Local News Archive
Print Issue: March 13, 1986
Irish Travelling People Last Of A Special Tribe
By Msgr. Noel C. Burtenshaw
It was Austell, Georgia about 1967. In a little church just beyond the reaches of the newly created Six Flags Park, I was appointed to offer Mass on Sundays. It was a nice spring morning and between services I was alone with my thoughts in the back pew of that little church.
Suddenly there was a disturbance that demanded my attention. She was unmistakable, a granite looking woman, small in statue but immovable in her stance. She stood in the doorway.
Behind her were two gigantic young men, neither older than 25, towering over her but at the same time obviously under her command. The three of them looked at me as I approached.
There they are Father, she said tossing her head in the direction of the men. They ARE going to confession.
The sacrament of reconciliation or confession is one freely used by Catholics to take away sins for which they have contrition. But at that moment these young men were going to participate in it. They were not going to argue with this ladys commands. And, as I remember, neither was I.
They went to confession.
I knew right away from the strange brogue which they all used that I was at long last in the presence of members of the clan known as the Irish Horse Traders. It was a mother and her two sons.
For many years, older priests had told me of these colorful travelling people, who roamed through the south and who loyally traced their origins to the Travelling People in Ireland. Not only that, but they had kept the traditions of those people of the road who still travel the Irish countryside and about whom much controversy presently exists.
The Irish Horse Traders or the Irish Travellers have existed in Ireland for hundreds of years. Probably they are a section of the gypsy people of Europe, so many of whom were exterminated by the Nazis in the camps. In Ireland they have been known as tinkers a term which is detested by them. While today these people travel across Ireland in cars and trucks, in the past they casually meandered in horse and caravan from town to town. Their main occupation was trading and raising horses.
In the 1850s following the great famine, like millions of other Irishmen and women, the Travelling People migrated to this country. At first they settled in Washington, D.C. and the clan prospered as they traded their horses. But their desire for a more leisurely life directed the clan to head south where, climate apart, the atmosphere was more conducive to their laid-back lifestyle.
And so somewhere around 1880, we find this tribe in the Atlanta area and all over Georgia doing exactly what they had done for hundreds of years in their motherland, travelling the roads, trading horses, doing odd jobs, painting houses and possibly selling floor covering.
Their reputation for total and absolute integrity was, by no means, always perfect. One would be advised, said an article in a rural Georgia newspaper, to check the paint on the door posts before the next rains, see that the floral pattern on the dining room floor covering remains true and even look closely at the new ponys shade of brown. Be advised. Sometimes there were questionable products sold.
For many years April 28 was a most important date for these travellers. On that date they would gather at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta for their annual funeral service. Since they continued a set pilgrimage throughout the year, should a member of the clan die, the remains were sent to an Atlanta funeral home and kept until that April date. Then, like a swarming army, the clan would gather and all the caskets would be brought to The Immaculate for the funeral mass. Often there were five or six caskets in the sanctuary on that day.
Burial would then take place at Oakland cemetery. The graves and the plots are there to be seen to this day.
The Irish Travellers have many traditions which they carefully follow traditions, most acceptable in bygone years, but often unacceptable today.
First of all, until recently children were not educated. Since they were constantly in transit, no education was possible. It was not desirable either. Children had trades to learn and from early childhood they were expected to help and work.
Secondly, marriages, even today, take place only within the clan. This means that close relatives will sometimes marry. Both church and state have problems with this practice. As cousins and cousins' children continue to marry, problems obviously arise. On occasions bishops in the south, especially the Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina where the greatest concentration of Irish Travellers has always been, have forbidden marriages because of continued family closeness.
One other tradition relating to marriage is arranged marriages. Since it is necessary for nuptials only within the clan then youthful marriages are often arranged. Parents make these arrangements. My only other meeting with Irish Travellers was a day when an older man with an Irish brogue walked into my office and demanded that I marry two teenagers whom he had in tow.
The Bishop of South Carolina had forbidden the marriage so the father of the boy brought the young couple to Atlanta. Needless to say, there were no vows taken or witnessed on that occasion.
The clan, as in Ireland to this day, love the freedom of the open road. But modern times have caught up with these nomads, possibly the last of the great gypsy movement. In 1966 realizing that some kind of settled life was needed in a society no longer able or willing to support life on the road, Father Joseph Murphy, a native of Charleston, founded Murphy Village for the Irish Travellers. He situated the new settlement near North Augusta (which is in South Carolina across the state line from Augusta, Georgia) and there for the first time in over 100 years, the Irish Travellers established roots.
Father Charles Day, present pastor in Murphy Village, related that the clan is not entirely off the road. The men still travel in their cars and trucks, says Father Day, but the women and children remain at home. We insist on education for the children. However, we have only succeeded in having them get elementary schooling no high school yet.
The Irish government has attempted to settle the travelling clan in Ireland with little success. In the early sixties, a residence was offered to each family. However, before ownership could be taken, destruction of the road-home or caravan had to take place. Only a few accepted the offer. The program was a total failure in the long run.
As we think of St. Patricks Day and the Irish, it is an interesting twist of history that a travelling clan over there could be related so closely to a travelling clan over here, in the South, when each have had little or no contact in almost 150 years.
A few names are prominent in the clan. McNamara, OHara, Carroll, Riley are the best known. Murphy Village counts 350 families. They are survivors, the last of a special tribe.