Traveller identity, culture, and tradition – hallmarks of the Traveller community – continue to make major contributions to Irish society.
While there is wide diversity within the Traveller community, as there is within any community, among Travellers’ shared cultural elements are language, music, a tight-knit community, nomadism, big families and a commitment to the extended family, religion, respect for older people, caravans, horses, and a number of crafts, including the making of colourful flowers with paper, tinsmithing, and hawking.
Travellers have their own language, Cant – also known as Gammon or Shelta – which is a key element of Traveller heritage. Studies have shown Cant was spoken in Ireland since the days when Irish was the dominant spoken language in the country.
Here are some examples of Cant: Mincéar whiden means, “Travellers talking”; the beoir lushing a gussach of weed means “woman having a cup of tea”.
Traveller contributions to traditional music, particularly fiddle playing and uileann piping, have been widely celebrated. Travellers brought songs and stories from town to town and also developed their own unique styles of singing, storytelling, and playing musical instruments.
One of the most famous Irish Traveller musicians, fiddle player John Doherty (1900-1980), was born in Ardara, in County Donegal. A travelling tinsmith who repaired pots, pans, and pandies, John also provided entertainment in the evenings as a storyteller, singer, and fiddle player.
His fiddle playing was known for his precise and fast finger work and bow work, as well as for the extensive selection of tunes he could play.
John Doherty is widely considered to be one of the greatest Irish fiddle players ever recorded. Some of Ireland’s best-known trad musicians have credited John as an influence on their playing, and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan has called John Doherty one of her musical heroes.
John may have rarely travelled outside of Donegal, but many significant folk collectors came to Donegal to record his music.
In 2017, the Irish State recognized Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation. While Ireland’s equality legislation had already identified Travellers as a distinct group for protection against discrimination, the recognition of Travellers’ ethnic status meant Travellers could begin to challenge indirect and direct discrimination.
As Pavee Point has explained, the formal recognition is central to any equality of status or standing for the Traveller community and provided a basis for new relationships of respect, inclusion and solidarity between the Traveller community and settled communities.
In announcing the recognition, Enda Kenny, then Taoiseach, said, “Our Traveller community is an integral part of our society for over a millennium, with their own distinct identity – a people within our people.”
He said, “As Taoiseach, I wish to now formally recognize Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation. It is a historic day for our Travellers and a proud day for Ireland.”
During Donegal’s Social Inclusion Week in 2017, Donegal Travellers’ Project launched their Traveller Ethnicity Pack, consisting of eight cards that detail Traveller culture and history, the Roma community, the history of DTP, the ethos of interculturalism, the history of Travellers in Ireland, and much more.