Irish Travellers - Religion



Religious Beliefs and Practices. Irish Travellers are Roman Catholics as are most other Irish people. Most are baptized, married, and buried in the church, although few attend mass regularly. Irish Travellers have no unique religious beliefs and lack specialized religious practitioners of their own. Travellers believe in various omens that portend good or bad luck or some specific event. Chattering magpies, for example, presage trouble, flying cranes foretell a meeting with friends, two magpies and a crow hopping about the camp Together mean the police are near. Many beliefs were shared with the settled Irish population, while others appear to be unique to Travellers. Today these beliefs are dying out, as is storytelling, which was once an important tradition among Irish Travellers. Around the campfire at night, they often told ghost stories and other tales of supernatural happenings, such as getting mysteriously lost while crossing a familiar field and horses balking on the road when passing the place where someone had died.

Arts. Tinsmiths were skilled craftsmen who produced a variety of household objects, from buckets, milk containers, cake pans, sieves, funnels, and scoops to decorated lanterns. A few tinsmiths still practice, selling their wares to tourists. Other Travellers were wagon builders who decorated their wagons and carts with wagon art—painted scrolls, horseshoes, grape and leaf motifs. Music is very important to Travellers; social gatherings often include ballad singing and instrument playing. Many adult Travellers, particularly the men, play either the accordion, melodeon, harmonica, tin whistle, or spoons. Some Travellers are skilled folk musicians, interpreting old Irish ballads in new ways and creating new ones.

Death and Afterlife. It used to be customary for families to abandon, sometimes to burn, the wagon and possessions of a dead relative for fear of the individual's ghost and to avoid bad luck. Travellers still move away after a death to escape both the memory of their loved one and the ghost, and most sell or abandon the trailer or wagon the Person lived in. Funerals draw especially large crowds of Travellers who often come at considerable expense and from considerable distances to express their respect for the dead and to reinforce group bonds. Such large assemblies reinforce a common identity as Travellers that overrides, at least temporarily, kinship and localized political alliances. These meetings have an emotional intensity that is striking to an outside observer. It is as if what Travellers lack in formal organization or structure they make up for by periodic assembly and intense emotional interaction.


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