Beware the wild rovers of Limerick and Lewisham

Who are these guys, the streel-haired wild bunch whose womenfolk are tougher than the men?
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The Independent Culture
THEY CAME right out of the television at you. The first sighting the nation had of the Norfolk Twelve was on Monday night's News at Ten. Two handsome blonde women headed for the camera in a determined, hysterical totter. They were complaining loudly about their treatment, extending their arms to display the handcuff marks on their wrists, but were laughing as well. They were full of confidence, sass and self-righteousness. They sported unkempt bouffant hairdos, black roots and hooped earrings. They had the look of girls who could handle a whole night on the grog, before breakfasting on roofing-nails. They bore down on the viewing public like Celtic Valkyries, swooping towards the screen as if to give it a good kicking. You could feel the cameraman quake at their approach. They were magnificent.

Many viewers must have looked at them and thought: "Let's see. Gatwick to Jamaica. That's seven or eight hours, minimum, in the company of these ladies and their men, as they sang 'The Wild Rover' and 'Kevin Barry', and drank and slumbered, and argued and swore and invited other passengers to 'step outside and say that.'"

And once the duty-free bottles and packets of courtesy peanuts started flying through the air, where could you go? And if they decided they didn't like the way you were gazing at their urchin beauty, how could you persuade them not to tear you limb from limb?

Gradually the story unfolded. The 12 had paid pounds 660 each for this week- long holiday. As the Boeing 767, containing 325 passengers, hugged the eastern seaboard of the American coast at 37,000 feet, six hours into the flight, half the travellers were asleep, having consumed Homeric quantities of alcohol; others were enjoying "an old-fashioned Irish sing-song", but softly, just softly. One of the party, Miles Connor, en route to the lavatory, was told by a black passenger: "Shut you women up, shut you lady up." Connor had replied that the girls were only enjoying themselves. The Jamaican threw a glass of beer over Connor and, when another traveller got up to remonstrate, told both men that he'd slaughter them, once they hit Jamaica. The cabin staff tried their "normal calming techniques" and, half-an-hour later, the Irish were told that the aircraft was being diverted to Virginia, where they were left stranded for two days, as their luggage went on to Montego Bay without them.

The more we learnt about them, the more vivid they became. They were mostly members of an extended family called Connor. Many of them lived on a caravan site in a Lewisham car park, at the seriously nasty end of south London. Four of the six women are sisters - Elizabeth, Angela, Katrina and Priscilla O'Driscoll. Their family made its money by paving gardens and driveways, and could afford to run a pounds 30,000 Toyota Landcruiser, as well as a less glamorous pick-up truck.

The men were allergic to having their photographs taken. And some of them seemed dangerous to property, according to the proprietor of the caravan site's local pub, the Royal Oak, from which members of the clan had been banned since June last year for allegedly ripping out the loos, dismembering the telephones and getting into fights.

Who are these guys - this streel-haired wild bunch whose womenfolk are tougher than the men, where drinking, fighting and destroying property count as normal behaviour? Just as Alan Clark looked at the English football hooligans marauding through the streets of Marseilles last year and saw the British martial spirit asserting itself against the old enemy, so one can look at the Twelve as a newish phenomenon: the combination of the Irish tinker and the south London desperado, forming a mongrel strain that's stronger and more uncompromising than either.

Tinkers are the guilty secret of modern Ireland. Though the press and more enlightened sectors of the community call them "itinerants" or "the travelling community", it's by the name "tinkers" or "knackers" that the Republic's 22,000 wanderers are more usually known to Irish people. Once considered a picturesque addition to the Irish landscape, with their shawls and henna-ed hair, their tin cans and old Gypsy caravans, they became increasingly marginalised figures in post-war Ireland.

On the outskirts of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, in the Seventies, you could always see a line of rusting mobile homes on the grass verge, with a couple of horses, some phenomenally dirty children playing ball - and a local housewife scrubbing her front path with Jeyes Fluid, for fear the children might cross it.

They were the apotheosis of the wandering Gypsy rover (though they hate being called Gypsies) but they were capable of spectacular violence. It came with the culture. At a tinker funeral in Ballymote, Co Sligo, in March last year, warring traveller families turned up with shotguns, slash-hooks, machetes, bayonets and hurley sticks in the boot of their cars, and police avoided a bloodbath only by confiscating 200 weapons. A Fine Gael county councillor called John Flannery called the travelling community "dogs" and suggested that they should be branded or fitted with tags.

The travellers call in vain for anti-racist legislation; they ask to be granted a separate ethnic identity and allowed to live in peace with the settled community. In the meantime they're vilified as violent troublemakers and endlessly blanked from the national consciousness, or moved on. No wonder they should wish to head for England, where the worst that can happen is that they'll be identified by the American phrase "trailer trash".

This is the strain from which the Norfolk Twelve appear to have come: a culture of drink, poverty, inbreeding, illiteracy, ill-health and the expectation of violence. In Lewisham and Croydon - the homes of the Connors, O'Driscolls, Coopers, Coyles and the rest of the tribe - they have made a better life for themselves; enough, certainly, to pay for what a tabloid jealously called a "winter sunshine trip".

They may live outside the normal forms of society, outside the community of mortgage-payers and one jump ahead of the Inland Revenue, but their experience of the south London air has evidently made them stronger, richer and more vibrant with attitude than the majority of their metropolitan neighbours. Just remember not to stick around when they start singing.