ACROss the board
February 1996

A boy plays in a scrap yard with cast‑off artifacts. Is the scene a damning metaphor for our times? Information highway as vast wasteland? Actually, young Paddy Joyce has traveled many roads, but the information highway isn't one of them.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark came across the boy playing in a Travellers' encampment in Dublin. The Travellers are native Irish nomads numbering 21,000, with their own history, culture, and a distinct language called Gammon. Like Romany Gypsies elsewhere in Europe, Irish Travellers shun permanent housing, preferring to live in trailer caravans, moving from encampment to encampment. In this way, they keep close ties with their extended clans, within which marriages are still arranged. To Travellers, family stability is more important than stability of place.

Like the Gypsies, Irish Travellers have generally been held in low esteem by their settled neighbors. The Irish government further stigmatized them as "the itinerant problem," whose solution was forced settlement and assimilation. But now, recognized as a unique ethnic group dating back to at least the 13th century, Travellers are finally gaining a modicum of respect. They're also gaining a political voice through the Irish Travellers Movement, which protests the destruction of traditional campsites and calls for basic services like education and health care consistent with their nomadic lifestyle.

The term "Traveller" is itself an effort to promote a more positive image. Known for centuries as Tinkers -after their tinsmithing trade‑ the Travellers may be descendants of Ireland's first craftsmen and commercial traders, their wandering ways an outgrowth of having to find customers among broadly scattered farms. Their marketing ingenuity continues to this day in a wide range of trades, including recycling high‑tech scraps like this computer.

Settling down, however, is still anathema to Travellers. Said one senior nomad upon hearing that his grandson had moved into a house, "That's all very well for the winter‑but how will you feel when the spring comes in, and you'll see the bumblebee buzzing at your window?"