Monday, February 04, 2008

Irish Travelin’

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

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.”

Getting In

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:

-Washington Post article

-General Info at Slate

-On their fraudulent ways

-Governor’s Memo Against Travelers

-A simple Google search also turns up a variety of resources

26 comments:

markd said...

Hey, good to see that you were open enough to go into the village. There are a lot of racist stereotypes out there regarding our culture, but we are just everyday people with a different way of life.

Mark Donahue
Irish Traveller
Belfast

Brad said...

i like it

Anonymous said...

Irish Travellers are a welcoming people and when they know you mean them no harm, they will treat you like one of their own. Trevor the reason the old traveller man shook your hand, is because he knew that you had not come to stereotype his culture but only to understand it. i bet you are glad you went in to the church and and met with the travellers, this is a great story about your experience. it is often the case, that the media give the Irish travellers a negative image, however I'm sure the Irish travellers of murphy's village, will find your story a positive one. it is true like other cultures in society, that their are bad apples amongst the travellers, but all Irish travellers should not be stereotyped and experience prejudice, because of this.


Trevor Williams, i hope to hear more on Irish travellers from you in the future and again great story.

t said...

congrats trevor, for exploring instead of judging. i am an irish traveller male from north augusta. the reason you didn't see many men in saturday mass is because we attend sunday morning ten oclock mass. if you attend sunday mass, you would see a few women, but mostly men. it is just a tradition. the exception is during occasion, (Christmas,Easter,etc) when the men and women attend mass together. if you have any other questons, i would be glad to answer. post them, and i'll anser as quickly as i can.

Trevor Williams said...

T, I'd like to do an article for a newspaper on the traveler culture. Would you be willing to be interviewed?

That's my first question. Here are a few more:

-Does the reputation of Irish Travellers being construction scam artists hold any weight?
-Why are travellers so secluded? Why not integrate with the rest of the world?
-In that same vein, how do travellers afford such large houses and trucks and luxury vehicles on a home repairman's salary, and why do some have butcher paper, foil or other coverings over their windows?
-Is there truth to the rumors about arranged marriages between first cousins at young ages?
-Why are the women and young girls so garish with their makeup?
-Do you feel misunderstood by the North Augusta/Augusta community? Do you care that they think of your people in ways that might be less than flattering? Do you see any of your culture deteriorating with your young people?

These are just a few questions. I'm glad you recognize that I'm sincerely interested in your culture and am not looking to judge, merely to understand. Please answer whichever questions you can.

Anonymous said...

hello trevor,
answers to your questions:
1. yes.
2. yes it does. to a certain extent anyway. as with all groups of people, we have our "bad apples" but not all of us do "shoddy" work. i have repeat customers i work for every year who are well pleased wuth my work.
3. we are secluded to a certain extent also. but, you would be surprised how many friends we have that are not travellers.the reason for seclusion is that we are a minority with our own set of beliefs and values that many wouldn't understand, so we tend to stay to ourselves (mostly the older travellers though). the younger generation,like myself,integrate with "outsiders" much more than years ago.
4.the reason we are able to afford the luxury cars and large houses are as follows: with every generation money is saved and put back for following generations to come. the average person can afford a "luxury" car today due to leases and such and keeping decent credit which we try to establish from a young age. as far as the foil and butcher paper in the windows of the houses-aluminum foil-lol-years ago maybe, but only the really old travellers use that stuff. the butcher paper is placed in the windows of the houses for two reasons: before the house is officially opened, it is placed in the windows until blinds are purchased for the windows. the other reason: during the heat of the summer months, its been proven through "us" that paper tends to keep the sun from fading the carpet, furniture, etc.
5.years ago, yes. in the present, no. the younger generation (last 20 years or so) have been able to decide for themselves. marriages are still arranged this way through their families for the reason that i discussed earlier which is to pass money to the couple by both families.
6.as far as the makeup goes, its just one of the more silly traditions of the travellers. it's the main reason alot of people mistake us for gypsies. if you think its garish now, you should have seen them 15 or 20 years ago. lol
7.yes and no. at times, like for instance, when we are in augusta eating out, someone will make a rude, ignorant comment like: "i wish the gypsies would go home!". why? if we are able to tolerate thier sometimes ridiculous way of dressing and/or acting and keep our mouths shut about it, then why not show us the same common courtesy? we do have alot of businesses and friends locoally though, who are very supportive of us as we are them.
hope i answered your questions clearly enough. feel free to ask more.
thanks

Anonymous said...

almost forgot trevor,
chances are, from the way you descibed the garish hair and makeup,you were attending mass on a saturday containing a party. on more /'casual/' saturdays, dress code is more mainstream,to say. hope i answered your questions clearly enough. later t

Kathleen said...

Hey Trevor,
Interesting article. I'm a citizen of the Augusta, GA area myself and also a Roman Catholic. I've had dozens of "gypsy" experiences both in and out of church. Firstly, I'm surprised you were allowed to attend Mass there. I used to work at my church's office and had new parishioners come in and tell me on multiple occasions that they were asked to leave, and that thy were not welcome there. I see many of the older women at daily Mass in a downtown church, and many, many others at Sunday evening Mass at my own parish. In fact, our former pastor even chastised them from the pulpit in regards to their children's disrespectful behavior during the Mass. Not only do children get away with behavior that my parents would have KILLED me for, I've seen cell phones answered, makeup applied, and other irreverant behavior.
I attended a Catholic High School here as well, where it was common for young Traveller girls to attend one year so they could say they attended high school. I have a friend who is a dance instructor who was frequently called to choreograph the shows for the girls.
Also, as a F&B employee, I've had my share of experiences. Most of the Traveller customers I've had were ok, but when I go to other restaurants, usually on a Saturday or Sunday night, I'm glad I'm not working there. I've noticed that when there is a group of a husband and wife with their children, there are usually no problems. However, when it's a group of women alone, there are constant complaints seemingly in order to get a free meal. My best friend's mother was ripped off for thousands of dollars by some Traveller men offering to do landscaping work.
I do understand that there are bad apples in every bunch, but from what I've seen all over town, there are more bad apples than good ones, at least here in the CSRA.

Anonymous said...

kathleen,
i'm sorry that you feel that way. i must say, that some of "our women" can be intimidating, but all in all we have more friends than enemies here in the csra. and, to clear up a friend of your's comments, we have never asked anyone to leave our church. kids will be kids, but since you've seen kids behaving in ways your parents would have "killed" you for, they must've been very small children. i have two children who are very well behaved in church, but then again, they are both old enough to know how to act. feel free to ask any questions though, kathleen, as i will gladly oblige you by answering. p.s. free meals=what a laugh

T

Mikey C. said...

Trevor thanks for your research. I work in the scrap metal industry and run into Roma gypsys alot up here in the Philadlephia area. I have always been fascinated with their lifestyle and culture. I am now interested in learning about Irish Travellers after I saw some in a bar/rib place in Memphis. I was amazed by the womans ornate garish clothes and done up hair on a Weds. night. I asked the bartender who they were and she said the were "Irish gypsises". I would be interested in meeting some of you next time I travel down South...would anyone allow me to come spend some time in your community, not for an article or news story, just to experience another way of life? Some of my ancestors are Amish and I very curious to see another unique way of life in US.

robertohara said...

Hey Trevor...I was pleased with your blog about my community. Times have changed out in Murphy's Village like people have said in previous comments. I recently graduated from Coker College, the first in my family and I'm going to law school, and some of the other younger kids are beginning to do the same. You see, not many of the people out here have a good education. Most stop school right before high school, in fact most do. Some don't even go that far. I think, mostly because of this they are taken advantage of and some choose to retaliate against the CSRA. I saw your questions that you posted in the comments and I was intrigued by most of them. I assume your article has since been published, but nevertheless, I would like to add to some of the answers. The question about how they can afford such luxurious things is correct in the answer for the most part, in addition to that, traveller's have life insurance policies. Albeit they are in the hundreds of thousands, they are legal under the law. I think the CSRA and a lot of people around the United States fear the traveller's because it is natural for people to fear the unknown. But, as you have seen first hand, we are a welcoming community. Let me know if I can be of any help in your further investigations of our community!!

Anonymous said...

FYI ... The Godfather of soul "James Brown" lived close to the Gypsy camp in North Augusta, South Carolina which is just across the river from Augusta, Georgia ..... It is it ironic to me that James Brown traveled the world with his band of dancers and musicians, isolated from typical show-biz hype, and somehow manage to end-up near the Irish Travelers.


although originally from Macon, Georgia, lived in North Augusta James with his tribe of musicians and dances (The J.B.'s) lived and died near the Gyspy camp ... James had a

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Trevor for being open minded and accepting of others. I also grew up in the CSRA about 45 minutes from North Augusta. I heard all the negative comments about the "gypsies" throughout my teen years. When I was able to drive myself, I made a trip through the village and was intrigued. The Traveller's culture was to me very humbling. I listened between the words (like reading between the lines) and found a wonderful old world life that has been passed down to the current generation.

Your guestion about the homes was one that I had for many years. I chose to believe they have a wonderful hierachy type system in place where as you increase in wealth you move up to nicer and nicer homes making the "starter" homes available for those just starting out. If all communities worked that way we would all be better people.

asian girl said...

Four years ago, i found some very nice furniture in ebay and the address of the seller is in North Augusta. I contated the seller and she gave me their address. They were very welcoming to me considering i am a foriegner. I was only interested with the dinning table because i dont have enough koney for the rest of the furniture. I was amazed how nice their houses and they were so good to me. believed it or not...i was able to see the entire house..all the rooms. Anyways, since they saw that i was interested in the entire set, they lowered the price and let me pay it as layaway basis. They widraw the listing in ebay just to accomodate me. I go to their house every pay day to issued check to them, and then the time came that we got a house in Grovetown, beside Augusta, i brought a U haul to move all the entire house furniture, they were so helpful. i didnt feel that i am a foreigner to them. The good thing is i own now a very lavish furnitures that i treasured so much. In fact i had an experienced furniture maker came to the house and told me that i paid a fraction of it. Later on i sawthe same brand in ebay that starting bid of 35 thousand...they really treated me good...

Seeking HIS Heart said...

This is a wonderful article. So glad that you are genuinely interested in their culture instead of being judgmental. I've been fascinated with the culture for a few years now. I fell in love with a traveler when I was 18. He was 22, and by far the most handsome, well mannered man I've ever met. I worked at a hotel, and he was in our area doing work. He mainly painted barns and did roofing jobs, and he always stayed at the hotel that I worked at. He was always pretty secretive about his life. He traveled with a different group every season, but they all stayed at different hotels in the area, instead of all being in the same. Every morning, he would come down and pay cash instead of using a credit card for his room, and he never knew how long he would be staying so he couldn't pay very far in advance. I didn't know much about his home life or family other than his brother, and I know his middle name, "Gallon" was his grandfather's name. I know that most travelers marry young, so I truly hope he wasn't married. We had a wonderful friendship/relationship, or whatever it was, but it always ended too fast. He was with me every other season, and I will always treasure that time. I ended up changing jobs, and we lost touch. He was truly a good person and I am so thankful that I met him. Since we lost touch, I have tried to contact him, but Travelers don't often use social networking sites like Facebook as us 'country people' do, so I haven't been able to find him.

Anonymous said...

Hey my name is Kevin,

I was very pleased to see you research. I myself was not born nor lived in the Village or surrounding neighborhoods. I can tell you that I have and will always be close with a majority of the families there. I have been excepted as if I was born there. I attend Mass, go on vacations and have even been asked to walk the stage (have a record) at numerous parties and weddings. It is almost as if they are proud to know me. I even speak fluent Cant (the language spoken) I speak the irish and the english dialect of it. Travelers are such a big part of my life. To answer the questions about them ''charming you'' so they can scam you...WRONG I would and do allow them to use my home in atlanta. Drive my cars and even take care of financial errands for me while I am away. And I am respected the same in return. I cant begin to tell you how keys to houses I have, alarm codes. I even have my own bedroom that I frequently stay in when I visit my Mom in Augusta. NEVER once have I felt threatened or used. Yes the women can be a tad bit intimidating ig you dont know them. But so are my Italian cousins in Jersey! There is one lady whom I will not mention that sat at the hospital with me for SIX days straight while my Mother under went brain surgery. I say ''they'' but feel more appropriate to say ''we'' as I have always felt part of the culture. It takes an open mind to be well rounded and you seem to be well on your way! Fell free to attend Mass whenever you feel like it! If you have more questions please feel free to e-mail me @ Kevinkerley@live.com

Anonymous said...

I HAVE SEEN THE IRISH TRAVLERS WITH THERE BIG HAIR I THINK IT LOOKS AWESOME LOL

Anonymous said...

to seeking his heart was his name johnny by any chance have brownish blonde hair and about six feet tall?

augustamico said...

As someone who lives in Augusta and works at a popular Italian restaurant frequented by the Traveller community, I have grown resentful of their presence at our restaurant. They are some of the rudest, most demanding customers I have ever encountered and horrible tippers for the most part. At first I was fascinated by them and tried to be nice to them but they think they are the only people in the restaurant. I never thought I could be racist against white people but they have time and time again aroused disgust in me. To be fair they always say sir or ma'am. They all come in at the same time and no one wants to sit close to them. The wait staff and managers can't stand them and we wish they would go somewhere else. We all pretty much hate them as customers, which is a shame, since otherwise they seem like nice people. They need some PR people to help them with their image and reputation, which is horrible here in Augusta. Learn how to tip, especially the women.

Anonymous said...

As i understand it , the traveller community is a rather large one. so i find it hard to believe that everyone is rude and disrespectful to waiters or waitresses.I Also noticed the harsh words you used in your post. So Your obviously not trying to hide your feelings about the travellers when they frequent your restaurant. Since your managers also have the same opinion they must also display their feelings as well. Did you ever think that might be the reason for their behavior. Unless you think they just choose to act that way without reason ? which i highly doubt, i am also certain they have their opinions about your wait ataff and managers also. For example , how a very rude manager chooses to yell at the travellers when they enter and tell them to get in a single file line at the hostess stand or everyone else will be seated before the people from "murphy village" . i did witness that behavior myself. i don't think that's how managers should behave. they were simply waiting to add their names to the list. at the time there were only about five or six of them there. also how the wait staff point at the seated travellers and talk about them to the other customers.i have also been witness to this on several occasions and it is hardly discreet or in good tatse. maybe that would have a little something to do with the "Tip" situation. i know if my waiter was at the next table gossiping about me i would not feel obliged to leave a nice tip. In conclusuion I Also think Carrabas Italian Grill of Augusta Ga, located on Washington Rd could use a decent waiting area . they have one cramped corner for a very busy crowded place. which causes rude waiters to bump into you with trays and ask you to clear the way for them to get through. they do this very rudely as this has also happend to me. the travellers might need PR to help improve their reputation as you suggested. But I Think Carrabas could also use much improvment.Ecspecially when they are employed with so many Traveller Haters such as yourself. I'm sure they have their views on you also and your staff. Because I Know I do and it is not good. The job of the staff is to make it a pleasant and enjoyable experience for the customer not the other way around. so if Carrabas decides to do a better job with that i'm sure the traveller's behavior would much improve. But Maybe you and your managers need a different job.
Signed A Very Frusturated Carraba's Regular.

Anonymous said...

I am goin in! The curiosity is killing me and some of my friends and myself feel compelled to visit therefore we will. Follow up will definately be posted.

Steve said...

I was born and raised in North Augusta, SC and ill tell you right now that this article is misinforming yall. I lived about 5 miles from the gypsy camp and went to school with the gypsys...until about 7th or 8th grade because they quit going to school they drop out and swindle people out of money. I can spot all of them out in a crowd because they look inbred if you ask me and well they are.

Anonymous said...

I think the travelers are nice ppl and some of them are very good tipers they are jst like everybody else they are normal ppl they jst have different ways .

Anonymous said...

I worked at a major hospital in Atlanta and when the Roma would come in we would strip the rooms of everything...no extra towels or sheets. Otherwise they would disappear. They were always very happy and friendly people, but we were always on guard. It was almost like many of them felt like it was all free.

Anonymous said...

the reason y'all didn't see any young males in church is that they were protecting it during the service...many gypsies have been locked inside churches over the centuries...and burned...so, if anything untowards might have happened (and rest assured, they are in constant contact electronically with the service), it would have made a great white shark feeding frenzy look like a pleasant picnic on a sunny day

Anonymous said...
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