Portraits from Ireland's fringe

A revealing look at a nomadic group, the Travellers, was decades in the making.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Hard life: Images of Furey family are among photos to be showcased at a Charlottesville, Va., festival next month.
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    Hard life: ‘Joe Donoghue and Olivene, cherry orchard,’ is among the photos to be showcased at a Charlottesville, Va., festival next month.
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Forty-three years ago, New York photographer Alen MacWeeney, then in his mid-20s, came upon a field of caravans, horses, and sheds on the outskirts of his native Dublin. He had come to this campsite of Travellers, a little-understood nomadic group living outside of Irish society, to begin a photo essay on W.B. Yeats.

Over the next six years, he was accepted into the Travellers' largely secretive world, making trips to the group's campsites to photograph the people and record their songs and stories.

Mr. MacWeeney's chronicle of that time, "Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More," was published last year by New England College Press. It includes 61 photographs interspersed with Traveller songs and stories, and is among 50 books that will be featured in the National Geographic-supported Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va., June 12-14.

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"Irish Travellers" is one of the few photographic works that exists about the group, who today number around 25,000, many more than 40 years ago. It also captures a time of change for the Travellers, as the Irish government had begun pressuring them to live more settled lives.

"Just when I showed up, they'd been pushed out of the countryside and pushed into the fringes of the cities to collect the dole," says MacWeeney, at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. "Before that, they lived on their wits alone."

Travellers are sometimes compared to Europe's Roma, though the former are believed to be of Irish origin. They live outside of society by choice and have their own dialect; perhaps because of this, the "settled Irish" have, by and large, not known what to make of them. Travellers were long known as "tinkers" for their common occupation, tinsmithing, though the term is now considered derogatory.

During MacWeeney's growing up, Travellers "were treated with a certain amount of caution and distance," he says. They were known to be involved in casual theft, though the characterization did not fit all families, MacWeeney says. The Travellers he knew traded horses, picked fruit, and collected rags, feathers, and scrap metal. Some were accomplished musicians, or "musicianers," as they called themselves.

MacWeeney, who after leaving the Travellers went on to a successful career in fashion and portrait photography, was moved by the Travellers' zest for life, and enthralled by their long and intricate tales.

"I was really lucky to find these two men who were wonderful storytellers," MacWeeney says. "One man would tell me a different story every night. They were really fantastic stories that let you get inside the life that they lived. They spoke very beautifully, very musically."

The intimacy and forthrightness of MacWeeney's work attracted the attention of Festival of the Photograph organizers. "The photographs seem very honest," says Leah Bendavid-Val, a curator of the festival's book exhibit. "The story is compelling and we feel the world is enlarged by knowing something of it."

MacWeeney hoped his work would change the ideas that many of his compatriots held about the Travellers. He wished to show a dignity and "stripped-down Irishness," and these come through in each of his photographs: There are wary, hardened mothers with their many children; a teenage bride with downcast eyes beside her nervous, also teenage groom; and children at play, joyfully unaware of the hardships before them.

That it took 36 years for "Irish Travellers" to be published says something about lingering prejudices in Irish society and MacWeeney's fastidiousness as an artist. In the years since MacWeeney left the Travellers, the book came close to being published around half a dozen times, in the United States, England, Switzerland, and Italy. Disagreements over design were behind the breakdown of some of the deals. After Robert Ginna, a former editor in chief of Little, Brown, and Co. who had just started the New England College Press, took on the book, the two men could not find an Irish publisher to cofund the project.

"One major publisher said, 'Well, we don't like Travellers here,'" MacWeeney remembers. "And I thought, 'Wouldn't that be a reason to do something, to publish something?' "

The book's first run is almost sold out, and thus far no Irish publisher has stepped up for a second printing. The book is, for now, available in at least one Dublin store, MacWeeney says.

With Ireland's improved economy and the resulting influx of immigrants, the Travellers have become even more marginalized. "There's been a fairly strong anti-Traveller feeling permeating the country, particularly with Eastern European gypsies coming to Ireland," MacWeeney says.

When MacWeeney returned to Ireland in 1997 to find out what had become of the Travellers he had befriended, some had moved into houses and others had settled in sites he likens to "walled-in reservations on the city's fringes.

"Whatever they had left [of their culture] has transformed to a very contemporary way of life," MacWeeney says. Now they "wear Gap clothes and sneakers and listen to Michael Jackson."

With his photos as well as his re­­cor­­­dings of songs and stories (which he donated to the Irish Traditional Mu­­sic Archive and University College Dub­­lin), MacWeeney has preserved a moment in Irish history that could have vanished. The Travellers, he says, "sustained Irish heritage and culture that had passed out of the settled community." Now, he adds, "It's a different world."

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