Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Religion and Social Organisation of Irish Travellers on a London Caravan Site (Part I)

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Religion and Social Organisation of Irish Travellers on a London Caravan Site (Part I)

Article excerpt

Introduction

Given Ireland's age-old reputation for religiosity, scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to the religion of Irish Travelling People. One fairly recent book on Traveller society (McCann et al. 1994), for instance, included only two index entries on religion in a list of over 400, and even these were minor. Other work, including some fine ethnography, remains unclear about whether the ritual data apply equally to Irish Travellers as they do to Romanies (Okely 1983), and some is of somewhat narrow scope-(Mends 1997).

This essay is the first in a series of two (1) and is based on the experience of two years I spent with Travellers as site warden of an official Traveller caravan site in London, during the 1980s. It focuses entirely on Irish Travellers, even though a minority of families were British Romanies. This first paper is organised in two parts. The first section, Part one, distinguishes individual from collective religious behaviour and looks at the existing literature on Traveller religion to argue that in England religion is important as a marker of identity in ways that it is not in Ireland. Section 2 unravels the nexus between social organisation and communication and classification, and, in doing so, draws heavily on Douglas (1978) and Simmel (1964).

Because section 2 of this essay acts as an arch-stone for the rest, we should begin by anticipating its central thrust; namely, that a tension in Traveller social organisation occurs at two levels. One is between individual families--and the individual members of separate families--operating as strangers (Simmel 1964); that is to say, individuals and individual families physically `near', but socially `remote' from one another: `potential wanderers' and essentially `traders'. The second occurs between Travellers as a self-`imagined community' and the non-Travellers whom they perceive as the Other, and vice versa. Section 2 also examines how Traveller social organisation supports a world-view and set of categories and symbols which serve to fashion identity. It argues that when Travellers speak about the body and its `inside' they are talking metaphorically of the wider social body.

I have already mentioned Douglas's work (1984) on purity and danger, but the present paper also draws on her book on natural symbols (1978) which some commentators consider to be `eccentric' and `untidy' (Farndon 1999). For this reason alone I would therefore emphasise that I have applied this aspect of Douglas's work only years after the data were collected, and that the evidence of bodily concerns which I found was not something I deliberately set out looking for. Indeed, during my first nine months as warden, I consciously avoided reading anything about Travellers and Gypsies so as not to cloud my mind with other people's ideas, including Okely's (1983). Moreover, it was long after my busy years as warden that I reread Douglas and found it relevant. Ironically, in this essay about outsiders, it is not only the academic `outsider' Douglas (Fry 2000) I rely on. I also draw on Simmel, another sociological `outsider', to show that the emic categories `inside'/`outside' and their numerous parallels, in addition to the behaviours that accompany them, echo Simmel's concept of the Stranger as one who is physically near but socially remote. Thus such perceptible patterns of language and action can just as easily be examined etically and `objectively', a la Simmel, as they can be emically and `subjectively', in terms of the native categories inside/outside. Put otherwise, individuals and individual families within the site will be seen `objectively' to act like Strangers in `near-remote' terms (the hyphen here serving diacritically to signal the important coexistence of properties). At the same time, between themselves on the site, Travellers express a marked inside/outside normative differentiation; in other words, a clear sense of social boundary or non-coexistence (indicated here by my use of the uncompromising oblique mark:/). …

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