6th June 1911: The Freeman’s Journal reported on a meeting of the Athlone Rural District Council. During the proceedings the chairman read out a letter that was sent to the council from Mr. Edward Shirley, who demanded that the labourers’ cottage which had been given by the Council to a “tinker named McDonagh” should be offered to him instead. The Council’s discussion of this case, and the amount of laughter it generated, reveals their attitudes towards the Travelling Community.
Mr. Feeley DC said that McDonagh was
“..distinctly unsuitable inasmuch as he was a tinker.”
An unnamed Councillor, in opposition to this statement, replied:
“It is not because a man is a tinker that he is undesirable…”
Feeley quickly interjected
“But he may have the whole tribe of County Westmeath visiting him from time to time (laughter). The people in the district are afraid of that.
A Mr. Kelly then remarked about the situation, amid much laughter, that
“If the Council did not alter their previous decision it might be said that they were merely tinkering with the Labourers’ Acts.”
Mr. Feely added that
“McDonagh belongs to the tribe, and I don’t know why the Council granted him a cottage.”
Kelly then made another joke
“He can turn it into a kind of hotel for the fraternity while they are on tour (laughter).”
It was then decided to cancel the previous order, and give the cottage to Edward Shirley “who is an agricultural labourer” instead of McDonagh. There was no discussion of McDonagh’s initial application. It must be assumed that he did indeed work as an agricultural labourer to qualify for a house. But as he was of the “tinker class” he was not deemed suitable by the local community to receive any assistance from the State towards housing.
1/10/1913: The Irish Independent published a sympathetic article by Thomas Kelly entitled Irish Tinkers – Dwellers by the wayside. Kelly lamented that no Irish writer had chronicled the life of the “wandering tinker” in Ireland. He referred to the work of George Borrow in England and hints that J.M. Synge may have plagiarised some of his ideas for his play “The Tinker’s Wedding“. Kelly feels that Synge’s work is an unbalanced depiction, for it only “gave a glimpse of the more sordid side of tinker life.” And while
“Irish gypsies may not be so proficient in Shelta or tinker language as their English confreres, still their quaint lives, their curious ideals, and outlook on life are sufficiently interesting, when sympathetically dealt with, to form a readable chronicle.”
Kelly, with great pathos, then described the harshness of their life during the winter in Ireland. He dispelled the common belief that travellers had special “winter residences” and that instead they survived, as usual, by the side of the road.
“I have seen a group of six tents (providing accommodation for 20 people) along a bleak road in most inclement weather, and the picture of a blazing fire surrounded by huddling figures, in a landscape of two-feet deep snow on a freezing December night, formed a scene weird, and well-nigh tragic, in its picturesqueness.”
He says that this leads to a shorter life span and that “few of them live to fifty.” He concludes by observing that
“On the whole tinkers are law-abiding. They are generally respecters of property. Semi-outcasts in an age of clamour for equality, they accept their lot philosophically and only complain when all men’s hands are raised against them. Somehow Irish rural generosity is not extended to this class so magnanimously as to the genuine beggar.”
There are many reports of violence among members of the travelling community during this time period. It’s not that this level of violence was unusual across Irish society (just take a glance at any Petty Session or Assizes from this era) but newspapers ensured that they labelled any individual from the travelling community before the court as a “tinker” or “itinerant” with the effect that it stands out more; thus encouraging such associations in the reader’s mind.
That does not deflect from the violence, but it’s important to recognise how the dominant culture uses labels to mark the “other”. When a crime is committed by someone who is “settled”, reporting the individuals’ name is sufficient. They alone are seen to be responsible for their actions. They are not held to be representative of their entire social grouping.