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I not deny
The jury, passing on the prisoner's life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try.
William Shakespeare, from "Henry VIII"
Subject for today: Irish-American Traveller Wedding Customs
I haven't been to a real Traveller wedding in thirty or forty years. Wakes, yes. Funerals, sure. Weddings, no; I spent too long away from the Irish Travellers, living as a munkeri gyook, and now I'm in the wrong demographic to be an expert on Irish Traveller wedding customs. So why am I writing about them?
Because I am (and I say this with all due modesty) the voice of sweet reason, possibly the only Irish Traveller both able and willing at this time to publicly dispute the malefic absurdities put out by "Dateline," "20/20" and "USA Today." I may not have attended every Traveller wedding there has been in the last sixty-two years of my existence, but I remember the old days pretty well and I still "keep my ear pretty close to the ground." Damned uncomfortable position, that! (:>D)
If you catch only the high points of television and newspaper coverage about Irish Travellers, you would definitely get the impression that we dress up our seven and eight year old girls like hookers, then parade them around so they can be sold to their first cousins as child brides.
What's wrong with this picture?
Irish Travellers are staunch Roman Catholics (even our worst enemies admit that) who are more concerned with the welfare of their children (they admit that, as well) than almost any other culture in the world.
Can anybody honestly believe there is that much evil in us?
The traditional Traveller response to such is almost New Testament: say nothing to dignify such charges with a response; shake the dust of such a place off your shoes, and leave forthwith. But where? There is nowhere left to go; this is the Age of (Mis)Information. There is no escape. The paparazzi (or is that spelled with an "n" as in "nazzi?") will return again and again, until somebody finally asks the question that defeated Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt a half century ago: "Have you no shame?"
So what are the charges?
In an effort to make sense of nonsense, I would break down the general aspect of such an horrendous
portrayal into separate topics and try to examine each rationally:
1. Underage marriage (how young is too young?),
2. Arranged marriage (including dowries),
3. Endogamous marriage (Travellers marrying Travellers, in this case).
The first rule:
It is simply that there are not any. Travellers are of different ancestral stock; Irish Travellers belong to different "clans"; "clans" are comprised of different families; the families have individuals and each one has wildly divergent ideas of what is right and wrong, within the overall moral "envelope" of the Travelling Life. In short, we're a lot like other Americans in this regard. I am sure that there have been some very young brides, a number of arranged weddings, and some first-cousin marriages among us. How do I know this? Because there are perhaps fifty thousand of us in the USA. How could these things not happen, at least somewhere, sometimes? Does that mean that all three are universal practices among us? I think not and, as it happens, such ancient, conservative customs are not necessarily illegal, immoral or unhealthy intrinsically, especially when compared with the contemporary lifestyles of country people. I will demonstrate below that they often make considerable sense in the Traveller context.
The second rule:
That is simple also, and applies specifically to me. In the hope of doing good for all, I may well do damage to some. I will be discussing practices, rituals, laws, morals and ethics but some of the people looking at this will be reading words that closely touch their lives and have the power to hurt and offend. Still, someone must stand up and say these things so I ask your forgiveness in advance for doing so. O my mawker's needjy, I thaari needjaish ladj to graydee yoordjeels nayfished but lubbas to karab the munkeri reffs.
1. Underage marriage (how young is too young?)
My mother was almost twenty-two when she married. Her sister Betty was nineteen. The youngest age for a bride among the Northern Irish Travellers that I am personally familiar with was sixteen at her wedding.
I know that a certain "news" show staged a raid a few years back in collusion with a local sheriff's task force, the I.R.S. and others. The boys came supplied with "John Doe" warrants looking for under-aged brides among the more settled Southern Irish Travellers and invaded homes like they were Nazis. They made a great deal of unconstitutional fuss and left without serving one of them. By the way, it was the same TV show that had to apologize to GM for secretly using explosives to blow up the gas tanks of their pickups, thus supposedly "demonstrating" their lack of safety. The locale for this new fiasco was in South Carolina; I'll just call it "the Village."
The police picked that town to raid only because it is populated by an ethnic minority that has been the subject of media gossip. It was a perfect worst-case example of selective enforcement that would not have been justified even if criminal conduct had been discovered.
Nothing happened; they found no under-aged brides; they served none of those warrants on any of our people there. And every man-jack of those lawmen knows that if they had raided any other rural town in South Carolina, populated by any other ethnic minority, they would have run out of warrants long before they ran out of culprits. The only reason they were there at all was for the TV cameras, and the cameras were there following the "news hounds," a term which makes for an apt metaphor, but one that is perhaps too unfair to real dogs that sniff butts to make a living.
In the end, a few citations were served on parents of truant children and the IRS turned up a few thousand dollars in unreported income. Tell me: could your own town or city have passed such a test?
So: Sixteen, you say, maybe fifteen?
Maybe, somewhere, somebody; who knows? Do you ask the Amish, the Chassidim or the Mormons the same sort of questions? Do you have the gall?
Are you a country person? Let's exclude your immediate family from consideration in a little thought experiment. Think of your local high school. Would it surprise you (not your own kids, of course) if many of the sixteen year old girls were sleeping around? And all of the boys who could get past first base were either doing it or going for it, some of them with each other. Hell, no! It wouldn't surprise you at all; you always knew that those degenerates that live on the other side of town would drain the gene pool sooner or later. You're sure you recognize some of the guests on the daytime TV freak shows (not your kids, of course, just the ones from the other side of town).
It seems odd: there's apparently nothing wrong with having sex, even babies (better yet: abortions) at fifteen or sixteen, among country people at least, as long as it is promiscuous. Just don't try making love at that age within the framework of a stable relationship, sanctioned by the state and blessed by their families and the Roman Catholic Church, so say you all.
I have exhausted this subject and it has exhausted me, perhaps. We are an older people than you all are; our children are prepared, and prepared well, for a responsible adult life earlier than yours and our culture supports families instead of tearing them apart. There is no one among us who would not favor more education for our children, in an idyllic world. But your world (and ours, by necessity) is not idyllic, certainly not for Travellers, and many of your own children pay far too high a personal price, in our opinion, for their mainstream education.
Truthfully, all Travellers fear the contamination of outside influences on their children. It may be that you should tend to your own more and worry about ours less.
Old, but late-breaking news:
While I am on this subject, let me insert a paragraph or two from the Media 06/01/99 page. The radio show in question touches specifically on this subject:
[Insert 06/12/99, below]
Wow! I just ran across a RealAudio transcription of the April 24 - May 1, 1998 edition of "CounterSpin," a weekly radio show on National Public Radio. The program is one of the productions of FAIR, an organization to promote "Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting." Judging by it's condemnation of NBC and "Dateline" (and others) for their treatment of Travellers and the Romany, the organization lives up to its acronym. The specific URL for their Internet site where that transcription is located is:
If you don't have RealAudio as a "plug-in" for your browser, you might have to download it from that site to hear the audio (it's free and worth a few minutes of your time). There is an introduction on screen as well, though, that is worth reading on it's own merits if you are at all interested in exploring the constant cheap-shots fired by the media at ethnic minorities like the Travellers and the Romany.
I urge you to listen to this news report on NPR from CounterSpin, however you can.
[End of Insert]
In short, on that radio program a member of the Village convincingly refuted "Dateline's" claim to possess a wedding portrait of an eleven year old bride from there. He stated simply, but eloquently, that the girl was actually only seven years of age at the time, and the white dress and veil were in evidence because the portrait was taken on the occasion of her First Holy Communion. I suppose that would account for the lack of a groom in the portrait, which would seem to be a necessary ingredient for a definitive wedding picture.
2. Arranged marriage (including dowries):
Shelta/Cant/Gammon lacks a handy word for the special relationship that specifically exists between the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom. Some other languages have such a way to express the relationship of each to the other, predominantly in other cultures that may still follow the older tradition of arranged marriages. This may well reflect the fact that the relationship of the families is seen by those cultures to precede that of the bride and groom, not only in terms of chronology, but even in importance.
So it is with some Irish Traveller marriages. Not all, though, by any means.
One-on-one, or couple, dating among our younger teens was generally discouraged when I was young myself, though groups of Irish Traveller boys and girls were always encouraged to mingle at dances and weddings when large groups of families would come together. And frequently the presence of a girl's brothers in such a group actively insured that she would be treated with due respect by any admirer, whether he be a country boy or another Traveller.
I know it all sounds like a 1930's "Andy Hardy" movie to most people and perhaps some of my notions about this are out of date now, but I suspect that the vast majority of my mother's people are still as morally protective of their kids as my grandparents were of her in that bygone era.
That having been said, I have been informed by other Travellers that many a young couple's inclinations in the matter of their personal choices play a dominant role in the preliminary stages of their families "arranging" marriages. And that a certain amount of respectable dating between individuals goes on these days; so perhaps we have progressed from "Andy Hardy" to "Ozzie and Harriet."
But in this matter, as in many others, there will be differences between Northern, Southern and Western Clans (others, as well), and of course between individual families within those branches, especially with respect to social and couple dating. It is safe to say, however, that parental oversight over their children's moral development will generally meet or exceed any standard thought to be prudent by country people.
"Looping" refers to a reported practice among the Southern Irish Travellers, notably in the Village, of the ladies of the community sashaying around in a "loop," or circuit, wearing their finest clothing and jewelry that is suitable for a daytime occasion. It takes place primarily on Easter Sunday and the men of the community serve as a gallant and appreciative audience.
Among the Northerners I know, communities are strictly "pro tem" and "ad hoc," so that less formal versions of this fashion display are liable to be encountered at any time of the year, usually at weddings, but even at wakes. Newspaper and televised "news" reports usually imply that there is an element of the exotic, the degenerate, or the illicit about this practice, and I cannot refute that because I do not understand it. One can't logically disagree with such reasoning unless there is at least a trace of reason to be found with which to disagree.
Two possible rebuttals: "Get a life!"; or the other one.
It is generally left up to the families to announce engagements, which are said to be much longer among the Northern than the Southern Irish Travellers, who are more rooted and far less mobile. (I'd like to learn more about this from Travellers of any stripe, including Northern, Southern, Western and Mississippi.) Well, that figures, I guess: the engagement is actually a critical period of testing of the prospective groom by the family of the bride-to-be. The requirement for a longer engagement would naturally seem to diminish with increased proximal familiarity, such as that found in families who are not only "kissing" kin but also long-term neighbors.
In addition, "settled" Travellers, such as those in the Village, make easy targets for press and police surveillance crews. Such people have thought nothing of our individual rights to privacy in the past, and they undoubtedly will continue to inflict their profane presence on an ethnic community conducting their religious and secular celebrations of the most Holy Sacrament of Matrimony. Why give them any more advance notice than is necessary?
The final exam:
Talk about "running the gauntlet": the young Traveller swain gets to "meet" his intended's family in a way that no mainstream country boy ever would. He goes to work for his fiancé's father.
Well, sometimes he does or once did in some families, possibly a small minority of them anymore. What a cop-out, right? The disclaimer is required because there are many reports of this practice that one hears, yet there some otherwise-trusted Travellers who emphatically insist that there are no such official or unofficial dowry and employment arrangements among us. Bearing that in mind, please accept the following comments as applying only to a hypothetical paradigm.
How long until he's found worthy of acceptance? That might depend on some negotiation between families to begin with, the ages of the couple and, finally, the judgment of the girl and her family. It might be for a season; it might be for a year; possibly, it might wind up being never. Most of that time, by the way, the engaged couple will spend little of it together. The young man will frequently accompany his prospective father-in-law on the road for weeks at a time, well away from his bride-to-be.
There are three subjects for his extended examination: his "street smarts," and his work and family ethics. There is no way to "make it" just on good looks or "quality" clothes or a fat bankbook when it comes to achieving anything worthwhile in Traveller society. The "quality" has to be an internal one, matched to the needs of The Travelling People.
The slave mart?
Some cultures still practice matrimony featuring the institution of a bride-price; wherein a beautiful young girl is "sold" to her prospective in-laws. But not Irish Travellers; sorry to disillusion you about that. I realize if you are a country person who has been primed by the media to find evil among us, your blood will be boiling to protect those little girls you've seen "provocatively" dancing in a video, such as that shown by NBC's "Dateline." But the only thing "provocative" about that video is contained in the voice-over narration by a TV reporter. Take that away and you have a girls-only dress-up party with some of the more talented smaller children doing a creditable job of imitating what they see on "family" television.
The narrators and commentators almost always comment on the "fact" that the younger girls are being paraded before prospective mothers-in-law. Then what are all the other girls and women doing there? How can any stranger tell just who are the mothers of the dancers and who are the so-called prospective mothers-in-law?
Dress and Cosmetics: crime of passion (or of fashion)?
Here is where I get into big trouble! Guilty as charged. The more isolated segments of Traveller society have set their own such standards, apparently patterned on Elizabeth Taylor as she appeared thirty-plus years ago (not so bad, when I come to think about it). For little girls playing dress-up and their mothers, perhaps playing with living dolls, the temptation to go a little overboard is a natural and innocent one. But it's certainly no crime and none of us ever claimed to be trendy.
Any fully informed person who would call this kind of function "perverted," in fact, must either be a Pecksniffian puritan or have serious, very very personal issues with fantasies of child abuse that are simply being externalized.
Buy, Sell or What:
All right! Let's get it straight! When an Irish Traveller couple get engaged, nobody is bought, nobody is sold. Where do the stories of large dowries come into the picture? First of all: they're exaggerations three times over at least; after the bride's father makes his offer to the groom's family, it's exaggerated; after the word starts spreading around among Travellers, it's exaggerated further; and finally when the media reports the "may be as high as" amount, it may well have been distorted hyperbolically.
In fact, relatively few Irish Travellers are in any better financial position to throw around serious money than your average middle-class country person is. But they would make a special effort in this case, because in one fashion or another that money will be devoted to setting up the young couple with good start on their own home and business.
So if the "big" money is not for buying brides, what exactly is it for?
It's not just for trucks and cars anymore. Or maybe it is. Again, a disclaimer: there are Irish Travellers, whose judgment I respect, that state there is no such established custom among us and I would certainly agree that I am not personally familiar with any such arrangements. For purposes of explication, however, let's explore further how such an engagement "contract" might work in the event that it would be rarely encountered.
Remember that "test" I mentioned, where the fiancé goes to work for his intended's family (for mere subsistence) instead of his own. Well, this period of servitude represents a valuable service for which he and his family might be compensated, often in the form of a direct dowry or its equivalent. The better the groom's reputation and his family's history as providers, the more the bride's family will try to accumulate for the purpose.
I imagine the choices they make in setting a suitable figure are complicated ones, with more than a few amicable, cultural and humane considerations to take into account.
In a way, the groom's family is not gaining a daughter; they are losing a son somewhat. Sociologists call our generational family structure "matrilocal," meaning merely that the bride and groom will generally travel and/or live in the vicinity of her family, not his. This provides the distaff half of the new family with a supportive group of kith and kin that is rarely matched among country people. It also means that the groom's responsibilities to the welfare of his immediate extended family are then primarily beneficial to his in-laws.
Sometimes, a brother and sister of one family will marry a sister and brother of another (rarely simultaneously) to balance the books, so to speak.
Should an arranged engagement grow to be onerous for either party, it is simply called off. In cases where families have a firm agreement, and the individuals wish to marry others, "face" and inter-family concord can be saved by an elopement of the would-be lovers, who are generally "forgiven" shortly following their honeymoon
3. Endogamous marriage (Travellers marrying Travellers, in this case).
This one is really a hot potato. First, the obvious disclaimer: I am no expert about genetics. Even if I were, I would not be able to locate enough statistically significant data to draw any valid conclusions. About all I can provide are a few general observations and some anecdotal information about my own families' (Traveller and country people, both) heredity over the last few generations.
I will provide links to other, more authoritative, web sites to provide technical definitions and details that might support (or contradict) my own general, non-authoritative, observations. Most of those links will appear to be ordinary text words or phrases, set apart only by the color changes (and generally underlined) that your browser reserves for hypertext links. In that way, it is hoped that the main points of discourse will not be obscured by constant definitions and justifications that I myself really do not comprehend well enough to simplify for others. In other words, cousins, I'm trying my best not to be just a clob thoosik. If you intend to follow those links to learn more about the subject, it is suggested that you first access a glossary of technical terms and print it out if you have a printer. My own observations will not require that much devotion to detail.
You would think that an endogamous ethnic group sensitive and vulnerable to outsiders' charges of inbreeding would either change their ways or just pretend that bad things never happen to good people with respect to having healthy children. But we can do neither, any more than we can be "tamed" into working for others as wage slaves.
The glory of the Travelling Life is the family connection. Those who "marry out" predominantly fall away from the Life. But those who remain Travellers, almost all, possess an extended family relationship that country people rarely if ever experience. In so many cases, our kith and kin are the same; i.e., our entire social group is "family." And even though that family may be spread over millions of square miles (no exaggeration in the U.S.A.), there is a communication network among Travellers that would be the envy of Silicon Valley, were the Jolly Giants who inhabit that valley only aware of it.
When a Traveller is born, all the pertinent details may be available to a thousand others within a two or three day period. I say this with envy more than pride because I am only half-Traveller and was never fully immersed in the Life long enough to have a place of my own within, except out on the very fringes. Even my traveling years were mostly solitary.
My brother and I have a private joke that our family tree is all trunk. Actually though, we had two aunts, as well as our mother, who married "out" and one who married "in" to her second cousin (it might have been her first cousin, once removed). All of the children in my generation were healthy but, as adults, some hereditary problems began to show up: heart problems and type-II diabetes among the "outs," but nothing adverse among the "ins."
Go figure! The hereditary problems that I know of were all the result of dominant genes contributed by two of the three country men, while the single marriage between cousins produced three full-blooded Irish Travellers without any congenital abnormalities at all (which is the normal result, contrary rumors notwithstanding).
Anyway, we know full well that bad things happen to good people with respect to the health of their newborns. With such connectivity in our group, Travellers are bound to be at least ten times more cognizant of such problems, even though they may occur less frequently than among country people.
Less frequently: is that possible?
Sure it is. Let's face facts. After the Famine in Ireland about a dozen Irish Traveller family branches came to the U.S.A. over a twenty or thirty year period which saw the population of the Old Country shrink by 50%. Some say up to half of the remainder died; certainly half or more scratched and clawed their way out to a new life overseas. Among the sturdiest of those, and the only ones who have not been fully assimilated in the intervening century or more, were the Irish Travellers.
I can't say, but a thousand such immigrants sounds like a reasonable starting population in the USA to me, at the outside perhaps. And the Travellers who have remained so are descended, for the most part, from various combinations of that limited gene pool for up to six generations. Oh sure, I know personally of one Scottish Traveller family and some country people who have merged with the Irish, and there are probably more than a few others but in the main it all goes back to those original thousand. And don't forget: the group from which they sprang were generally considered endogamous in the old country.
And this is a good thing?
I think that it may be construed so. Bad genes exist in everyone; the average human being is said to possess as many as twenty or so recessive genes that, only when mated to another like carrier, can lead to an hereditary disorder in some of their offspring (25% of their children, on average). There are over fifteen thousand such disorders but fortunately the occurrence of most of them is relatively rare even though the individual recessive genes themselves that cause them (only when they meet their match) are common. The Texas Department of Health has some excellent information on the most common disorders and the subject of newborn screening at their web site.
Especially good news:
Especially good news for the Irish Travellers is that, unlike Tay-Sachs or sickle-cell anemia, there are no such diseases known to be unique to us as an ethnic group. In general, except if there already has been a history of occurrence within certain families, a Traveller really has no greater chance of making an unfortunate match genetically by marrying a third or fourth cousin, as opposed to a country person. One of the good things about being an Irish Traveller is that our five or six generation genetic cocktail mixer will have already established the occurrence of the most common genetic disorders or their complete absence, through our anecdotal history and standard new-born screenings.
Travellers in Ireland:
In a study conducted among Travellers in Ireland by The Health Research Board in Dublin about twelve years ago, even second cousin marriages showed no particular increase in hereditary disorders, with first cousin marriages showing some increase in congenital anomalies, "not reaching statistical significance."
It's important here to differentiate between "congenital anomalies" or "birth defects," and hereditary diseases. I think a good estimate of frequency is that about one third of birth defects are the result of hereditary disorders in neonates and infants and two thirds are the result of just bad luck, malpractice, pollution, chemical dependency; who knows what?
The numbers in that Irish study, relating to hereditary factors, simply boiled down to this:
There was no significant difference between Travellers and country people except for metabolic disorders (which were the result of pairing recessive genes),
There was a rate of 12.4 metabolic disorders per 1,000 births among Traveller births vs. only 1.3 per 1,000 for country people,
There was insufficient information in the report to ascribe risk factors accurately to different kinship levels but as a "worst case scenario" we will assume that all of the births involving metabolic disorders were the result of matings between couples more closely related than the second cousin level,
As drastic as the above figures look when presented in the way of all such reports, they are only assessable properly when inverted: 98.76% of Traveller first-cousin or double first-cousin couples in the Irish 1987 study gave birth to babies that were free of known hereditary metabolic disorders. The equivalent percentage for virtually unrelated country people would be 99.87%, an improvement in this respect of a little over one percent,
Two of the aforementioned metabolic disorders encountered among the Traveller births were incurable by the way, unfortunately; the remainder were ordinarily diagnosed with routine hospital screening of the newborns and could be successfully treated to ensure a normal life for the affected child.
It is not my place to make recommendations about such personal, critical matters to any individuals or families who might be concerned enough about potential problems in the future to follow up on this essay. I will only say that effective genetic counseling is available and, as I understand it, individual and family privacy is generally assured and the Roman Catholic attitudes toward abortion, when stated at the outset, are fully respected as a matter of professional ethics.
I would recommend to country people, especially the media, that they mind their own business. Marriages of first-cousins are legal in 19 states and every other country of which I am aware. Second-cousins or more distant relatives may legally marry in any state in the Union. For those who find justification in religion, there is no ban on first- or second-cousin marriage in the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church ordinarily has no problem with issuing dispensations to allow the blessing of such unions. For those who bow to Evolution, Charles Darwin married his own first cousin.
For the rest, does the phrase "a woman's right to choose" mean nothing to you beyond her obligation, as you see it, to inflict death on her unborn child? This, too, involves a "woman's right", the right to be free from the sanctimonious condemnation by inference that passes for media coverage. You (especially you, "Dateline") seem to simply accept the American epidemic of drinking, smoking, drug abusing, HIV infected couples issuing a multitude of dying children each year. Why? Because they are too commonplace in your familiar society to generate ratings? But Irish Travellers? For some inexplicable reason, you have deemed us to be exotic and ratings-worthy. What next. . .?
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