Gypsy Lore

The World of Books

The recent incident involving two fair-haired Roma children being taken into protection by the Garda has raised concerns about the arbitrary intervention of the State in some circumstances. It also revealed, which is of just as much concern, that folklore about Roma, or Romany, or Gypsies, is rife in Ireland. Merely changing the name hardly addresses the problem.

In Victor Hugoís novel Notre Dame de Paris (1831), it will be remembered that Esmerelda, the gypsy girl, is seen as a disturbing influence on the settled society of medieval Paris.

Lords of Little Egypt

It was then thought that the wanderers came from Egypt, hence the name and the nick name ëthe Lords of Little Egyptí. Though many of the Roma in Ireland today come from Romania, the people as a whole are thought to have originated in what is now Pakistan. They plied their trades as metal workers and horse coopers across the Near East and Eastern Europe, before arriving in France, Italy, Spain and eventually England. They are particularly associated with the festival of Saintes Maries de la Mer in Provence.

They came into England towards the end of the 17th Century and were generally to be found in East Anglia, where they often adopted the names of local landowners.

True gypsies were rare in Ireland. Here the tinkers (once a descriptive name, not insult) were of Irish origin at some remote date.

But whatever about their origins and travels, the gypsies, like the tinkers, had an established place in the economy of previous centuries. As metal workers they brought special skills to remote communities, when metal cooking pots and utensils were expensive. As horse traders in when the whole of society depended on horses for transport and for power they also played an essential role. Moving as they did from fair to fair, never settling in one place, any social problems were really on a minor scale.

Though it was then that the myth of the child stealing gypsy arose. Though they undoubtedly are fond of children, they are also cautions of involvement with the settled folk and try to stay out of the trouble such thefts would bring.

Wandering life

The wandering life of the gypsies was perceived as free one. The idea that they came from Bohemia gave rise to the idea of artistic bohemia outside settled society. Through artists and writers a current of admiration was created.

George Borrow, the author of Wild Wales, wrote early in his career The Zincali (1841) on the gypsies of Spain, and later his most famous books Lavengro and The Romany Rye. He was not alone. Theodore Watt-Dunton, John Sampson, Dora Yates, Augustus John and others were all involved in establishing the Gypsy Lore Society.  Our own Walter Starkey, both in Spain and in Eastern Europe, was also an aficionado of the folk. This love affair of the bohemia with the gypsies lasted down to WWII. However, it and the gypsy's wandering way of life did not really survive the arrival of the welfare age.

Instead of being a quasi-mystic race with an ancient ancestry and a rich culture of their own, travelling folk became a social problem. And so they remain, even when as now they are often confused with Irish Travellers on television shows.

The arrival of Roma, settled Gypsies from Eastern Europe brought another aspect to the problem, for they were perceived not as scrap metal and car dealers, but as a simple nuisance. The Roma, however, have been deskilled by the way of life imposed on them in Romania.

The recent problems exposed ancient anxieties and animosities of the settled communities. There is little respect for the Lords of Little Egypt today. Perhaps what we need to recover some of that fascination and respect which writers and artists once had for the Gypsies. 

Fears and fictions need to be replaced, not just by the token respect which is so abundant these days, but by real respect and admiration for a people of ancient origin and well developed culture.