When asked by an interviewer about the plight of the unemployed, McLaren declared: “So what if you don’t have a job? I came back to England and everybody looks like bank clerks to me. They look like they’re very, very worried, about their future, about money. There’s a greyness in the culture that’s beating everyone down to a pulp. I think Thatcher really likes it that people are worried.” McLaren’s advice to the jobless was “Be a pirate. Wear gold and look like you don’t need a job.”
-(emphasis mine) From Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynalds
They often value visible signs of wealth.
Although Malcolm McLaren’s “be a pirate” quote was referencing the above look he designed for Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, I thought it applied equally to Irish Travellers. When compared to the polite dullness that often is English culture, the Travellers stand out like a chunks of tropical fruit floating in grey porridge.
Last year, I was sick and bedridden for a while. I had no energy to concentrate on anything, so I just watched a lot of TV shows on my laptop. One of the more addictive shows that I found was My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on the BBC. Like most popular British shows that are cheap to make and enjoyably mindless (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Pop Idol), there is now an American version. The show is basically about the wedding rituals, and more broadly, the lives, of England’s Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities.
Americans probably best know of Irish Travellers from Brad Pitt’s character Mickey O’Neil in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch, which definitely contains many aspects of real Irish traveler culture put through Ritchie’s hyperkinetic Mockney filter.
From what I can see on the show, Irish Travellers do indeed hold their family above all else, take pride in their fighting skills, and are fond of a good caravan.
The thing that you’d immediately notice as different between the movie version and the TV version is that latter is considerably more blinged out. The Travellers on Gypsy Wedding would have to sleep in a ditch for a week before they’d look as sweaty and bedraggled as Brad Pitt and his clan. The crisp, clean specimens on Gypsy Wedding are always wearing boxfresh cloths and seem to be going to the barbers every other episode. Witness Paddy Doherty, like Mickey O’Neil, an Irish Traveller bare knuckle fighter:
The other thing most people seem to notice is that young Traveler girls don’t wear a lot of clothes. And the ones they do wear often aren’t what conventional middle class culture would deem tasteful.
However, the show takes great pains to point out that despite dressing like prostitutes-in-training, the Traveller girls are held to standards of conduct much closer to Saudi Arabia than mainstream British society. Girls are generally not allowed out of the house on their own. All dates must be chaperoned. Young couples are never allowed to be alone. This odd combination of unabashed body flaunting and conservative sexual mores makes for great television.
Many of the weddings occur as soon as is legally possible in the UK, within a week of the bride’s 16th birthday (with her virginity still intact, natch). Most of the girls drop out of school at around age 12, to care for their younger siblings and take care of the house. After watching scene after scene of 16 year girls scrubbing caravans with soapy water and hand towels in between rounds of corralling their 5 younger siblings, I can see why these girls would want to leave. Some say as much, that they figure that there would at least be less work to do when living with their new husband.
This leads me to ask what the girls’ mothers are doing all day? If their elder daughters are cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children, what are the mothers up to? It’s established early on in the series that Traveller women don’t work, so I can only imagine all of these mothers are sitting off camera, smoking cigarettes and watching soap operas all day. If you figure you only need to work as a mother from age 17, when you have your first child, to age 30, when your eldest daughter can take over, perhaps it’s not such a bad deal.
As gets stated at least once an episode, the wedding date is the most important day in these girls lives; it’s their chance to be queen for a day. Most of the girls want voluminous dresses filled with thousands of feet of fabric that end up weighing more than them.
Apparently, the most prized dresses are made by a dressmaker from Liverpool named Thelma Madine, who is often featured on the show making dresses and also appears as a sort of Gypsy expert who drops pearls of wisdom like, “I think the Traveler girls are definitely second class citizens.” Thelma has a great Scouse accent, a fondness for plastic surgery, and the odd combination of being both larger-than-life and down-to-earth that the British public seems to eat up. She has parlayed her early appearances on the show into classic English D-list celebrity status (tabloid profiles, autobiography, spin off show).
One of my complaints about the show is they sometimes treat the Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities interchangeably. Referring to Irish travelers as “gypsies” is already confusing, as to me a “gypsy” is someone of Romany descent. Also, watching the show feature a half-dozen Irish Travellers for every Romany they focus on, you’d never guess that statistically the vast majority of Travellers in the UK are of Romany Gypsy background. I admit I was also thrown off because the Romany on the show are much lighter skinned and more Anglo looking than the gypsies I’ve seen in continental Europe. Add to this the Irish Traveller girls’ penchant for tanning (there seems to be at least one tanning booth or spray tanning scene each episode) and things can get really confusing.
Irish Traveller girls
I had assumed that the light complexion of the Romany in the show was due to intermarriage with some pale Brits somewhere along the way, since the Romany people have been in England since the 16th century (as documented by the “Egyptian Act” of 1530).
This or may not be true, as the literature I am reading online about it is taking great pains to establish the fact that identifying the Romany with dark skin is some terrible pseudoscience relic of the Victorian era on par with phrenology:
The myth of the pure bred Romani (or real Gypsy) romanticised by Victorian folklorists is no more than a myth. Romani academics such as Professor Ian Hancock and Doctor Brian Belton have revealed that there never was a race of pure bred, dark-skinned nomads and exposed a far more interesting truth: five hundred years after arriving in Britain, the Romanies of Britain today are much as they always
were – a hybrid nation made up of the descendents of original Indian nomads, sturdy
beggars, landless poor and the economically displaced.
Since the show does have the pretense of being a documentary, I wish they had put more effort towards showing the two communities as being more distinct entities. I understand that there is a considerable amount of cross-pollination and shared interests (self-employment, horses, and, of course, travelling) between the two, but it does them both a disservice by not being more clear about which customs and traditions are Irish Traveller and which are Romany. For instance, in this open letter to the show’s producers, a teen of Romany descent claims to have never heard of “grabbing,” a courtship ritual featured prominently in the show where boys physically drag a girl they’re interested in outside and try to badger them into giving up a kiss.
If this has made you at all curious or interested, you can watch the first episode here:
If this hooks you, every single episode and spinoff and Christmas special has been uploaded by Youtube user TheCobraUK.