KNOWN FOR GENERATIONS as a highly secretive and insular community, the Irish Travellers in the US are descended from a group of families that crossed the Atlantic as early as the 1830s.
It’s estimated there are as many as 10,000 people in the states who identify themselves as part of the community, although that number could be far greater – the problem being the US Census doesn’t recognise them as a separate ethnic group.
In recent years, US Travellers have begun to let their guard down a little. There was an episode of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding that focused on the South Carolina area of Murphy Village a few years ago, for instance – although a producer of that show later told a local paper that “the men just didn’t want to talk to us”.
TV3 documentary-maker Paul Connolly found a similar story when he attempted to make contact with the community. Arriving in the area along with two members of the Navan Traveller Workshop, the journalist says it was difficult at first, but they eventually managed to “break the ice” with the locals.
However, the presenter also wanted to focus on another community – Oakhaven in Tennessee – and says that when his team first arrived they were “high-tailed out by a couple of vans”. Unsure how to proceed, Connolly managed to secure an appearance on a local morning TV news show, explained what he was about, and soon heard word that he was being invited to visit the area. As filming began and an element of trust was built, he found similar traditions amongst both groups:
What was amazing was that same customs had been preserved. They still speak Cant – but it’s a Gaelic-based Cant, unlike here – and they have the same traditions about money, about male and female roles in the community.
“However,” he says, “what most people find interesting about them is that they are incredibly, incredibly wealthy”.
The TV3 promotional material for ‘Travellers in America: A Secret Society’ depicts the documentary’s subjects showing-off palatial ‘mcmansions’, designer clothing brands and expensive cars. Asked how they earn a living, Connolly says the men work at “trades – tarmacing, roofing and so on”. However – “most of the income comes from insurance”. He explains:
It’s just very, very clever. In America, there’s a clause which allows you to insure anyone with a blood connection – and as they have intermarried for generations, there’s a likelihood there will be a blood connection.
So they’ve worked out a way of profiting from this, and that, according to the Travellers I’ve spoken to, is how they make their money and how they’re so wealthy. Some of the more morbid characters we came across referred to it as ‘Death Watch’.
However, Connolly contends, “the community doesn’t regard it as odd or sinister”.
It’s a typical part of their lifestyle. As a wedding present someone will say ‘you can take a policy out on me!’ – so it’s a loophole that hasn’t been closed, I guess.
Another clip of the show, shown by TV3 at the launch of their new line-up at Ballymount this week, shows a woman who lives in one of the communities talking about their traditions regarding marriage – calmly explaining to the presenter that it’s fine for a thirteen year old girl to have sex with her ‘husband’ once “she’s started her cycles”.
According to Connolly, this was one of the hardest aspects of their way of life to find the truth about: “We’d heard a lot about this but one of the biggest things was trying to cut through the line of fact and fiction”.
What we discovered is that the girls are matched with older men at the age of six or seven – but there’s nothing untoward here at this stage. It’s all to do with legacy – if you marry into another rich family then pride of place in the town will stay with you for years to come.
So at six or seven, families just say ‘they might make a good pair’. Then, at the ages of thirteen or fourteen they will have a marriage ceremony, but they won’t in fact be married.
The controversial aspect though is that these thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girls will be in a mock marriage with 22- or 23-year-old men.
The couples get married formally once the girl reaches the legal age, but Connolly says he was told that some families allow couples to have sex years before that point. The woman in the clip was one of two members of the community who attested to the practice on camera.
The journalist says the overall impression he was left with was one of a welcoming people who “haven’t fully assimilated into our world” and he says the tradition of encouraging young girls to get married is one divisive custom they appear to be “clinging onto”.
‘Travellers in America: A Secret Society’ airs on Tv3 in September.