Travelling back in time


More than 40 years ago, two Americans researched the Travelling community in Dublin, and now they have come back for an emotional reunion, and brought an entire archive of images with them

IN 1970, AMERICAN anthropology student Sharon Gmelch found herself on a field-training programme in Ireland. Her initial research began in Fenagh, where she was joined by her husband George, an ex-professional baseball player, who also studied anthropology. They undertook what was the most substantial study of the life and culture of Ireland’s Travelling community at that time. Both conducted interviews, and George took 2,400 photographs of the community based at Holylands, near present day Rathfarnham, in Dublin. The images form the basis of a new documentary, Unsettled – From Tinker to Traveller, and were yesterday handed over to the National Folklore Collection in UCD.

Ireland 40 years ago was a vastly different landscape, but the Travellers were very much a part of it. “When we visited, we were learning about the Irish, as well as the travelling community,” says Sharon, speaking from her San Francisco home. “Certainly we were aware that they were ‘apart’ from the rest of society and were much poorer. What really stood out though, was how frank and open they were. They had opinions and weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions.”

Sharon and George were intent on asking questions of their own, and knew that establishing trust was critical. Having rented a flat in Rathgar, they decided to assimilate themselves into the community by living on site in a barrel-top caravan.

“Initially, they were a little forbidding,” says Sharon. “Children are always the first to approach you in these situations. The women were matronly. The men were yellow-fingered, rough and very wary.”

“They had no cognitive category for an anthropologist,” adds George, “so we had to get to know them by investing time and talking to them.”

In the 1970s, the couple was aware of just one other study of the Travelling community, undertaken by a sociologist. In the weeks before their arrival, there was a suspected suicide at Holylands, and initially the families assumed them to be gardaí.

Mutual curiosity evolved into respect and friendship, with Sharon and George invited to nights out at the cinema or pub. While research and interviews were an important element of their study, photographs became an ancillary means of cataloguing the distinct culture. “We realised the value of photos to the Travellers themselves,” says George, “not only because had they never owned cameras, but they were a non-literate population. Visually it was a critical way for them to relate to what we were doing.”

Last summer, 40 years on from their 13-month stint at Holylands, the Gmelchs returned to Ireland to seek out the families they had met in the 1970s. Filmmaker Liam McGrath discovered the Gmelchs’ story while researching his documentary, Blood of the Travellers. “Their names kept coming up and I contacted them to get clearance for photos I wanted to use. They came to see me when they arrived in Ireland last year, and it occurred to me that someone should document the reunion.”

The Travelling community has long held an interest for McGrath. As well as Blood of the Travellers, he directed the critically acclaimed Southpaw, about boxer Francie Barrett. McGrath has a long-established relationship with many Traveller families, but he had other reasons for revisiting the community. “When I made those documentaries, lots of important themes came up, like suicide and the mortality rate for men, but we just didn’t go there. It felt like unfinished business, and that people might feel ready to talk about it now.”

Families opened up to the Gmelchs on their return, and George feels the root of the issue is bound up with male identity and changes within Traveller life. “Years ago the men would trade horses and collect scrap metal. Those livelihoods aren’t there any more, so they feel adrift. They don’t know what their role is supposed to be. Many of the younger men are trying to fill that void with sport, but others are having a very tough time.”

Travellers’ lives have changed, and Sharon feels that the biggest development has been in the lives of women. “Traveller women have acquired more power; their role has more recognised authority, more security. Women are more involved in training programmes and outreach groups. They look back at their mothers’ lives and see that profound change.”

Representations of the Travelling community in media and popular culture are often confined to the singular stereotypes of programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Ostentatious weddings and gravity-defying dresses are reductive shorthand for an entire culture. The show has crossed the Atlantic, where the Gmelchs have seen and are dismayed by it. “Many of the families told us there are ‘no more poor Travellers’ any more, and while they are clearly better off, there is still so much to be done.”

Their return culminated in resurgent observations and feelings. “It was really interesting to see how a people and a culture had changed, but also to see how vastly different Ireland was,” says George. “People were glad to see us, which was heart-warming. You don’t want to exploit the people you study, but it was clear that lots of the kids knew us – and there was one George, and two Sharons called after us. It was a very reciprocal relationship. Returning after 40 years felt like a high-school reunion.”

“It was better than a high-school reunion,” laughs Sharon. “It was a very emotional experience to reconnect with these people.”

Unsettled – From Tinker to Traveller is on RTÉ One on Monday at 9.35pm