Irish Travellers - Orientation

Identification. Irish Travellers are an itinerant ethnic group. Similar itinerant trader, artisan, and entertainer Minorities live in many other complex societies around the world. Group members refer to themselves as "Travellers" or as "the Travelling People." The term "tinkers" was once Commonly used by members of mainstream Irish society and by some Travellers. It was derived from the occupation of tinsmithing, which many Travellers once practiced; specifically, from the sound of hammer striking metal. Over the years, "tinker" became a pejorative label and is seldom used publicly today. The term "itinerant" was used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s by the government and news media; it has since been replaced by "Travellers" and "the Travelling People."

Location. Irish Travellers live and travel throughout Ireland and in the neighboring British Isles (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England). In addition, families who identify themselves as Irish Travellers live in the United States, primarily in southern states, many having emigrated there in the 1800s.

Demography. In 1981 there were 14,821 Travellers or 2,432 Traveller families in the Republic of Ireland. An estimated 1,000 Traveller families live in the British Isles. Travellers comprise a tiny minority in Irish society, approximately 0.5 percent of the population. Nevertheless, it is a fast-growing population with an annual growth rate of 6.7 percent. The age structure of the Traveller population differs dramatically from that of the general Irish population. Nearly 40 percent of Travellers in 1981 were under 10 years of age; over 50 percent were under age 15. This compares to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, for non-Travellers. Only 6 percent of Travellers, however, are over the age of 50, compared to 24 percent of non-Travellers. These figures reflect the very high birthrate of Travellers; the median number of children born live to mothers aged 45 and over is 10. They also reflect a high death rate and a low average life expectancy. Alcoholism, related diseases, and alcohol-related accident deaths take a high toll on adult Travellers.

Linguistic Affiliation. Irish Travellers speak English and an argot known as Gammon or Cant (also known as Shelta) that is based on Irish Gaelic but also incorporates English, Romanes (the language of Romany Gypsies), and slang. It is used primarily as a secret language to obscure conversations from outsiders. At one time Travelling People living in Irish-speaking parts of the country undoubtedly spoke Irish, but no longer.

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