Travellers are indigenous to Ireland. Although there has been some intermarriage with British Gypsies, Travellers are genetically closest to other Irish people. Nevertheless, they have formed a sufficiently isolated breeding population to have diverged from the Irish population at a number of gene loci. The early history of Ireland's Travelling People is obscure. Being illiterate until recently, they have left no written Records of their own. Being poor, they have been largely ignored in the literature of the "Great Tradition." Not all families originated at the same time nor in the same way. Some Families date back centuries; others have adopted a traveling lifestyle in recent times. Tinsmiths have formed a distinct group for many centuries; "tinker" and "tynkere" first appear as tradeor surnames in written records during the twelfth Century. But as early as the fifth century, these itinerant "white-smiths"—as well as other artisans and specialists such as tanners, musicians, and bards—traveled the Irish countryside fashioning jewelry, weapons, and horse trappings out of bronze, silver, and gold in exchange for food and lodging. Tinkers were numerous enough in Ireland (and Scotland) by the sixteenth century to have given Romany Gypsies stiff competition when they arrived in the British Isles for the first time. By 1835, when Britain's Poor Inquiry commissioners visited Ireland to collect evidence on the state of the poor, they were told that "wives and families accompany the tinker while he strolls about in search of work, and always beg. They intermarry with one another and form a distinct class." Other Travellers were originally peasants and laborers who voluntarily went on the road to look for work or else were forced into it by eviction or some personal reason—a problem with drink, the birth of an illegitimate child, marriage to a "tinker." Through time, these disparate itinerant people coalesced into a distinct group labeled by outsiders as "tinkers." Today, Travellers are characterized by a growing solidarity and Political activism based on their own increased sense of ethnic or group identification as Travelling People.
Some form of social separation from outsiders is fundamental to the preservation of Traveller identity. Interaction between Travellers and other Irish people is typically limited to economic exchanges and brief instrumental encounters with bureaucrats or institutional representatives such as the police, welfare, and hospital personnel. Practices of some Travellers (e.g., keeping unsightly campsites, drinking in public, aggressive selling tactics) reinforce social distance Between members of the two groups. But prejudice and discrimination have played a larger role in segregating the two communities. Government proposals to build official campsites for Travellers are invariably rejected by the local Community. Most people avoid any interaction with Travellers; very few would consider marrying a Traveller. Since the mid-1960s, the Irish government has attempted to solve what it labeled "the itinerant problem," that is, the existence of Traveller families living on the roadside in tents and wagons without basic amenities such as running water, toilets, and electric lights. The solution was believed to lie in settlement, in placing families on serviced government campsites and in houses from which they could send their children to school, get wage-labor jobs, and learn to live a settled life. Assimilation was the goal. Since then, however, Travellers have become more vocal and politicized. Political action groups have been organized in some cities. Travellers now consider themselves to be an ethnic group with the rights to maintain their own identity and life-style while enjoying the privileges of other citizens.