Irish Travellers - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Travellers exploit social (rather than natural) resources, that is, individual customers and client groups within the host society. They are self-employed opportunists who use generalist strategies and spatial mobility to take advantage of marginal economic opportunities. Prior to World War II, Travellers moved from one farm and village to the next making and repairing tinware, cleaning chimneys, dealing in donkeys and horses, selling small household wares, and picking crops in exchange for food, clothing, and cash. They also made clothespins, brushes, brooms, and baskets; repaired umbrellas; collected horse hair, feathers, bottles, used clothing, and rags; and exploited the sentiments and fears of the settled population through begging, fortune-telling, and bogus money-making schemes. Occasionally a Traveller family worked for a farmer for an extended period of time. Travellers were welcomed for the useful services they performed and for the news and stories they brought to isolated farms, but they were also regarded with suspicion by the settled community and once their work was done they were encouraged to go. With the introduction of plastics and cheap mass-produced tin and enamelware following World War II, the tinsmith's work became increasingly obsolete. The growing affluence of the Irish population in the 1950s and 1960s also contributed to the demise of their rural-based economy. As farmers bought tractors and farm machinery, such as the beet digger, they no longer needed the agricultural labor and draft animals Travellers had provided. Likewise, the increased ownership of private cars and an expanded rural bus service, which made access to towns and shops easy, eliminated the need for the itinerant peddler. Travellers were thus forced to migrate to urban areas to look for work. In the cities they collected scrap metal and other castoffs, begged, and signed up for government welfare. Today most families earn their livelihood by selling portable consumer goods from roadside stands and door-to-door, by salvaging old cars and selling the parts, and from government assistance.

Division of Labor. Household income is produced by all family members—men and women, young and old. Children traditionally became economically productive at an early age: begging, peddling small items, picking crops, scouting opportunities for other household members, and helping in camp. Today, many attend school for part of their childhood. Older people contribute income through passive employment such as the collection of special welfare benefits. Women have always assumed important economic and domestic responsibilities within Traveller society. In rural areas, they did most of the peddling—bartering small household wares such as needles, scrubbing brushes, combs, and handmade tinware for farm produce and cash. Many also begged, told fortunes, and collected castoffs. Traveller men made tinware, swept chimneys, dealt in horses and donkeys, hired themselves out for farm and repair work, or produced handicrafts (e.g., small tables, brooms). With the move to urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s, women's economic contribution relative to men's Initially increased; they begged on city streets and in residential areas, sometimes developing patron-client relationships with Irish homemakers. Their economic importance was also enhanced by the collection of the state children's allowance, which is paid to all Irish mothers. In the cities, women also began acting as cultural brokers, handling most interactions with outsiders (e.g., police, clergy, social workers). Traveller men initially focused on collecting scrap metal and other castoffs and more recently, on selling salvaged car parts and new consumer goods from roadside stands and door-to-door. They also collect unemployment assistance.

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