irish travellers

chris (thnx, chris!) drew my attention to an interesting looking documentary called Knuckle (ouch!) about the tradition of bare-knuckle fighting amongst the irish travellers.

the irish travellers are a bunch of gypsy-like people in/from ireland, but they’re not related to the “roma” people. they are instead an indigenous irish group with a nomadic lifestyle. north, et. al., found that genetically:

“[T]he Travellers clustered with several heterogeneous counties in Ireland, including Wexford and Westmeath. Therefore, these data support that the origin of the Travellers was not a sudden event; rather a gradual formation of populations. Indeed, the Travellers probably originated with craftsmen and artisans forced to leave their monasteries (Crawford 1975). Later, their population grew as they were joined by various Irish groups that were forced to leave their homes because of various calamities and political upheavals (i.e. the potato famine and the repression of British occupation) (Crawford 1975). However, the timing of the Traveller origin is not certain and may have predated the historical period (e.g. Ni Shuinear 1996).”

so these travellers have no relation to gypsies, but are, rather, native irish people gone feral. it’s not clear when exactly this happened (sounds like there are some indications that their wanderings may have started around the end of the medieval period) — and it seems that different irish people from around the island have joined up with the travellers over the course of time — but they are definitely a native group.

what they have in common with gypsies, however, besides the wandering lifestyle, is frequently being on the wrong side of the law. and they also, as the documentary shows, like to fight. with each other. here from the nyt:

“[T]he documentary ‘Knuckle,’ a rib-cracking look at the brutal fistfights long used to settle feuds between clans of Irish travelers — nomadic families that go back centuries in Ireland….

“‘Knuckle’ is fueled by the personality of this big man, who is undefeated in fighting for his family name against the Joyce and Nevin clans.

Never mind that the three clans themselves are interrelated with, as the film puts it, ‘brothers and cousins fighting brothers and cousins….’

“The feud in the film was supposedly started by a torched tinker’s cart at a horse fair, and renewed in 1992 by a deadly fight outside a pub, for which Mr. Quinn McDonagh’s brother Patty served prison time for manslaughter.

“In the film, Mr. Quinn McDonagh is derided as Baldy James by rival clan members who send taunting videotaped challenges, a modern wrinkle on this centuries-old tradition….”

a study from 1970/1986 found that 71.6% of travellers in one part of ireland were married to either first- or second-cousins [see pg. 11 here]. another study from 1989 found that 65.5% of irish travellers in northern ireland were married to either first- or second-cousins. that’s a LOT of inbreeding. it’s hard to know for how long they’ve been inbreeding to these degrees, but on the whole the group’s mating practices have been very endogamous probably for centuries, excepting of course the individuals from the broader population who joined up with them every now and again.

the travellers are clannish — they really do have clans! (and they have their own language, too, which will really set you off as a separate group from “the others.”) north, et. al., describe how they travel (or travelled traditionally) “in patrilineally related groups of two to four families.”

the question is: are these travellers more clannish than the rest of the irish were before they (the irish) started to seriously outbreed (whenever that was — sometime after the eleventh century but before the mid-twentieth — i know, that really narrows it down!)? or are the travellers just behaving like all the irish used to do when they were clannish, too? from Ireland — Land, Politics, and People [pgs. 57-58]:

“The outrage reports for pre-famine Cloone confirm the importance of ‘neighbourhood and kinship ties’ in aligning the factions involved in ‘party fights’. Thus at Drimna, in 1838, ‘a faction fight took place between two hostile parties, named Deignan’s and Mullin’s, respecting the right to the possession of a small portion of land’. Other such confrontations were of a ritual rather than material character, providing an occasion for ‘long-tailed’ families to assert their corporate identity and importance through trials of strength. Indeed market-day brawls could be provoked merely by the affirmation of family affiliation, as when a certain Cooke of Carrigallen ‘retreated towards a Public House where a party of his friends were drinking and when near it he called out ‘Who dared say anything against a Cooke…?’ It is clear that the ceremonial grappling of factions became unusual after the Famine, despite occasional reports throughout the century…. Familial networks, though, in less overt fashion, never ceased to lend cohesion to rural associations ranging from the Society of Ribbonmen to the United Irish League or Sinn Fein.”

so, clan fights were still fairly common in ireland during the early 1800s, but seem to have pretty much ceased after ca. 1850. except amonst the travellers. is that because the travellers are more inbred nowadays than the irish ever were, or are they just the last remaining (inbreeding) clans in ireland?
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btw, this isn’t about travellers but rather about gypsies — from The Traveller-Gypsies [pgs. 88-89]:

“When Gypsies choose the layout [of their campsite], they often place the trailers in a circle, with a single entrance. The main windows, usually the towing bar end, face inwards. Every trailer and its occupants can be seen by everyone else…. Few draw curtains, even at night. Within this circle of group solidarity there can be no secrets — domestic quarrels are for all to see, the centre is a place for chatting, and a safe enclave for children to play…. The single entry to the circle is a deterrent to Gorgio [non-gypsy] visitors. Outsider are enclosed as if in a trap.”

remember my post about inbreeding and outbreeding and inward facing versus outward facing houses? mmmm-hmmm.
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previously: inbreeding in europe’s periphery and inbreeding in ireland in modern times

(note: comments do not require an email. american irish travellers.)

23 Comments

  1. bare knuckles fighting apparently produces fewer serious injuries. The commonly accepted reason being that the full force of a punch can be directed against a face with boxing gloves. I don’t buy it though, hidden brass knuckles seem more responsible.

    “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 with a John L Sullivan heavyweight championship fight, there wasn’t a single ring fatality.Today, there are three or four every year in the US, and around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career.

    As of December, 2006, more than 1,300 boxers have died as a result of fighting injuries.

    So why would, in 100 years of bare knuckle boxing, not a single death been recorded? Simple: The gloves.”

    Reply

  2. Interesting that the Travelers have their own language. Is it a dialect of Gaelic or English, or is it something far different? In that case it might be very old. Has anybody looked into it?

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  3. I was wondering when you were going to look at these folks. I discovered them from the series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on TLC, which was primarily about the Travellers. Reading about them, they seem to be people of low average IQ, low-conscientiousness, and perhaps can be described as r-strategists, as they tend to die young, with half not living to 40 (often from auto accidents), and have a very high fertility rate, highest in Europe. They marry young as well. Maybe they are a window to how earlier Europeans lived?

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  4. @jayman – “I discovered them from the series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on TLC, which was primarily about the Travellers.”

    yeah, i’ve read about that series. i try to avoid watching reality shows ’cause i hate being reminded of just how base humans can be. (~_^) i saw about 10 minutes of one episode of Survivor a long, long time ago when it first appeared on television, and that was enough for me! (i have to say that i’m a bit tempted to watch Big Love, though.)

    (i do like the sort of reality shows that are on discover, though. and Border Wars on national geographic! but save me from the Jersey Shore type of shows…. *facepalm*)

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  5. @hank – “You should look into the Hatfield-McCoy feud during the 1880s in West Virginia and Kentucky.”

    yeah, absolutely! they’re definitely on The List. (^_^)

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  6. @anon – “Today, there are three or four every year in the US….”

    wow. i had no idea. i guess boxers might feel they can hit with as much force as they can muster if they’re not going to damage their hands as much when they’ve got the gloves on. and/or like you say … they’ve weighted their gloves. =/

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  7. @linton – “Is it a dialect of Gaelic or English, or is it something far different?”

    apparently it’s a creole language — a bit of english and gaelic. and a couple of linguists say that the language — shelta — dates back to the 13th century which seems to back up the notion that the traveller population was founded during the medieval period.

    Reply

  8. I have some links and stuff about travellers you might find interesting.

    British blogger Laban Tall has written numerous posts about our travelling friends from a British perspective:

    http://www.ukcommentators.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/travellers

    He may seem at times to be a little unkind, but travellers in the UK unfortunately often have a reputation of behaving rather like a rural mafia.

    As a teenager I sometimes mingled on the periphery of the Berkshire based Frankham clan. They were always fine with me , although I was just a kid. The locals OTOH were extremely wary, and sometimes terrified of them.

    The Frankhams are Romany. But Gypsies and Irish travellers tend to get lumped together in the UK. Naturally the Guardian writes about the Frankhams and gypsies/travellers in general as an oppressed minority:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2000/dec/08/guardianobituaries1

    Heres a link reporting on recent accusations made against former boxer Gypsy John Frankham:

    http://www.getwokingham.co.uk/news/s/2074519_boxing_champ_jailed_for_scamming_oap_fails_to_cut_sentence

    Gypsy John Frankham knocked out some yank called Cassius Clay back in the day.

    Reply

  9. A catalog of all known endogenous cultures with an ingroup-outgroup morality double standard might be interesting. How many can you list off the top of your head? Nomadic groups in the midst of settled societies are particularly interesting.

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  10. What are modern cul-de-sacs other than gypsy trailer camp with one entrance?

    From an architectural p.o.v courtyard house makes sense in hot climates. The air flow in courtyard houses lets the hot air to escape and provides more surface area for heat inside the rooms to escape. This makes it comfortable for people to sleep during the nights inside the house.

    I think in cold climates where interior is heated, this style would have quickly lost its favor instead need houses that enclose more volume with less surface area. Particularly in the areas where it snows, it is useless to have a courtyard and shovel snow inside the house.

    Most housing styles evolve around the local climate and materials. Not everything needs to be about inbreeding.

    Reply

  11. @violet – “Not everything needs to be about inbreeding.”

    but it is. (~_^) (no, not really.)

    @violet – “What are modern cul-de-sacs other than gypsy trailer camp with one entrance?”

    they’re quite different, really. cul-de-sacs are parts of longer streets (composed of “atomized” houses) — they’re just the end of the street. traditional gypsy camps sound … enclosed. literally circling the wagons.

    @violet – “I think in cold climates where interior is heated, this style would have quickly lost its favor instead need houses that enclose more volume with less surface area. Particularly in the areas where it snows, it is useless to have a courtyard and shovel snow inside the house.”

    long-standing tradition of siheyuans in northern china, including beijing, where it gets plenty cold in the winter and where it snows. japan, too.

    the point is not just courtyard houses vs. non-courtyard houses, but houses/settlements that are open versus ones that are closed — and the ones that are closed are usually found in societies in which kinship is of major importance.

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  12. I must admit i used to think they were gypsies who’d turned ultra-white through inter-marriage over centuries but seems not. The Irish people i’ve known call them tinkers which is possibly a clue to their origins – travelling artisans.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinker

    Gypsies and travellers *are* a rural mafia who view outsiders as prey. Also in the smaller towns gypsy families are often the closest thing to organised crime with a large extended family usually based around a scrapyard. The inbreeding makes for the strong ingroup/outgroup familial dynamic needed for any kind of organised crime to survive snitching over any length of time. In the larger cities they are outcompeted in the organised crime niche by the same kind of clannish groups who have some other additional advantage like greater numbers.

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  13. @g.w. – “The inbreeding makes for the strong ingroup/outgroup familial dynamic needed for any kind of organised crime to survive snitching over any length of time.”

    yup! and if the studies i quoted in the post are any indication, they’ve got some serious amounts of inbreeding going on! much more so than, say, the arabs. i wonder how long they’ve been inbreeding so closely?

    following that wikipedia link for “tinker” i see that there are scottish travellers, too. didn’t know that!

    Reply

  14. My Irish grandma (we´re American now) once told me about Tinkers. She said when they came to town every thing of value had to be bolted down or hidden.

    Irish Americans, even without being travellers, seem to exhibit the most dysfunctional, and violent behavior of any Northern European descendant in the US. Is it because they are more inbred perhaps??

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    1. @mcHugh”violent behavior of any Northern European descendant in the US. Is it because they are more inbred perhaps??” Might I suggest getting a grip? The prejudice against inbreeding is very strong. (and dyfunctional I might add: see nobabies.net). If you are speaking of a genetic effect, then it’s easy. Absolutley not. All genetic effects of inbreeding must vanish with the first outbred generation. That’s striaight Mendel. If you are talking about an epigenetic effect, specifically methylation of DNA producing effects generations down the road, there’s only one researcher who gives a(n) (insert appropriate noun). That’s I. And I promise you I don’t yet know in this specific case.

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  15. @linton – “All genetic effects of inbreeding must vanish with the first outbred generation.”

    no, that is not correct. we’re talking about evolution here — and evolution does take some time.

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    1. @ hbd chick “”All genetic effects of inbreeding must vanish with the first outbred generation.” no, that is not correct. we’re talking about evolution here — and evolution does take some time.” Perhaps the light is slowligh dawning for me. Let’s see: Endogamous tribe A and tribe B which is a LEETLE less endgamous. Identical conditions. Same mutation turns up in both tribes. In tribe A it represents a SLIGHTLY greater proportion of all genes. If it’s a good mutation it’s more likely to get fixed in the population. If it’s a bad one it gets elminated in either case. It it’s just a litle bad, it gets eliminated faster in tribe A because it goes homozygous more often. NOW introduce control tribe C. C’s marry A’s and B’s. Yes AC and BC are different. So I guess AC could be insane, violent, corrupt and so forth compared with BC. Somehow I don’t find it intuitively appealing. But I agree there is nothing in Mendel absolutley preventing it.

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  16. “@mchugh – “Is it because they are more inbred perhaps??”

    “All genetic effects of inbreeding must vanish with the first outbred generation. That’s striaight Mendel.”

    When it comes to things like violence i think it’s more the case of an indirect correlation. Say you have an agriculturally marginal pastoralist hill country where the net cost-benefit of raiding is positive. Such regions would generally have a low pop. density anyway and combined with lots of violent raiding that might create an environment where very tight, close-knit marriage patterns were optimal. However it wouldn’t be the inbreeding itself that directly selected for a higher frequency of violent traits – even if inbreeding did generate extra conflict between the tightly-knit clans – it’s the violent man-made environment that selects for the violent traits.

    If you remove the inbreeding and the raiding environment then you might remove the pressures that had been selecting *for* higher frequencies of violent traits but removing those pressures alone doesn’t select *against* those higher frequencies of violent traits that are present in the now ex-raiding population. You need something else to do that like a strictly enforced rule of law – but that will take time to have an effect.

    So both the inbreeding and the raiding would be functions of the physical geography and so would go together in most parts of the world with the same physical geography. They might reinforce each other but they’re both being driven by the physical terrain.

    An opposite example might be a small island that relied on fishing. In that environment the net cost-benefit of raiding would be negative. At the same time if close inbreeding generates extra conflict between the extended families then the optimum might be to jumble the population up as much as possible. I think hubchik posted some polynesian examples of exactly that.

    So the general case would be

    – physical environment
    — food-getting method
    — marriage culture (unless distorted by religion or accidents of history)
    —- various reinforcing feedback loops

    Reply

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