It was my first Catholic mass, and the rhythmic recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was a comforting respite from the endless procession of highly choreographed rituals I had never performed. The familiar lines from the Gospel of Matthew rescued me from the awkward game of Simon Says I was playing with the priest. I sat near the back of the cathedral, but it felt like I drew every disapproving eye in the building as I made the motion of the cross, taxing my peripheral vision to mimic the worshipers beside me. Aside from being in China, I had never felt so conspicuous. When the priest read the part about forgiving those who trespass, I hoped this crowd really meant it.
Truthfully, my friends Brad, Evan and I were out of place, invading a service that was completely foreign to us. And not just because we thought the holy water in the back of the sanctuary was the place where they dunked new believers. Coming to this Saturday mass was a lucky coincidence, a single step on a larger journey bringing us closer to our goal: getting to know the strange and misunderstood people group that made up this monolithic congregation in the town of North Augusta, S.C.
Since Evan moved to Augusta to enroll at the Medical College of Georgia, he heard rumors that a community of gypsies lived on the South Carolina side of the same city. Rumor had it that these “gypsies” led culturally deviant lifestyles, purposely keeping themselves insulated from the outside world. They had the reputation of being wanderers, and they were known to take their trucks around the country for months at a time as they looked for roofing, paving and painting jobs at homes across the country.
To the Augusta residents who let Evan in on the gypsy secret, these itinerant workers were both a nuisance and an enigma. They had a bad reputation for being scam artists. A memo issued by the state of Georgia’s Governor’s Office for Consumer Affairs mentioned their schemes in a May 2007 press release. According to the release, they target the elderly and other unassuming victims, using their charm to sway people into paying exorbitant prices for shoddy remodeling work and getting out of town before it’s detected.
These gypsies, we were told, also had extravagant homes that only added to their mystique. No one we talked to knew where their seemingly disproportionate supply of cash came from, or why some of the homes in their community were so posh, while some looked fit for a trailer park. It seemed that there was a level of incongruity even among such a tightknit community.
I was particularly interested in researching these people from the moment I heard the word “gypsy.” My last year in college, I wrote a profile on a professor who grew up in communist Romania. There, he spent a lot of time with a large contingent of gypsies, the Roma people, who are actually an ethnic group with their own language. The professor described his time learning about them and traveling with them as one of the most exciting and magical times in his life. For a guy who speaks 19 languages or more and has traveled all over the world, that was a pretty heavy statement.
But they’re not gypsies
As I researched on the Internet and Evan continued to ask around, we found out that the term “gypsy” was actually a misnomer, except when used as a way to describe the group’s itinerant lifestyle. But, pejorative terms aside, the true identity of the people turned out to be equally as intriguing. These Irish Travelers, as they were called, were not ethnically any different from any other white people of European ancestry, but their culture—and the way they’ve preserved it in America—makes them unique and mysterious.
Some accounts say the Irish Travelers came to the United States during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. Some say they were tinsmiths or traders when they fled. Others have different opinions, but one thing is clear: these are working class families with a long history of self-imposed isolation, and the ranks of their society are not easily cracked.
There are now only a few Traveler communities in America, the largest of which is the group in Edgefield, S.C., just outside North Augusta. There’s another one near Dallas and a group called the Mississippi travelers near the river of the same name. An informative Washington Post article from 2002 put the Edgefield number at 3,000, and the population is likely to have grown significantly since then. But even with such a substantial community, the travelers are nowhere near entering the mainstream. They are known for a wide variety of unorthodox practices. Among themselves, they speak an esoteric language called Cant (it also has other names), which a Slate magazine article about them said incorporates bits of Gaelic, English, Hebrew and Greek.
Another practice that has become taboo for outsiders (yes, even in the South) but seems to be acceptable for Travelers is arranged marriage, often between first cousins, and usually at a young age. When the Washington Post reporter asked a young Traveler girl how she met her husband, she said, “Well, he’s my cousin, I’ve known him all my life.”
As we found out by experience, the Travelers are staunchly Catholic. Few houses in the area are left without a statue of the Madonna or Jesus presiding over the lawns, and the rule is as true at the ornate mansions as it is at the small, mobile homes that often share a lot with the larger homes. Their community is called Murphy’s Village, apparently named after an Irish pastor who founded the church on nearby land. There are probably a lot of Murphys remaining, considering the entire community shares no more than 12 surnames, meaning that people have to have nicknames or use possessives to describe their identity. On the church bulletin, we saw names like “Brian’s Mary” and “O’Malley and A’s Margaret.”
We had set out for the village with no particular plan other than to do some reconnaissance work to possibly set up an interview for the future. Taking off from Evan’s house, we packed our camera and GPS into my car and headed north.
At 3:40 p.m., we started seeing the types of houses we had heard and read about, with aluminum foil and butcher paper covering the windows of small mobile homes and two- and three-level brick mansions. Many of the larger houses had ornately carved wooden doors and beautiful masonry—and they looked completely out of place. On the left side of the road, just off the highway, a Catholic church sat in the shadow of the Edgefield water tower. As we made our first pass, I noticed on the sign that mass started at 4 p.m.
When I mentioned it to the other guys, we all seemed to get the same idea: This was our in.
Going a little further north to make sure this was the right community, we made a U-turn and then took a right toward the church on a street that had "Murphy" in its name.
Still exploring, we drove around the neighborhood a few times, and we made our first contact with Travelers, most of them young males, all driving massive crew-cab trucks in circles on the streets near the church, like sharks closing in on an injured seal. Some older trucks rode past, laden with construction equipment that somewhat validated what we’d heard about their occupations. But the rest of the trucks—Chevy Silverados, Dodge Rams, Ford F-150s and even larger varieties—looked shiny and new, like all they’d ever hauled were hefty loads of testosterone.
We got caught between a few of the trucks a few times, but we finally managed to break out of the cycle and make it into the church parking lot. To our surprise, there were no trucks here. But there were other cars, and if you just looked at them, you’d think a convention of blingin’ rap stars had descended on this small community. Mercedes, BMWs and what seemed like the Irish Traveler vehicle of choice—the Lexus compact SUV—all crowded the small lot, making my 2008 Honda look like a Yugo.
Women streamed from the cars, the middle-aged ones looking put-together but not overdone, and the teenagers with poofed hair and makeup, putting on "that glamour-shot look," as someone described them in an article. Even the little girls wore considerable makeup to match their flashy threads as their moms led them from their $70,000 chariots into the sanctuary.
One group was noticeably absent from the scene: men. Aside from boys under the age of 10 and men over about 50, they were nowhere to be found. Occasionally, a large truck would drive close to the church, reminding us that most of the guys were out playing.
In the parking lot, we debated whether or not to go in. On one hand, it seemed a bit intrusive and sacrilegious. On the other, we had come out here to get close to the Travelers, and this was our chance. But we’d have to weigh that against our being so blatantly lost or out of place. As if being so obviously non-Traveler weren’t enough, we would also stick out because we fit the demographic least likely to attend church in this community: males from 20-30 years old.
Evan, who never saw an awkward situation he didn’t like, was gung-ho. Brad was so-so. Like me, he was waiting to see if a consensus arose without his vote. I broke the tie, reasoning that we should go for it since we made the effort to go all the way out there.
What resulted was a great time of worship celebrating the Epiphany, which was a new thing for me. I was Baptist-bred and stayed in that tradition until college. The priest hailed from India, which made the experience of being in a Catholic mass with Irish Travelers all the more culturally amusing. He had trouble with the word “magi,” and “homage,” (which he pronounced “Hom-idge," in two distinct parts) but other than that, everything went seamlessly. Women led almost all the hymns and rituals, and they distributed communion as well.
And the Travelers were nice. They never once questioned us; no one even looked at us funny. The elderly gentlemen sitting near us shook our hands warmly and welcomed us into their fellowship. Some might say that’s part of their ploy, a method of charm they use before defrauding you. I tend to believe, as one of the interviewee’s said in the Post article, that the stereotypes about the Travelers are probably grounded in reality, that they probably do have a few bad apples. But I like to go on experience rather than hearsay, and if mass is any indication, the Travelers are a warm people. I hope further research will allow me to explore these propositions further.
Photos (from top to bottom): 1) A typical Traveler mansion; 2) A typical Traveler trailer with the Madonna keeping watch; combine that with the mansion, and you get a more accurate picture of the hodge-podge neighborhood.
For more information on the Travelers I couldn’t fit here, visit these sites:
-General Info at Slate
-On their fraudulent ways
-A simple Google search also turns up a variety of resources