Irish Travellers in Mid 20th-Century Ireland

castle gillian picture excerptJournalist, Justin Frew, has suggested that:

“As recently as the mid-twentieth century, Travellers played an important role in rural Ireland where they were important participants in seasonal agricultural work. Traveller families would journey around the country, helping out on farms where they would stay on a yearly basis. Travellers also earned their keep by engaging in horse-trading, scrap dealing and craftwork, while also being a valued source of news and lively entertainment. However, despite their acknowledged role in Ireland, Travellers were often made feel unwelcome in the communities where they stayed, to which Irish folklore sadly pays testament.”

The role of the Lane family in Castle Gillian is a binding thread around the actions – and the consequences of those actions – to most of the protagonists in Maurice Walsh’s romance novel.

That the centrality of importance, collectively, Tyzack and Jacus Lane, Tyzack’s wife Oonagh Blake (note she doesn’t take his surname) to say nothing of young ‘Dinny’ Lane is deliberately kept to the margins of the story’s ‘big print’ reflects the larger societal, if not cultural, difficulties in writing about Irelan’s itinerant community.

For Walsh, who was well acquainted with the life of Ireland’s itinerant, traveling, population through his own acquaintances, he evokes a reality of the real-life situation of Ireland’s itinerant community without mythologizing the difficult lives they led at the time of writing in 1948.  The situation in contemporary Irish society remains complex with widely divergent views continuing to be expressed.

An RTE short documentary from 1965 makes compelling viewing.  Keep in mind, this is only 17 years after the time of the novel’s setting.