I grew up in Ireland, as you know, and having traveling families come and go in school was a common thing. The travelers themselves have a great history and a unique culture. Not all of their practices are to be praised however, some are known for “double dipping” into social welfare payouts in Ireland and England. But for the most part, and I have to be very honest here, I have never known a traveling family like the ones parodied in the two shows mentioned above.
Rows of caravans on the side of the road, with campfires burning and clothes hanging to dry on the hedges was a normal sight in the Ireland I grew up in during the 70’s and 80’s. Most traveling families stayed for a few weeks and then moved on. A few families stayed a little longer than that and some settled into houses.The two families that I knew were the D*** and the W***. I sat beside N* D* when I was eleven years old. She couldn’t read at an appropriate age level back then, so I brought in books of girls comics we called “annuals” and she discovered she could tell what was happening by looking at the pictures.
N* was a beautiful little girl, reddish, blonde hair and she was splattered with freckles. Her voice was grainy and hoarse because she inhaled smoke constantly from the open fire which was lit outside the caravan, her home, and burned to keep the family warm. She smelled of smoke and spoke in an accent that was different to mine. N* spoke in Cant, sometimes called Shelta or also known as Gammon. I understood most of what she said, it was a very heavy accent, and I was fascinated by her nomadic lifestyle.
The W*** family, also a traveling family, settled in my hometown. Two sisters in particular were very friendly with me. Two lovely girls, whose names are now a distant memory, and I have often wondered where they are now. Both girls and my twin sister and I would meet up at Lough Derg and go swimming when we were 12 or 13 years old. Their mother and father were also two very nice people.
The travelers have been called Gypsies, Pikeys, Itinerants or Knackers, all derogatory terms, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to use them, never ever. The history of the Irish traveler goes back to Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell who instituted plantation farming in Ireland decided that the worst land was in the west of Ireland, also called Connaught. His famous phrase, “To hell or to Connaught,” meant that anyone who did not hand over their land to the British government and who would only be allowed to remain if they worked the land for the government, would have to go to the west of Ireland or be killed. The Irish traveler of today is the ancestor of those people who walked away from their lands during the Cromwellian plantation era: Forced homelessness due to expansion of the British Empire.
I’ll return to the language spoken by the travelers and its origins. Shelta, Cant or Gammon is similar to the Jamaican’s Patois, a language born out of suppression and spoken deliberately to provide meaning to others who knew it but confusion to those who did not. Shelta, Cant or Gammon is a rapid fire vocabulary of both Irish and English words that was developed to allow conversations between travelers in front of authority figures such as policemen. Here’s a small sample, although it ends up making fun of the Irish travelers’ language, provided by Brad Pitt in the movie Snatch.
And here is Johnny Depp’s attempt at emulating a refined Irish traveler’s accent in Chocolat.
Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch, We turry kerrath about your moniker.Let’s turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,And let your jeel shans get greydied nosher same as it is where you cradgie.Bug us eynik to lush this thullis,And turri us you’re nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydiedJust like we ain’t sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us.Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that’ll make us greydi gammy eyniks,But solk us away from the taddy.
|To read more about Shelta read The Secret Languages of Ireland by R.A. Stewart Macalastair|