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USF Anthropologists Document Last of Ireland's Nomadic People

Bittersweet return comes four decades later

09-09-2013
Tinker Traveller

Returning 40 years later to close a circle, USF anthropologists document the last of Ireland's Travellers and strike a popular cord with Irish television viewers. Archive photo by George Gmelch, 1971.

A documentary starring two University of San Francisco anthropologists reveals that Ireland's nomadic subculture is all but dead. The film became one of the most-watched documentaries to premiere on Irish television.

For centuries, Travellers lived on the margins of Irish society — banding together in groups of families, moving from town to town in horse-drawn caravans, and setting up makeshift camps on the side of the road. 

Lived in horse-drawn wagons

In "Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller," husband and wife anthropologists George and Sharon Gmelch revisit the life they lived more than 40 years ago when they uprooted from Santa Barbara and moved to Ireland to live in a horse-drawn wagon with Travellers in a place called Holy Lands, outside of Dublin.

The film captures their emotional reunion with the Travellers, whom they spent a year researching as graduate students in the early 70s. The Gmelches, who now direct USF's cultural anthropology minor, track down the families they lived with and interview them about how their lives have changed in the intervening decades.

It doesn't take them long to discover the families are Travellers in name only, in today's modern world. They have been forced out of their nomadic lifestyle, in which families survived by the men working as laborers, horse breeders, and scrap metal recyclers and the women begging.

Mystique and the road

"In every country in Europe, governments clamped down on nomads. Ireland was the last to do that, but the government made it really difficult for them to travel, erecting boulders at their campsites," George said. 

Today, Travellers enjoy running water, electricity, public education, and better job opportunities, yet they (particularly the men) grapple with a sense of dislocation. The suicide rate for Traveller men is seven times Ireland's national average, and drug use is rampant. In interviews, many said they longed for the culture they felt had slipped away.

"There was a lot of nostalgia for a way of life that was extremely impoverished," Sharon said. "It was poor, but you were tough. Unless you were being evicted, you were free. There is that mystique of the freedom of the road."

Unheard of ratings

Directed by award-winning Irish filmmaker Liam McGrath, "Unsettled" premiered in Ireland last year with 28 percent of TV-viewing households tuning in — a figure virtually unheard of for a documentary. A rebroadcast earlier this year also earned high ratings.

The film's popularity illustrates the growing appreciation of the Travellers' place in history, McGrath said. "I think there is a genuine interest in Traveller culture in Ireland, as people now realize that their culture is a central part of ancient Irish culture."

Travellers make up less than 1 percent of Ireland's population. Like the Roma in other parts of Europe, they faced discrimination. For that reason, Travellers were wary of outsiders —including the Gmelchs, who moved into Holy Lands in 1971. Over time, George and Sharon cultivated friendships within the community and, along the way, became experts on Traveller culture.

"They were observing us"

During their reunion, the Gmelchs were surprised to learn just how strong those ties were and how much of an impression they made on the Traveller families. Stories about the Gmelchs had been passed down from one generation to the next, and two babies had been named Sharon and one George.

"Just as we were observing them, they were observing us," Sharon said.

Written by Monica Villavicencio »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews