Irish Travellers (Irish: an lucht siúil – meaning ‘the walking people’) also called pavees or pejoratively referred to as knackers, tinkers, pikeys, and gypsies, are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions. Although predominantly English-speaking, some also use Shelta and other similar cants. They live mostly in Ireland as well as comprising large communities in the United Kingdom and the United States. Their origin is disputed. Traveller rights groups have long pushed for ethnic status from the Irish government, finally succeeding in 2017.
Travellers are often referred to by the terms tinkers, gipsies/gypsies, itinerants, or, pejoratively, knackers in Ireland. Some of these terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by the group: tinkering or tinsmithing, for example, being the mending of tinware such as pots and pans, and knackering being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. The term gypsy first appears in records dating back to the 16th century when it was originally used to refer to the continental Romani people in England and Scotland, who were mistakenly thought to be Egyptian.(p158) Other derogatory names for itinerant groups have been used to refer to Travellers including the word pikey.
A genetic analysis of Irish Travellers found evidence to support the hypotheses of: (1) Irish ancestry; (2) several distinct subpopulations; and (3) the distinctiveness of the midland counties due to Viking influence.
Genetic studies by Miriam Murphy, David Croke, and other researchers identified certain genetic diseases such as galactosemia that are more common in the Irish Traveller population, involving identifiable allelic mutations that are rarer among the rest of the community. Two main hypotheses have arisen, speculating whether:
this resulted from marriages made largely within and among the Traveller community, or
suggesting descent from an original Irish carrier long ago with ancestors unrelated to the rest of the Irish population.
They concluded that: “The fact that Q188R is the sole mutant allele among the Travellers as compared to the non-Traveller group may be the result of a founder effect in the isolation of a small group of the Irish population from their peers as founders of the Traveller sub-population. This would favour the second, endogenous, hypothesis of Traveller origins.” More specifically, they found that Q188R was found in 100% of Traveller samples, and in 89% of other Irish samples, indicating that the Traveller group was typical of the larger Irish indigenous population
In 2011, an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are as distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians. Irish Travellers “left no written record of their own” and their families do not date back to the same point in time; some families adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so more recently. It is unclear how many Irish Travellers would be included in this distinct ethnic group at least from a genetic perspective.
Among other speculation on their origins, “two theories are rejected outright”: that they were descended from those Irish who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland in the 1650s, or made homeless in the 1840s famine due to eviction.