It probably won’t come as a huge shock to you to learn that there are large numbers of gypsies still living in the UK – the most recent figures estimate there are around 300,000 – however, what you may not know is that there are actually two different types. Roma Gypsies, who originate from northern India, and then those from Ireland, who are usually referred to as Travellers nowadays.
Both groups are nomadic, and both remain pretty secretive about their way of life; perhaps not surprising considering they often face discrimination from the wider community, particularly in the case of Irish Travellers, despite their being recognized as an ethnic group and therefore protected under the Race Relations Act since 2002.
While Travellers have always been reluctant to show off their cultures and traditions, there have been instances where photographers, journalists, and even television crews have been able to gain access to their community, allowing us to catch fascinating glimpses into their everyday life.
One of the most obvious things that can be said about Travellers is that they certainly do things their own way; they still hold onto many traditions and rules that seem somewhat strange to the rest of us, almost as if they are living in a bygone era. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at 15 of the most shocking traditions still enforced by the community today; whether you agree with these or not, one thing’s for certain; Irish Travellers play by their own rules.
15. Boys And Girls Can’t Mix
Believe it or not, seeing young girls dressed like the ones above is commonplace in the Traveller community. Girls take great pride in their appearances and their parents have no issues with them wearing promiscuous clothing; particularly when it comes to special events like parties, proms, weddings and even communions.
However, despite baring plenty of flesh in order to attract the gaze of potential partners, there are actually very strict rules in place when it comes to girls and guys mixing. Traveller girls aren’t allowed to ever be alone with boys – doing so would ruin the girl’s reputation, considering there is a very strong emphasis on girls being virgins before they get married; girls who do would be considered dirty and therefore unlikely to find a future husband. This even extends to those who are engaged – they have to be chaperoned on dates all the way up to their wedding day.
14. Settling Disputes With Boxing
If there’s a dispute that needs settling, the tradition of bare knuckle boxing comes into play. This is all about honour; some feuds between families, for example, go back decades or even longer. There are no rounds and very few rules when it comes to the actual fights, and as a result they can get very nasty; women are forbidden from watching because of this.
The few rules that do exist date back centuries, and include things like not hitting anyone who’s already on the ground, not punching anyone while they’re not looking, and no kicking or using any other part of the body except the fists. These usually vicious fights last until either one of the men gets knocked out, or surrenders to defeat; and as a result, it’s impossible to predict how long they’ll last – anywhere between a few minutes to several hours.
13. The ‘Grabbing’ Ritual
One of the most controversial traditions that many Irish Travellers still uphold today is a ‘dating’ ritual known as grabbing. Because girls are not allowed to approach boys, the boys try to get them away from their friends in order to get a kiss from her. Girls that allow it to happen too easily are looked down on, so with every rejection that she gives, the males become more aggressive in their approach until they are literally grabbing and pulling them, often pinning them up against the walls as part of the process.
Although they don’t enjoy it, the girls accept that this is part of growing up female in their community. One 15-year-old girl featured in the British TV show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, told the camera crew after one such incident;
12. Don’t Talk About Money
One thing that the vast majority of Travellers would agree on is that you should never discuss money; either how much you’re making or how much you paid for something. Most Irish Travellers are self-employed, and many will move around from place to place in order to find work. Those that don’t usually work on building sites or deal in things like scrap metal.
Dog breeding is also a common way of earning money amongst travellers; breeds such as lurchers and greyhounds are usually the most popular. Horse trading is another big business in the community, and annual fairs such as Appleby attract thousands of travellers from all over the UK and Ireland. These fairs have seen their own share of controversy in recent times, with accusations of animal abuse and neglect sometimes heard, including the deaths of horses who crashed while being ridden at high speeds in order to show them off to potential buyers.
11. Marry Young
Travellers marry very young; girls are usually around 16 or 17, and boys around 18 or 19. Girls are expected to be virgins when they get wed, and if they are still not hitched by the time they’re in their 20s than they are often considered an ‘old maid’ who’s been left on the shelf.
Because there are more females than males in the Traveller community, competition for husbands is fierce. Matches are often arranged in advance by the parents – sometimes even at birth. However, the teens usually still have a say in who they want to marry, and will give their seal of approval (or not) to the potential marriage that has been planned for them.
As mentioned earlier, the young couple would have had very little time to get to know each other, and aside from the initial ‘grabbing’ act wouldn’t have spent any time alone… so naturally the process of getting married can be a very nerve-wracking ordeal.
10. Marry In The Family
Although there are strict rules around dating; young males and females would never be allowed to live together before getting married, for example, one aspect of traditional traveller life that it is probably more shocking to most of us is that they have no problem getting hitched to their cousins. In fact, a government-funded study found that up to 40% of all marriages involving Travellers are between first cousins.
Marrying a non-traveller would definitely be frowned upon by the majority of families in the community, which ultimately leaves a rather small pool of potential partners. Aside from this reasoning, this type of incest isn’t considered taboo by most travellers; a Traveller interviewed by the Irish Times said of marrying cousins:
9. Don’t Trust Outsiders
Travellers are often distrustful of those outside of their communities; in particular the police. As we already mentioned, the men in the group are far more likely to try and solve the problems or disputes they’re having amongst themselves, as anyone who calls the police would be labelled a ‘grass’, and shunned for the community.
Domestic abuse has been a problem for a long time, but it usually goes unreported as women are afraid of being disowned by their friends and family, and because Traveller women are expected to be strong and able to stand up for themselves, many are worried about being seen as weak.
This distrust of authority and outside organizations also means that many Travellers don’t like to go to the doctor. With poor healthcare in place in the community this means that the life expectancy for both men and women is much lower; some statistics have even shown that over half of Travellers do not make it to 50 years old.
8. Girls Stay At Home
When it comes to the stereotypical role of the female within a family, travellers are extremely traditional. Girls are almost always stay at home moms, and often leave school as young as 11 years old in order to learn how to cook and clean. They’ll be tasked with taking care of their younger siblings too, in a role that basically prepares them for their future as a housewife.
If a young girl did decide she wanted to stay on at school, she’d have to seek permission from her mother; when it comes to bringing up the kids, it’s the women who deal with the daughters and the men who raise the sons, and they don’t get involved with decisions outside of this.
These very strict roles extend to everyday life in a big way; for example, if a traveller man was to be seen cleaning or pushing a pram around, he would be seen as an embarrassment to others in the community.
7. Boys Grow Up Fast, Too
Although Traveller boys have more freedom than their sisters, and don’t have to worry so much about protecting their reputation, there is one thing they do have in common with the girls in their community – they are taught to be independent from a very early age.
Like females, Traveller boys leave school at around 11 years old, but instead of learning housekeeping skills they are taught a trade by their fathers, such as bricklaying or tree-cutting. This can sometimes mean that they go away travelling with the men for long periods of time in order to find work away from home.
A lot of young boys are also expected to take charge of the animals on site, including the horses; and as a result, many are excellent riders even able to go saddle-less. Being treated as young men from such an early age also means that boys are allowed to be behind the wheel of the car before they’ve even hit their teens – some as young as 12 already know how to drive confidently.
6. Go All Out For Your Wedding
One of the aspects of traveller life that has become especially well known in recent years thanks to Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, are the lavish celebrations held when couples tie the knot. The young brides are often adorned in huge puffy princess-style dresses that are covered in crystals and take weeks to prepare, and the venues are decked out extravagantly, complete with an impressively decorated cake.
Traveller weddings are not only important to the bride (who has usually spent the majority of her early life planning and fantasizing about the event), but also to the other members of the community. Weddings are huge social events where friends and relatives can catch up, and are also seen as the perfect opportunity for the young men in the group to be on the lookout for potential wives; which is why the young female guests pay so much attention to their appearance for the big day.
5. Keep Your Home Spotless
Cleaning is something of an obsession for females in the Traveller community. Having a spotless home is all about reputation; any woman who keeps her trailer anything less than show-home-worthy would be seen as lazy and dirty. This means that even from a young age, the girls usually spend around six hours cleaning, and go through several bottles of bleach every single week – despite the damaging effects it often has on their skin.
They go to some unusual lengths to keep their trailers immaculate, too; many traveller families refuse to get their washing machine and dishwasher plumbed in case they were to flood and ruin the carpet. In fact, many travellers don’t even use the toilet inside their trailer, seeing it as unhygienic. Instead, they use a separate brick-built bathroom outside and use a washing machine in a small caravan next to their trailer.
4. Settling Is OK
Although the traditional Gypsy and Traveller lifestyle meant moving around from place to place constantly, the majority in the UK today are actually settled. Around half of the community live in permanent brick-built houses like the rest of us, and the others live in caravans or trailers on sites where they have been given permission by the government to live permanently, and have to pay taxes as a result.
There are some members of the community who still live the traditional life, moving from place to place and setting up temporary camps without permission, but this is definitely the minority nowadays.
There are lots of reasons why Travellers no longer move about so much; firstly, they don’t need to follow work around to the extent they used to, secondly, they are able to live on private sites without being told to move on all the time, and thirdly, many families want to stay in one place in order for their children to be able to go to school.
3. Be The Best Dressed For Communion
For young Traveller girls, attending the first holy communion is a huge deal. It’s seen as being practice for their wedding day, and despite being just 7 or 8 years old, the girls are desperate to get the most attention – competition is rife within their community. It all starts with the outlandish (and usually expensive) dress they choose; many parents get this made in advance for the big day.
The girls also fake tan, have their hair and make-up professionally done and usually top it off with a crystal-embellished tiara. They even arrive in style at the church, often in white stretch limos, sipping on non-alcoholic ‘champagne’ with their friends and siblings.
As with their weddings, all of these celebrations for communion don’t come cheap – the dresses alone can run into the thousands thanks to all the embellishment and lace work. However, given their rule about not discussing money, you’d be very unlikely to get an answer as to exactly how much the parents spend!
2. Have Babies Young
As well as getting married young, girls in the Traveller community also start having babies very early by most people’s standards. After getting wed at around 16, they’ll usually get pregnant with their first child soon after. Unfortunately, women Travellers are more likely to suffer a miscarriage or have a still-born child because of their distrust of doctors, so they rarely go to get examined and have the chance to pick up on any problems that arise.
When it comes to the size of Traveller families, bigger is still very much seen as better. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some couples to have more than 10 children in total. Lots of kids running around isn’t a problem for most families, though; the mom would have had a lot of experience looking after younger siblings growing up, and her children will be expected to do the same as soon as they become old enough.
1. Respect Your Elders
Traveller kids have a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, and part of this, as well as their culture in general, means that any form of talking back to their elders will not be tolerated.
Instead, the children are taught from an early age that the elders in their community are to be highly respected. The older generation in each family are supported heavily by their relatives, though it is usually any unmarried daughters who will be most responsible for caring for them.
Families make sure they visit the elders regularly, and should one be taken into hospital, the whole extended family would accept it as their duty to rush to their side. Any Traveller who is seen to be disrespecting an elder or not fulfilling their role of lending them a hand when they need it, would be looked down on by the rest of the community.
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