Irish Travellers and PostModernity by Lubov Karpinchik, B.A. DDC

Irish Travellers and Post Modernity


The movement from modernity to post-modernity has occurred at a different pace across societies and Ireland is no exception. One view is articulated by Gibbens (1996, p.6) who suggests that, “Irish culture experienced modernity before its time”. On the other hand, researchers such as Crowley and Mac Laughlin (1997, p.2) observe that Ireland has skipped modernity altogether, and moved directly from pre to post modernity, a view supported by Share, Tovey and Corcoran (2007). Alcoff (2003) has suggested that Irish culture and society have changed so fundamentally this has impacted on Irish identity itself. Corcoran and Peillon (2004), for example, suggest Irish identity has been renegotiated, between the diametrically opposed ideals of the “traditional” and the ‘global’ – leaving many casualties in its wake.

This blog looks at an applied sociological problem, where this leap from modernity to post modernity leaves the indigenous population of Travellers who compose the largest ethnic group within Ireland, some 25,000 people, who have for centuries relied on the agrarian and traditional landscape.


The Traveller position in Ireland is said to be unique in that the population is essentially a distinct nomadic group but is native to the island (Merrigan 2009). Being a Traveller is termed an ‘ascribed status’ and for an individual to be called a Traveller, we assume that he/she has at least one Traveller parent. Travellers, when translated from the Irish, (an Lucht Siúil) means ‘The walking people’.

Travellers have their own language known as Cant or Shelta. Travellers account for almost 30,000 people – about 0.6%-1% of the total Irish population, – around 5,000 families.  50% of Travellers live in just four of the 26 counties of the Republic with the highest concentration in County Galway (CSO 2012, Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers- Ethnic and Cultural Background in Ireland).

The average age for Travellers is 22.4 years, compared to a national figure of 36.1 years and only 3.3% of the Traveller population are over 65 years, compared to 11.1% of the general population (CSO 2012, Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers –Ethnic and Cultural Background in Ireland). Like many indigenous people the world over, Travellers did not write themselves about their own history and culture until very recently (Maher 1998) so it was left to sociologists, anthropologists, novelists and artists from outside their culture to write about them – with varying levels of accuracy (Gmelch 1985, 1991; Bhreatnach and Bhreatnach 2006; Drummond and Ồ hAodha 2007).

Post Modernism, Identity and Travellers

“For two personalities to meet is like mixing two chemical substances: if there is any combination at all, both are transformed”- Carl Jung (in Aziz 1990, p.170).

In the post modern age new constructs and fragmentation now reigns supreme with a real difficulty in organising any kind of public discourse. Constructs in the postmodern age have become confused, conflated and ambivalent (Giddens, 2009). Identity is a social construction and cannot be understood in isolation. Bauman argues that late 20th society has gone through a profound change from producers to consumers which he terms the move from modernity to post modernity. In this new ordered society, fears and risks have moved from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’. It is a time of societal and personal confusion (Bauman, 1991; 1992; 1996; 2011). Thus, as Alcoff (2003, p.3) suggests, ‘Identities need to be analyzed not only in their cultural location but also in relation to historical epoch’.

How can Travellers relate to their own culture when it has become so fundamentally changed in such a short period? The Traveller (traditional) ‘way of life’ of being ‘travelling people’ with no fixed abode, moving from place to place to secure temporary work fixing pots and pans on rural farms and collecting scrap simply cannot continue as a post-modern State policy is prescriptive around such issues as Halting Sites, the keeping of horses, education for children. More Travellers now live as ‘settled Travellers’ in State provided houses than live life on the side of the roads. This brings up the question, how can a Traveller have his or her own identity as a Traveller as distinct from an Irish person. Which comes first?

Ethnic status that was given to Travellers is based on particular characteristics that one may argue, in the age of post-modernity, belongs more to the past. Increased emphasis on information, technology, education and skilled mobile labour within globalized economies transforms nations and identities. Fragmentation is a condition in global times of economic demand and exogenous variables leads to inequality within present social construct (Jiobu, 1990). Therefore, Travellers as an ethnic group have to make a rational choice between preserving their ethnic characteristics or ‘fit in’ with dominant groups that are, in itself, rapidly changing and dynamic in their characteristics.

Lodge and Lynch 2004 (cited in Share et al., 2007) suggest that education and, in particular so for females, whose traditional role is around family, may inadvertently undermine the system of Traveller culture.  Research has identified low participation in education by the Travelling community reasoned by culture and identity preservation by this particular ethnic group which is not taken into account within mainstream education (Forkan, 2006).  However, this has negative implications on class positioning and opportunities, more so than in times of modernity due to the changing profile of labour skills requirements.

It has been also identified that the connection of the Traveller self-identity to land has also been significantly diminished due to productivity induced land development. Travellers, whose ethnic identity revolves around freedom of movement, are more likely to be constricted to particular sites than was the case heretofore.


Culture is simultaneously symbolic and concrete, unifying and dividing, abstract and finite-and continually in-flux. The postmodern project includes certain ‘conditions’ including an erosion of traditional identities premised on stability and essence and  a decline of industrial capitalism and rise of transnational, info-age economy (Taylor, 2005). Travellers are not positioned to benefit from such conditions thus leaving their sense of identity largely located in the past.

“It could be said that the post-modern question posed…, “Who are the Travellers?” has yet to be adequately answered and, indeed, may not be fully answered given the inherent nature of the post modernist inquiry with its focus on change and disenfranchisement of key participants. As a disregarded minority Travellers have, until now, defined and been defined by, what they are not, who they are not”. Surely it is time to discuss what and who they actually are as a people and as individuals.


  1. Alcoff, L. M. (2003) ‘Identities: Modern and Postmodern’ in Alcoff, L.M. and Mendieta, E., eds., Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality, Oxford: Blackwell, 1-8.
  2. Azizis, R. (1990) G. Jung’s Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity, Albany: State University of New York Press, 170.
  3. Bauman, Z. (1991) Modernity and ambivalence, Oxford: Blackwell.

  1. Bauman, Z. (1996) Alone Again – Ethics After Certainty. London: Demos.

  1. Bauman, Z. (2002) ‘Identity in the globalizing world’ in Boski,P., van de Vijver, F.J.R. and Chodynicka A.M., eds., New Directions in Cross-cultural Psychology, Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences, 27-37.
  2. Bauman, Z. (2011) Culture in a Liquid Modern World, Cambridge: Polity.
  3. Bhreatnach, A. and Breathnach, C. (2006)Portraying Irish Travellers: histories and representations, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.
  4. Burke, M. (2009)‘Tinkers’: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller, US: Oxford University Press.
  5. Corcoran, M. P. and Peillon, M., eds. (2004) Place and Non-Place: the reconfiguration of Ireland, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.
  6. Crowley, E. and Mac Laughlin, J., eds. (1997) Under the Belly of the Tiger: Class, Race, Identity, and Culture in the Global Ireland, Dublin: Irish Reporter Publications.
  7. CSO (2012) Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers – Ethnic and Cultural Background in Ireland, Cork: Central Statistics Office.
  8. Drummond, A. and Ồ hAodha, M. (2007) ‘The Construction of Irish Travellers (and Gypsies) as a Problem’, Migrants and Memory: The Forgotten “Postcolonials”. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2–42
  9. Forkan, C. (2006) ‘Traveller Children and Education: Progress and Problems’, Youth Studies Ireland, 1(1), 77-92.
  10. Gibbons, L. (1996) Transformations in Irish Culture, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press in association with Field Day.
  11. Giddens, A. (2009) Sociology, 6th, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  12. Gmelch, G. (1985)The Irish Tinkers: the Urbanization of an Itinerant People. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
  13. Gmelch, S. (1991) Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
  14. Jiobu, R. M. (1990) Ethnicity and Inequality, USA: State University of New York Press.
  15. Maher, S. (1998).The Road to God Knows Where: A Memoir of a Travelling Boyhood. Dublin: Veritas Publications.
  16. McElwee, N. (2006) ‘Walking between two Lands: Elsipogtog Migmag & Midlands Travellers’. Athlone: Centre for Child & Youth Care Learning.
  17. Merrigan, Michael (2009).Is there a Case for Indigenous Ethnic Status in Ireland (pp. 101–115, Féil-Scríbhinn Liam Mhic Alasdair:Essays Presented to Liam Mac Alasdair, FGSI). Dublin: Genealogical Society of Ireland.
  18. Share, P., Tovey, H. and Corcoran (2007) A Sociology of Ireland, 3rd, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
  19. Share, P., Tovey, H. and Corcoran, M. P. (2007) A Sociology of Ireland, 3rd ed., Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
  20. Taylor, B. C. (2005) ‘Postmodern Theory’ in May, S. and Mumby, D., eds., Engaging Organizational Communication Theory And Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc, 288.