Heritage, culture and language

Who are Irish Travellers?

Irish Travellers refer to themselves as Pavees, Minkiers or in Irish ‘an lucht siúil’ meaning ‘the walking people’. They are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions including their own secret language.

  • Irish Travellers were recognised as an official ethnic minority group in 2000 in the UK and just very recently in 2017 in Ireland.
  • There is evidence that Irish Travellers separated from the rest of the Irish population at least 1,000 years ago.

Travellers in a wagon

Life on the road

A pot of food cooking on an open fire

A Traveller wagon is primarily a home, not a vehicle. Travellers use a cart (sometimes called a dray) as people today would use a car. They both need to be pulled by an experienced horse or there will be trouble!

  • The ideal ‘pull-in’ would have firm and level ground.
  • A good pitch would have a good water supply nearby.
  • Journey times would be determined by the weather and the seasons and often at the last minute.
  • Life on the road could be very tough with no running water or electricity. A chittie iron or tripod would be used to heat water.
  • Women would ‘go calling’ or hawking to sell wares which could include paper flowers, lace and lavender.
  • A typical evening meal for Irish Travellers would be coddle or spuds and cabbage with soda bread.


This was one of the main trades of the Irish Traveller.

Tinsmiths make and repair items such as water pitchers, forks, spoons, and candle holders made from tin and other light materials.

A Traveller working with tin


The Gypsy or Traveller leaves a ‘patteran’ on a vacated pitch to indicate where they are heading.

A patteran could be a hazel stick banded in a certain way.



Irish Travellers have a rich oral tradition of tales and songs that stretches back hundreds, possibly thousands of years.

As a transient community they relied on self-made entertainment, writing songs and telling stories about the Traveller way of life. Traditional Gaelic storytellers and song writers were called ‘seanachies.’

The community have played an important role in keeping many great songs in circulation and shaping Irish folk tradition as we know it. The lyrical vocal ornamentation of the Irish Traveller tradition has been compared to ‘sean nos’ or ‘old style’ Irish singing, developed by singers at the court of the kings of old Ireland.

Horses and Horse Fairs

Attending horse fairs is an important tradition for many Traveller and Gypsy families. It is a place where they can buy and sell horses, meet with friends and family and celebrate their music, history and heritage.

  • One of the most famous horse fairs is held each June in Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria.
  • Every year tens of thousands meet up including non-Travellers.
  • Some travel via horse-drawn wagons. It can take weeks to arrive but it is part of celebrating their heritage and culture.
  • Another important fair is held annually at Ballinasloe, in Ireland.

Traveller and Gypsy Cobs are known for their good nature and willingness to work harmoniously with their owner.

Here are some photos from a horse farir, including washing horses in the river Eden in Appleby so that they look their best before trading begins.

Irish Travellers today

Many Travellers live in modern ‘trailers’ (caravans) today. However, many have moved into housing due to a lack of land or for health and education reasons.

Gypsy and Traveller languages

Shelta is a language spoken by Irish Travellers. It is widely known as the Cant and De Gammon to its native speakers in Ireland. It was often spoken to exclude outsiders from understanding conversations.

Romani (or Romany) is actually several languages spoken by the Romani people. There are many varieties that are different enough to be considered languages in their own right. These include Vlax Romani and Sinte Romani.

Romani words:

  • Yog – Fire
  • Mush – Man
  • Rocker - To Speak
  • Kushti – Good
  • Drom – Road
  • Pani – Water

Cant words:

  • De feen – Man
  • De byor – Woman
  • Sooblik – Boy
  • Lackin – Girl
  • Krosh – Go/Come
  • Grula – Apple
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