Book Picture Observations of Tinkers in Ireland

Here are some comments on Tinkers from my personal observations. I call them Tinkers because that is how I grew up knowing them as a group separate from other Irish. I heard the term used as a small boy at various times. My aunt would say don't be a Tinker and my dad said it wasn't worth a Tinker's damn which I found out later in life was a technique for soldering pots to patch a hole. They as a people are a separate culture within a culture. As a lifestyle it is definitely outmoded. In general they lived off the land which is not necessarily appreciated by the land owners. Societal changes have exacerbated the problem. At one time they provided a useful function as itinerant workers providing extra hands during harvest. As machines took over a greater role in farm work the need for labor diminished. Great efforts have been made to get the Tinkers into houses and settled. Traditionally the Tinkers would travel by caravan camping along the way and living off the land as they traveled their ancient routes. In the past the caravans were horse drawn but today they use motorized vans. The difficulty is that they continue their way albeit they have adapted to social changes and urbanization while still maintaining their basic way of life. Today they are funded by the public dole and some are quite well off.

I admit to being intrigued with the Tinkers as a people when I first came across them camping along a road. The first few times I saw them the women were hanging out the laundry on a makeshift line, a large black pot with a fire roaring away under it and a number of children scampering about. It was an idyllic scene until you start to think about the consequences of having six or seven vans full of people pull up along the road opposite your home. What do they do with their garbage and bodily wastes? I've seen their camps all over Ireland along the roads, in towns in Sligo and on the edge of villages. In Sligo they were encamped in the parking lot of a church. Along one side of the parking lot was a five foot high fifty foot long pile of metal. Tinkers collect metal and sell it as scrap. In one way they clean up the countryside but if you've studied the gates to the fields you realize that the gates have been put together from odd bits. My conclusion was that gates were easy prey to the metal collecting Tinker. My few conversations about Tinkers were mixed. For the most part the people were intimidated and wanted little to do with them. There is a bit of superstition that surrounds them as well. A Garda in Ballinasloe warned me to keep my distance for they were not to be trusted and they were a rough crowd. He went on to tell a story about a farmer who was having them install a rug in his house. He went to the front of the house to pay the rug off. When he went back inside the rug was gone. The Tinkers had taken it up and out the back door. My only contacts with Tinkers, one on one, were a bit disturbing because they did not respond to me in a way I expected. One incident I can describe was in Bennettsbridge. Outside a horse jumping demonstration or contest - not sure which - trying to sell a horse. He was a leprechaun of a man dressed in a green plaid jacket, green pants a small hat not quite covering his red hair. I noted his small highly polished shoes. He was trying to sell a brown and white horse. Two small boys were riding bareback back and forth in the street. I could barely understand his brogue. Tinkers are known as horse traders. He was saying how the horse was very gentle, a perfect horse for children. I was intrigued by the banter and stepped up to ask what was he asking for the horse. He looked me directly in the eye and walked away abruptly detecting I was not Irish. He wasn't going to waste his time with me.

It is said that they carry a large amount of money. Once we stopped at a cross roads in the middle of nowhere to consult a map. Across the way was an obvious Tinker van. A man stepped out wearing a fedora, a strapped "T" shirt, dress slacks and black shinny shoes. He started to walk straight at us and pulled out a rolled wad of money about the size of a large donut. He began to unwrap the roll. Something about the scene felt sinister and we pulled away. There was no one else or anything else around.

Another moment was in Ballinasloe. We were watching something akin to a parade with people, animals and vehicles coming around the corner. Just then a large wagon with automobile wheels being pulled by a large draft horse suddenly came into view of my little digital camera video taping the scene. The young man driving the team came into view. His eyes were directly on me and if looks could kill I was a dead man. I immediately thought of the evil eye and looked away. As they passed I was startled to see a very young girl, maybe 15, maybe younger sitting on the edge of the wagon in a very precarious position and holding a very young baby. I shuddered at the thought that she might fall. They do marry young and are promised as early as twelve.

One more observation was again in Ballinasloe. I watched the horse fair from a stone wall and it was fascinating. I overheard a man point out a horse trader when he said "look at that Tinker over there with his horses - they do have their ways." I now was looking very closely. They were all black and white horses, about eleven in all and they all had their noses to the wall. All were without reins. Supposedly a man comes of age and acquires a black and white horse as part of the process. The man was tall and thin and was leaning against the wall holding a carriage whip. Suddenly he walked over to a fence about 20 feet way and vaulted it in a single move. He then whistled and the horses lifted their heads in unison and bolted to the fence and jumped to join him on the other side. He jogged down the street with the horses following like a pack of dogs. I've never seen anything like that before or since.

Where did they come from and what is their future? As to the first question there are various opinions. They are not Gypsies. Recent DNA evidence indicates they are the same as other Irish. Some say Oliver Cromwell set them on there way and they have refused to settle since preferring the freedom and safety of the open road. Others say they are leftover from the ancient clans that were nomadic. I have tried to research them but haven't come across any definitive explanation yet. There are several clans and they travel ancient routes and meet up with other clans at various points during their travels. They rendezvous once a year. They have a king, speak their own language and follow their own customs. They live a hard life.

What is their future? Hard to say but there are several points that indicate they may diminish as a culture over time. There is some loss to there numbers when young people take a different path. The Irish society is changing and efforts to settle the Tinkers have had some results but they are subsidized and the incentives to give up their lifestyles are not persuasive enough as yet. Efforts are also being made to make sure the children are educated which may be the finale leverage.

I'm sure there is more to learn - I found the Tinkers to be an intriguing subject. Two books I can recommend "The Irish Tinkers, The urbanization of an itinerant people" by George Gmelch and "Nan, The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman" by Sharon Gmelch. When I first became interested I didn't find much in print about Tinkers. A recent movie "Into the West" provides a view of their life, but again how accurate?

Last, I am sorry if I have offended anyone by misinterpreting what I've seen or read.

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