December 1st, 2011

What if my Ancestor was a Gypsy?

Recently the headlines on the website have highlighted a few stories depicting the plight of certain groups of “English and Irish Gypsies”, or “Travellers” as they are otherwise known. The Travellers live outside of the realms of normal society, shunning what they deem to be an oppressive, conformist regime, and rather preferring to remain free from the shackles of permanent settlement and governmental red tape. As such, finding records for Traveller ancestors may be a bit more difficult than usual, as many don’t register, and often records of births, deaths and marriages are kept among themselves, and histories often passed orally from generation to generation. In order to understand the particular difficulties in tracking down a Traveller relative, a brief overview of their history and lifestyle might be helpful.

Origins of the Travellers

Travellers are mainly found throughout the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America. Populations are fairly evenly dispersed among those areas, Ireland having just over 20,000, the UK between 25 and 30,000, while it is estimated there are about 10,000 living in the US. Because they maintain no written history, it is hard to pin down the actual origins of the Traveller community, though some historians claim they are descendants of land owners made homeless by Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland or the Great Famine. Others portray a more complex history; claiming that there is evidence of wandering tribes in Ireland as early as the fifth century. One thing generally agreed upon is that they originated in Ireland, some families adopting the lifestyle centuries ago, others in more recent years.

Land, Language, Religion and Schooling

Usually these are four areas that turn up loads of genealogical information, and though you may find some Travellers in such records, you generally will not. The Travellers have their own language, a hybrid of Gaelic known as Shelta, and there are two particular dialects of that. For this reason many of them aren’t able to read and write English, and as such it is rare to find them in school or other government records – though Social Welfare Records may be the exception. Many of them are “home schooled” or rather not educated at all, though in recent years more are entering the mainstream system.

Church Records may yield some vital data on a Traveller relative however, as most are staunch Roman Catholics. Land records will be much less forthcoming, as rather than owning their own plot, Travellers choose mostly to occupy sites known as “common land” (land owned by an individual to which others have certain rights such as use of the land for their cattle), or to squat on private land. For this reason Court Records may be forthcoming, as land disputes are continuous, and travellers are happy to “work” the system to delay their eviction, and in some cases receive huge amounts of money to vacate it.

Some Other Useful Resources for Tracking Traveller Ancestors

As ancient a society as the Travellers are, in some ways they have kept up with modern living, one such way being maintaining their presence on the internet. Two modern websites maintained by the Traveller Community are Gypsy Roma Traveller, and the Traveller’s Times. The Gypsy Roma Website is more geared towards the history and culture of the Traveller Community, while the Traveller’s Times actually has a section where people can post their family histories.

The University of Liverpool hosts the record collection of the Gypsy Lore Society from 1888-1974, which consists of: research files of GLS (Gypsy Lore Society) members and a publication entitled Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. There is also a collection of various manuscripts, books, newspaper clippings, illustrations and photographs collected by the members of the GLS.

The British Convict Transportation Registers, made available by the government of Queensland Australia contains the names of over 120,000 British convicts transported to Australia during the years 1787 – 1867, many of whom were members of the Traveller Community. You can do a free online search for your ancestor, as well as search Births, Deaths and Marriages in their Family History Section.

Hopefully this information and these resources will make it easier, or at least give you a start, in tracking down your Traveller relative. Though it may be difficult and at times frustrating, take solace in that you have a unique and rich heritage, and that somewhere out there, a true genealogical gem awaits you. Happy Ancestor Hunting!