The History and Culture of Irish Travellers

The first Gypsy people migrated into Europe from India in the Middle Ages, arriving here in the 15th Century. Due to the darkness of their complexion, it was thought they had come from Egypt and were called ‘Egyptians’, hence the spelling of ‘Gypsy’ from ‘Egypt’.

Gypsies are only one of the groups that are included in the term ‘Travellers’, this is a commonly used term that includes people from a variety of groups, all of whom are or were nomadic. The main groups are:

• English Gypsies
• Romany Gypsy refugees and asylum seekers
• Irish
• Fairground and Show people
• Scottish
• Bargee and water craft Travellers
• Welsh
• New Travellers (people from the settled community originated in the 1960s Hippy movement)
• Circus people

It has been estimated that there are around 300,000* Gypsies and Travellers in the UK.
*Source: Commission for Racial Equality, 2003

First British Travellers

It is thought that Gypsies (Roma) first arrived in Great Britain in about 1500, following centuries of migration from North-western India across Europe. These people worked as entertainers or metalworkers. During the reign of Henry VIII it was a capital offence (punishable by hanging) to be a Gypsy. Even those who mixed with Gypsies were punished.

During the 1700s, the enclosures of common land made nomadic lifestyles more difficult.
After 1780, anti-Gypsy legislation was gradually repealed, although there were other forms of hardship for Travellers. In 1822, the Turnpike Road Act charged a 40 shilling fine for camping on the side of a turnpike road (this law was still in use up until 1980). Over the Irish Sea, some of the Irish families took to the road after the devastating potato famine in the 1850s.

Many in towns and villages welcomed Travellers as they performed useful services such as mending household items, selling things and bringing news from one village to the next. It was during this time, the romantic and mysterious image of Gypsies was widely spread, through the novels, music and paintings of the time.
English Gypsies and Irish Travellers – Today, both English Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as distinct ethnic minority groups in law because they are recognised as members of a community with a share history stretching back over hundreds of years. As such they are granted the full protection of the Race Relations Act.
·      It has been estimated that there are around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the UK
·      Due to national shortages of sites, there are around 25’000 Gypsy and Travellers homeless in the UK
·      The life expectancy of a gyspy and traveller men is 25 years less than the national average.
·      Gypsy and Traveller pupils have the worst school attendance record of any minority ethnic group
·      90% of all planning applications by Travelling communities are rejected compared with 20% of the settled community.