Academics suggest Irish travellers are remnant of pre-Celtic culture

Irish travellers, long derided as anti-social itinerants rather than "true" Gypsies, are an ancient people in their own right, researchers say.

Irish travellers, long derided as anti-social itinerants rather than "true" Gypsies, are an ancient people in their own right, researchers say.

Academics preparing for the world's first symposium on the travellers' mysterious past, claim they could even be the last surviving remnants of a pre-Celtic Ireland, with their own distinctive language called "Cant" or "Gammon".

Commonly known as "tinkers" because of their tin-smithing past, Irish travelling families have never enjoyed the romantic associations of Romany Gypsies. They now bear the brunt of complaints about illegal encampments, a concern that the Tory leader, Michael Howard, has tried to turn into an election issue with adverts in The Independent on Sunday and other papers.

Research by an Irish socio-linguist, Dr Alice Binchy, suggests that more than half the surviving Cant/Gammon lexicon may be derived from a long-lost language spoken in Ireland before the Celts arrived. "A partially pre-Celtic origin would have substantial implications for the way we look not only at traveller history, but at early Irish history as a whole," said Dr Binchy, a delegate at a conference of linguists, historians and anthropologists to be held at the University of Limerick.

Pre-Celtic Ireland started to disappear 3,000 years ago. Irish travellers may first have been recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries. Surnames suggest that many are descended from medieval poets - the Irish bards. Others were metal workers. Significantly, both were separate "castes".

It is probable that numbers greatly increased in the late 16th and early to mid-17th centuries, when English occupation forces dispossessed the Irish aristocracy. At some stage, the newly enlarged community appears to have begun to develop a secret form of verbal communication. Many academics - though not all - believe that words were altered, with syllables inverted and letters transposed, to make it impossible for enemies to understand.

The language remains a source of dispute, with some scholars arguing that any link with the pre-Celtic era is unlikely. But most accept that travellers date back at least to medieval or Tudor times.

"Research demonstrates that we are a people with a unique and turbulent history and underlines how resilient we have had to be to survive," said Martin Collins, assistant director of the Pavee Point Travellers Centre in Dublin.

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