The Culture of Crime Examining Representations of Irish Travelers in Traveller and the Riches

By Kabachnik, Peter | Romani Studies, June 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Culture of Crime Examining Representations of Irish Travelers in Traveller and the Riches


Kabachnik, Peter, Romani Studies


Irish Travelers are frequently equated with crime. This culture-of-crime stereotype is reproduced through media culture. In this article I will analyze the 1997 film Traveller and the first season of the 2007 television series The Riches to see how the criminal stigma is repeatedly (re) ascribed to Irish Travelers. I identify two cultural discourses in Traveller. First, the "culture as practice" discourse grants admission to a cultural group based on what one does. Second, the "culture as nature" discourse views cultural belonging in a biologically deterministic fashion. These two discourses overlap, and Irish Traveler culture is still depicted as a culture of crime. The Riches reproduces this stereotype, as the only way Irish Travelers can lead a "normal" life is too steal a buffer's identity. Both of these examples lead to questioning whether invisibility or visibility solely as criminals is preferable.

Keywords: Irish Travelers, crime, criminality, culture, film, television, representation, media culture

"Some call us Gypsies, others call us thieves, most though don t even know we exist." Opening credit voice over, The Riches (2007)

One of the dominant images of Irish Travelers is of a culture of crime (Lucassen, Willems, and Cottaar 1998; Crowley 2005; Drummond 2006; Hayes 2006). In the United States, Irish Travelers are "a group", we are told, "best known around the country for their scams" (McShan 2007) and police in North Carolina refer to certain crimes as the "Irish Traveler scam" (Salisbury Post, 2008). This is further made evident through the many specialized police units and "Gypsy crime" detectives found throughout the United States that are dedicated solely to deal with Gypsy and Traveler crime.1 These specialists gather annually for what is euphemistically called the National Association of Bunco2 Investigators3 (for an article with brief interviews with several participants of this conference, see Becerra 2006). In October 2007 they hosted a Transient Criminal Activity Conference4 in Seattle, Washington, which has sessions entitled "Introduction to the Rom" and "The Travelers". This focus on criminality is not limited to the US, as the GARDA - the Irish national police service - collected data on the "criminal tendencies" of Irish Travelers (Crowley 2005: 135).

The criminal stereotypes ascribed to Irish Travelers are constructed and reproduced in newspapers, literature, film, and television (see also Morris 2000; Drummond 2006). These are aspects of what Kellner (1995) refers to as media culture. Media culture provides "the materials out of which people forge their very identities", influencing how we see others, and provides myths, values, and normative models for behavior (Kellner 1995: 1). Since most people get their information about Irish Travelers from television, film, radio, and newspapers instead of direct interaction, it is important to examine such influential disseminators of stereotypes. Furthermore, as Sibley (1995) argues, representations inform practices, and these myths and stereotypes can lead to moral panics, discrimination, exclusion, and even violence against the denigrated group. Indeed, a vast array of attention has focused on the racism and discrimination that Irish Travelers face in contemporary society, and the critical role that representation plays in the othering of Irish Travelers (Helleiner 2000; Fanning 2002; Hayes 2006; McVeigh 2008). By examining the reproduction of stereotypes of Irish Travelers in American media culture, I hope to identify another arena of problematic representations that contributes to discrimination against Irish Travelers. While much of the writing on Irish Travelers examines the European context, I focus my attention on the role of representation in American popular culture, as Burke (2007) identifies a shortfall of research of this type. Crime is not the only stereotype found in representations of Irish Travelers, as associations of poverty, nomadism, and marginality are typical as well, along with romanticized depictions of life on the road.

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