was fifteen. When Helen married her husband John they lived for three years with his brother in a caravan. Recently they moved into a day house in Hazel Hill. The day house has running water, a kitchen, bath and living room. At night they sleep in their caravan outside.

It’s changed a lot for Travellers in recent years Helen told us. “Years ago you were a tinsmith or you’d shoe horses for a living or you’d do the markets. But everything like that is changed for Travellers. Myself I left school when I was eleven. But then I started a trainer course where I learned how to read and write. Then I did a child care course I passed all my exams. Now I can read and write what I never learned in school. I learned it by myself. Travellers is getting heard more now that what they were years ago. Because they’re speaking up for themselves. Travellers used to not be heard. Now they are.”

In The Hidden World of Traveller Girls we go to Hazel Hill to talk with Helen Connors and Shirley Martin. We visit a settled woman and her daughter who design elaborate Traveller wedding gowns. We travel to Cahirmee Horse Fair in County Cork where young girls with long hair spilling parade and marriages are made. We listen to these young women, their stories and music and explore some of the ancient and modern Traveller rituals clinging on the edge of the Celtic Boom.

LISTEN: Shirley Martin talks about Travellers’ work

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LISTEN: The Origins of Travellers—Theories and Myths
Professor Mary Burke, Irish Studies, University of Connecticut

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Jane Helleiner is a Professor of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, and author of the book Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture. She did her doctoral field work in anthropology in Ireland living amongst a group of people known as the Travelling People. This involved nine months of living in a campsite; in a trailer with a fluid number of families, some of whom came and went during that period.We spoke with Professor Helleiner about her book and her work with Travellers. Here are a few excerpts from her interview.

“The links of marriage are very important for a population that has often been dispersed.  One of the ways in which the marriages were often handled in the past was through a process of match-making, which was part of the rural Irish tradition as well.

“The matchmaker was often an older male relative, although women were certainly in the background of the matchmaking processes.  The young man would usually be the one who would be first approached or informed of these proceedings. By that point there could have been a bit of pressure there brought to bear on young women, as their two families had already come to some kind of agreement.  There was and still is the opportunity for young women to avoid matches that they are not keen on through the practice of elopement or running away. Traveller women have not accepted the notion, often perpetuated from the outside, that they are somehow victims of a culture and need to be saved from that.

One Marriage Draws Another
“There was a pattern that I could see of women after marriage often ending up spending much more time with the husband’s people than their own… This put you in somewhat of an outsider position as a woman. Traveller women might try to encourage future marriages between their husband’s families and their own which would bring their people into closer proximity… One woman described it to me as ‘one marriage draws another’ in the sense that once you’ve set up one successful wedding, at that wedding itself there’s all kinds of potential for future weddings.  Because by definition those families that have brought themselves together for that celebration recognize one another as appropriate marriage partners.

Children and Childcare
“One thing I learned from my many conversations with young married women was… there was very strong value placed on having children, having large families. So young women were anxious if they didn’t conceive early in their marriage  and celebrated tremendously when people did become pregnant and delivered their children and offered tremendous amounts of support. Women could access the labor of other women and girls to assist them with their child care responsibilities.  Some women who moved into houses could find themselves isolated, having a much less collective life and unable to access the assistance of other women and children in their activities.

“I was married while I was doing this research and I would always be asked ‘Are you married?’ and I would say ‘Yes.’  ‘For how long?’ I would say ‘Two years.’ They’d say ‘Any children?’ and I would say ‘No.’  And then they would say ‘Ohhhhh.  Plenty of time yet.’  They would assume that I might be concerned to be married two years and to have not yet conceived.  And so I was given all kinds of unsolicited advice about facilitating fertility. I did in fact become pregnant during this period and shared that news with the women and it was joyfully received.  It was a very positive environment to have your first pregnancy because this strong emphasis on the value of children.”

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Rosaleen McDonagh is a contemporary Traveller playwright and activist for Traveller and disabled peoples’ rights.  She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin and also obtained a masters degree there.  She was the first Traveller woman ever to run for the Senate in Ireland.  She has said, “Women in Irish society often complain about a glass ceiling in business and careers. Well, I can tell you that as a female traveller we aren’t even able to look up and see that ceiling. We are locked on the outside looking in.”

Her plays, which explore the culture and struggles of Travellers, include The Babydoll Project and Stuck.  In The Babydoll Project McDonagh uses humor to explore the ways in which Traveller women negotiate family, culture, sexuality and identity. Take a look at this video that includes rehearsals of McDonagh’s play Stuck.

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Margaret Barry was born into a family of Travellers in Cork, Ireland. She traveled across Ireland playing music from an early age. During the 1950s, Alan Lomax made a series of recordings of her singing and telling her life story. Here are a few excerpts from these recordings, courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

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LISTEN: “I sang through the fairs…”

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LISTEN: What Margaret’s Mother Told Her

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LISTEN: Margaret sings a Lullaby

Read more about the life of Margaret Barry here.


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Eighty percent of Madame Lee’s customers are looking for their soul mates. Dublin radio producer Nuala Macklin talked with her at the Cahirmee Horse Fair, a traditional gathering place for Travellers who come to buy and sell horses, meet with friends and relatives and match make weddings. For generations, Traveller and gypsy women have traditionally worked at fairs and festivals as fortune tellers, musicians and entertainers.

Inspiration for this story came from photographer Gerry O’Leary’s book,  Irish Contemporary Architecture. Gerry photographed Hazel Hill, a pioneering housing development for Irish Travellers on the lower slopes of the Dublin Mountains and it caught our eye.  We were just beginning to gather stories for The Hidden World of Girls and went to visit the “halt” at Hazel Hill. Visit Gerry’s website here: www.gerryoleary.com

We came across this slideshow of dozens of customized Traveller caravans:


MARY BURKE, associate professor at the University of Connecticut in Irish studies, was awarded the 2009 College Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Excellence Award in Humanities. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, and was the NEH Keogh-Haughton Institute Fellow for Irish Studies at University of Notre Dame 2003-4. Her book on the Irish playwright J.M. Synge and the cultural history of the Irish Traveller or “tinker” as they were known, is being published by the Oxford University Press.

JANE HELLEINER, professor of sociology at Brock University of Toronto, received her BA, MA and Ph.D in Social/Cultural Anthropology from the University of Toronto. She has conducted research in Ireland and Canada. Her book Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture (University of Toronto Press) was chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine in 2001. Her most recent work is in the area of critical border studies. She is currently Graduate Program Director of the Interdisciplinary MA in Social Justice and Equity Studies.

Travelling Clan, Gadjo
The Winding Stair, Ride A Mile (Slip Jigs)- Patrick Street
Harmonic Necklace, Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Music for a Found Harmonium, Patrick Street
Telephone and Rubberband, Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Flower Amang Them, Horslips
The Clergy’s Lamentation, Horslips
Caravan, Van Morrison

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