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Portraits from Ireland's fringe

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

By Ami AlbernazContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2008

Hard life: Images of Furey family are among photos to be showcased at a Charlottesville, Va., festival next month.

courtesy of alen macweeney

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Sag Harbor, N.Y.

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.

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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.

"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."