Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

In vacant lots and campgrounds along Murfreesboro Road, the green tents would appear, suddenly but predictably, the first weekend of May every year for decades. The road would swarm with hundreds of people greeting one another, hugging like family, dancing and playing the old music.

Their faces told a story of life on the road. Their hands told a story of hard work. There was a familiarity in their countenances, as if all were leaflets clinging to different branches of a very expansive ancient tree.

When they first came, they came in wagons or on horseback, and when the 20th century aged, they came in trucks. The horses were still there, in trailers behind. Some came in dearer vehicles, and when they decamped, some left in “shiny new convertibles,” according to the newspaper.

Nashville’s papers gave an annual report on the visit — announcing the arrival and the departure and whether the weekend was a success. But in 1951, it wasn’t: “Cupid Fails To Make Score As Irish Nomads Leave Town,” The Tennessean reported.

“Irish Nomads” was the usual term for the clan for the first half of the century, and they didn’t seem to mind that, proud as they were of their link to the Emerald Isle. The group, however, would bristle at the name “Gypsy.” That term is long out of favor these days, but the Gormans, Costellos, Sherlocks, McNallys and Carrolls weren’t objecting to the term so much as being associated with a wholly different group of people.

Romani — the ethnic group most frequently associated with the word “Gypsy” — have a much-debated origin, though anthropologists more or less agree they came out of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The “Irish Nomads” — these days, the American branch prefers the term “Irish Travellers,” with two L’s, in the Old World fashion — are, as genetic testing has long since proven, exactly what they claim to be: Irish through and through. Even these days, even separated by an ocean from Ireland, there’s been little influx of non-Irish genes.

And that brings us back to 1951.

“The clan elders were at a loss to explain it,” the Tennessean story reads. “Every previous reunion here has climaxed in at least one, and usually several, marriages.” The old-timers blamed the draft. One suggested that perhaps the young women were becoming more independent and less tied to the old ways of meeting their love match in Nashville.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

From the Nashville Banner, April 30, 1938: “Scenes at the dance of the Irish Travelers last night when they opened the festivities at their annual conclave in Nashville, where they come once a year to have their babies christened, to marry and to bury their dead.”

The wedding Masses — and they were always Masses, as the Travellers were and are staunch Roman Catholics — were certainly a happy occasion, but that wasn’t the primary purpose of this annual confab in Tennessee’s capital.

In sections 14, 15 and 16 at Calvary Cemetery, the same names repeat: Costello, Gorman, Sherlock, McNally, Carroll. There are gravestones — often more elaborate and brightly colored than the rest nearby — dating back to the late 19th century, and they continue through the years. The latest burial was recent enough that on one April morning, the flowers were still at the plot, homage to the Royals and Chiefs showing that the decedent had ties to Kansas City.

The fact that a large, clannish family with ties crisscrossing across generations would all be buried together isn’t terribly unusual. What’s odd is that Nashville itself is not and has never really been a home base for the Travellers, though it’s obviously important to them.

These days, there are three main hometowns for the once-peripatetic group: Murphy Village, S.C.; White Settlement, Texas; and Memphis. In fact, they more or less live in the same neighborhoods in each of those three towns, be it in a subdivision of McMansions in South Carolina or in a mobile-home park near the airport in Memphis.

Nashville is relatively centrally located, yes, but the real reason for Travellers’ connection to Music City is, somehow, even more practical.

The story starts with Oliver Cromwell (naturally). In 1649, during the War of the Three Kingdoms, Cromwell — perhaps the most humorless and unpleasant head of state Britain has ever had, and that’s saying something — set out to conquer Ireland for the forces of the English Parliament, which was then at war with, among other people, England’s Royalists. Cromwell succeeded and thus began the Protestant Ascendency, which — to put it mildly — caused a wee spot of trouble for the next three-and-a-half centuries. In short, Cromwell dispossessed Catholic landowners, particularly in Ulster, much of which is now Northern Ireland, and replaced them with Protestant settlers from Great Britain.

Among those forced from their homes and land were the foundation stock of the Irish Travellers. Forced off their farms, they turned to other lines of work, some more legal than others. Being a pastoral people, they knew that horses and mules and donkeys and buying and selling equids put them on the road and out from the hated gaze of the English in the cities and towns.

From the home base in Castlereagh, they did well for themselves for the next two-hundred-odd years, though their seemingly rootless existence gave them a reputation for brigandage. They drove hard bargains too, which no doubt upset their more settled countrymen. And, yes, sometimes there was theft and fencing of stolen animals. There are no angels here.

The potato famine came in 1845, and like millions of other Irish people, Traveller Tom Carroll went west, across the Atlantic, landing in New York. He had success in the horse game in the New World, and more Travellers followed. Through the tumult of the Civil War, they moved steadily south, finding the agricultural economy of the Southern states more suitable to their trade. They’d make the rounds, following the weather, never staying anywhere more than a few weeks.

Nashville’s reputation as a central location is no 21st-century creation of the economic development gurus; the Travellers realized it long ago. From Nashville, it was an easy ride to the mule sales in Columbia and Gallatin and to the horse centers in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro. The city became a regular stop and a relatively lengthy one — so much so that by the 1880s, there was a more or less permanent community of Travellers using Nashville as a home base. In 1890, the Diocese of Nashville began building St. Patrick’s to serve the growing Irish population. (St. Lawrence’s in Joelton was built to serve the Italians and Assumption in Germantown for the Germans.) The local Travellers, of course, began attending Mass there, growing close to the parish priest, Father Timothy Abbott. 

When the out-of-town Travellers came to Nashville to do business, it was only natural they too would attend church at St. Patrick’s. Father Abbott dutifully ministered to them, taking confession and performing baptisms and marriages.

The post-Civil War economy in Nashville and the constant cycle of boom and bust during the Gilded Age put the diocese on rocky financial footing. Outside of tithes and general generosity, one of the main sources of income was the selling of plots at Calvary. And Abbott had a thought: Here’s a group of people who, unlike most of his parishioners, had hard cash. They were a large, tight-knit group, many with no true home parish. He convinced the Travellers to buy family plots at Calvary. And thus, no matter where they roamed, they always came back, settling on the first weekend of May, returning to Nashville to bury their dead. 

Starting with Father Abbott, the parish priest at St. Patrick’s would say requiem Masses for everyone. No matter when they died, they’d be buried around the first of May, a local undertaker doing the preparation and then sending the body to Finley Dorris in Nashville, the Travellers’ local mortician of choice. They’d order elaborate floral arrangements depicting walking sticks or caravans or broken wagon wheels (symbolic of a journey completed) from Joy’s, which also constructed a huge horse made of flowers — one stood “five hands high,” according to The Tennessean — that was the centerpiece of the burial ceremony.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

Calvary Cemetery

The register at Calvary isn’t sortable by date of burial. But if it were, the Gormans, Costellos, McNallys, Carrolls and Sherlocks would all group around May 1, with the notable exception of 1926, when the Travellers didn’t show up. Father Abbott told The Tennessean at the time that the group had been “unusually healthy this year.”

There’s a record at St. Patrick’s too, with a similar grouping of marriages and baptisms.

The former becoming an early-May Traveller tradition was an outgrowth of the funerals. With all the Travellers coming from “nine Southeastern states” — as The Tennessean and Nashville Banner dutifully reported every year — gathered together to bury their dead, the conclave became a reunion. And with the exception of the solemnity of the funeral, the weekend took on a celebratory vibe.

Eventually St. Patrick’s began hosting dances, sparking romances common enough that the local paper of record felt compelled to report when love didn’t bloom.

The Travellers both in America and the home country typically intermarry, thus the purity of their genetics. Of course, as Europe’s royals taught us, potential partners must be extraordinarily careful when coming together in matrimony, lest two people too closely related end up at the altar. Thus, it helped having the elders around, with their lengthy memories of Traveller history and knowledge of the consanguinity of various septs.

Because of the concerns about cousin-marriage, some weddings were — and are — at least “lightly arranged.” According to Irish Travellers: An Undocumented Journey Through History by South Carolina Traveller Mike Carroll, the practice is that the patriarchs of various families will sit down and negotiate an arrangement. These days, the would-be couple has the final say, though it’s rare that they’d reject the betrothal.

The Murphy Village Travellers caught the attention of South Carolina authorities in 2016 in part because of the practice. They were accused not of arranged marriages, which are legal, but of child marriage, which is not. The state’s Department of Social Services took six girls under allegations of sexual abuse. The girls were returned after three months. Travellers insist that while marriages may be planned while the would-be bride (and groom) are underage, none are actually married until the age of majority.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

From the Nashville Banner, April 30, 1938: “Scenes at the dance of the Irish Travelers last night when they opened the festivities at their annual conclave in Nashville, where they come once a year to have their babies christened, to marry and to bury their dead.”

Because of their closed nature, Travellers often catch the attention of authorities. It’s not always unwarranted, but oftentimes news coverage and press releases from district attorneys and police departments focus on the fact it’s Travellers, rather than on the crimes themselves. An unusual — but profitable and legal — practice often grabs the eye of state insurance investigators. As Mike Carroll explains in his book, Travellers realized that, under American practice, it’s very easy to be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy if one is a blood relation of the insured. 

Instead of horse and mule trading, many Travellers make their money off the deaths of their cousins or aunts or grandparents, with records of who is insured to whose benefit kept meticulously so it’s as fair as possible. But as with any group of people, temptation makes for malfeasance. Bernard “Little Joe” Gorman is in the fourth year of a 14-year sentence in Texas for murdering a housekeeper whom he and his father had insured — without her knowledge — for $1 million and then selling the policy on to a distant relation. The Texas Travellers do so much insurance investment, a Fort Worth agent did nothing but arrange policies for the Travellers of White Settlement. 

Gorman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. His father Gerard died before his trial. 

A review of Nashville’s newspaper archives, however, shows the Travellers more or less avoided running afoul of the law here. 

One notable exception came in 1943. Local farmer Albert Smiley claimed that, while the Travellers were in town for their annual rites, two men came and traded him two young mules for his two aged mules and $125.

“When Smiley tried to work the new team,” The Tennessean reported, “he found one of the animals ‘broken winded’ and absolutely worthless, while the other was ‘so slow and apathetic it was with difficulty he could be made to move at all.’ ”

Smiley claimed the Travellers returned a week later, saying that their conscience had worn on them for trading him bad mules. Thus, they offered to trade him two other mules in exchange for the ones they’d traded him earlier — plus $50. Smiley, who was apparently a very trusting man, agreed, only to find the two mules were even worse than the other pair. He sought $625 in total damages. 

The Travellers, perhaps thinking they’d gotten away with it, were still at their encampment on Murfreesboro Road and were served with the lawsuit May 26.

By 1948, there was concern among Traveller elders that the old tradition of the pilgrimage to their most sacred space was dying out. Only 100 people came to Nashville for a funeral that year, according to the Banner. Fewer young people were speaking the distinctive cant of the Travellers — called “Shelta” in Ireland, though the American branch typically just calls it “the Cant” — and were resorting to the common slang of the U.S. instead of the odd mixture of old Gaelic, English and the coded language of the carnival. One of the old-timers was forlorn that fewer of his bloodline were trading horses; they’d gone into farm equipment sales. (That’s still a common occupation among Travellers; Lord knows what the old-timer would have thought of complicated insurance swaps.)

That proved just a temporary blip, however, because the two best-attended Traveller gatherings came in the next three Mays. Between 1949 and 1951, as many as 3,000 Travellers came to Nashville in early May, even though by then some had taken to staying at Moore’s Motor Lodge (now a Scottish Inn) on Murfreesboro Road rather than in the bright-green tents. Jack Costello, who served as something of a spokesman to the press for the group during the period, tried to explain why it was so important to come to Nashville.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

An Irish Traveller’s Nashville funeral, 1938; via the Nashville Banner

He said the plots at Calvary are “the nearest thing to the ould sod this side of the Emerald Isle.”

Life on the road began to hold less appeal by the 1960s. By then, more Travellers were settling down. Encouraged by a priest (again), many began settling outside North Augusta, S.C., naming their town Murphy Village after the encouraging priest. 

There’s less need to have one big gathering once a year, so most of the time, the Travellers are laid to rest shortly after their death. Even so, as the aforementioned Kansas City Royals fan showed, many are still laid to rest here. Some of the Traveller families do make the trek to Nashville — funeral or not — in early May. 

The most recent interments that followed the May Day tradition were in 2005 and 2007. Oddly, both took place at Assumption with its priest — at the time Father Joseph Breen — saying the Mass, as St. Patrick’s was undergoing renovation.

But St. Patrick’s will always have a tie to the Travellers, who donated statues of the Infant of Prague and Our Lady of Perpetual Help to the parish as an expression to the decades of devotion and ministry the parish provided.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

St. Patrick Catholic Church, Infant of Prague, Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Travellers — like many groups who stay isolated from broader society either by choice, coercion or some combination thereof — are often misunderstood, caricatured (e.g., the exploitive “reality” series My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which featured some Travellers and few Romani) or denigerated. Sometimes it’s easier to isolate and keep the old ways than risk persecution. 

Mike Carroll is hard to track down, unless a newspaper or TV news report highlights the Traveller background of an alleged criminal. If it happens anywhere in the country, he fires off a letter to the editor, pointing out that Ireland, and by extension, the European Union, recognizes Travellers as an ethnic group and that characterizing them as a gang or a criminal enterprise is akin to suggesting, say, all Italians are mafiosi or that all Salvadorans are in MS-13.

Because they’ve been under the thumb of some external power structure since Cromwell’s forces won at Rathmines, the Travellers have found it necessary to keep  to themselves. More than 400 years of often coldly rational decisions have kept them going, thriving enough that Murphy Village is dotted with as many million-dollar homes as it is mobile homes.

And it was a rational decision by a priest and his peripatetic parishioners more than a century ago that made Nashville a sacred place and sacred destination, even now, even if rarely.

Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

From the Nashville Banner, April 30, 1938: “An Irish lassie and a laddie step to modern music while the other folk sit by and sigh for the old Irish dancers. Many of the men adhere to the old custom of wearing hats indoors.”

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