The Traveller Gypsies, or Romanichals, are a semi nomadic people with a distinct lifestyle. By studying their language, which is called Romanes, and their customs, scholars in the late 19th Century traced their origins to India. Traveller Gypsies’ strong sense of identity and separateness has been maintained since their arrival in England in the 16th Century, by the experience of persecution.
Irish Travellers came to England in the mid 19th century to take advantage of economic opportunities. Their origins can be found in early Irish history. Invasion and famine caused many sedentary families to lead a nomadic lifestyle. Intermarriage with the indigenous Travellers has led to a community with a distinct culture.
In recent years they have had to adapt to meet the demands made by economic and social change. From living in wagons drawn by horses to travelling in modern trailer caravans; earning a living doing farm work, fruit picking and hawking handmade goods to collecting scrap metal, tarmacing, tree pruning etc. Legislation has made it more difficult to live a mobile lifestyle and many families have been forced to settle on permanent sites or to move into houses.
Many adult Travellers have not had the opportunity to attend school and are non-literate. Children are taught the skills to support their lifestyle within the family by example and practice.
Non-Gypsies are called Gorgios.
The Traveller community is comprised of extended family groups and affiliates in which family ties are strong. Each family speaks for itself – there are few community leaders, although old age is respected. Marriages between affiliated groups, often at a young age, can be popular. Children are highly valued, cared for and protected. Living in trailer caravans means that extended family members can stop together, the men often forming work partnerships and the women supporting each other in the care of children and other activities. Men and women have a distinct and closely defined gender role within the community.
In the past marriages might have been arranged often between first or second cousins to strengthen family ties. Sometimes a couple would ‘run away’ together. Today young people usually choose their own partner. Marriages are an opportunity to bring friends and family together and take place in a church or registry office. It is common for couples to marry when they are in their teens.
An individual may use either of their parents’ surnames dependent upon the situation. Strangers should be guided by the individual as to how they would like to be known.
Traditional Gypsy women dress modestly, with legs covered. Often they will also have heads and arms covered. Gold jewellery worn is a symbol of status and wealth.
Traditionally there have been strict rules about hygiene. The customs are known as ‘mochadi’ (ritually unclean) as opposed to ‘chikli’ (merely dusty or acceptably dirty). For instance it is ‘mochadi’ to have a toilet in a caravan where food is prepared or to wash one’s body in a bowl for washing crockery. Tea towels are washed in a separate bowl and a menstruating woman might not be permitted to prepare food. In some families cats are seen as ‘mochadi’ while dogs would not be allowed in the home.
Visitors should wait to be invited into a trailer by the occupant, who may prefer to talk outside the family home. They should avoid any mention of anything at all sexual or related to bodily functions. If tea is offered it should be accepted as it is a sign of acknowledgement of the family’s cleanliness and also of acceptance by the family of the visitor.
In the past Traveller Gypsies were skilled in the preparation of herbal cures for most diseases and illnesses. These may still be used by the older generation, but most Travellers use conventional medical treatments today, although it can be difficult seeing a doctor or keeping appointments at a hospital if you have no legal place to stop. If a Traveller is hospitalised expect many people to turn up to visit, especially if a new baby has been born! Some Gypsies think of hospitals as concentrations of Gorgio disease and still only resort to using a hospital in emergencies – for instance when a baby needs treatment. However, since hospitals are seen as polluted, places of death and disease, they are the best place for handling the rites of passage that Gypsies see as most polluting – childbirth and death.
Many Travellers, particularly men, are heavy smokers. As intermarriage is common, there is a higher risk of chromosomal recessive disorders. Sometimes standard immunisations are not carried out, so there may be a higher rate of tetanus, polio and tuberculosis.
Many Travellers will not eat hospital food, nor food offered to them in Gorgio households, for fear of it being ‘unclean’. They prefer to eat food prepared for them by people they know.
When a Gypsy dies it is common practice for a wake to be held. The coffin is placed in the trailer caravan with the lid open for friends and family to pay their last respects. The release of the spirit or the ‘mulla’ is seen as important and the deceased person’s caravan might be burnt and possessions smashed so there are no personal items the spirit might cling to thus preventing the spirit’s release. All friends and relatives attend the funeral; sometimes several hundred mourners will be present. Elaborate wreaths are commissioned in the shape of the deceased person’s favourite possessions, a dog, a lorry or even a bottle of Guinness! Graves are visited regularly by surviving relatives and fresh flowers laid. Traditionally close relatives would avoid the location of death for a year or more.
With the membership of the four new Eastern European states into the EU, Gypsy Travellers have become the largest ethnic minority in the EU. Despite this, Gypsies and Travellers probably experience more social exclusion than any other marginalised group in the UK. Many members of the Travelling community will experience the following problems:-
The highest infant mortality rates of all groups.
The lowest life expectancy.
Appalling accommodation provision by public service providers.
Racist press coverage.
Highest number of complaints to the Commission for Racial Equality.
Seeming exclusion from the government’s Social Exclusion Unit.
Travellers place a high value on privacy, and confidentiality should be preserved.
Travellers usually adopt the religion of the country in which they live. Therefore most Gypsies in the UK are Christian. In recent years evangelical Christianity, particularly the ‘Gypsies for Christ’ movement, has won many converts. Irish Travellers follow the Catholic traditions.
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