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Behind the Veil

Photographer Alen MacWeeney wanted to see Ireland's Travellers as they were

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In the summer of 1965, an Irish photographer named Alen MacWeeney came to a field on the outskirts of Dublin that was strewn with scrap metal and stippled with sheds and the small covered wagons the Irish call caravans. Cherry Orchard, as the field was named, was an improvised campsite of Travellers, Ireland's traditionally nomadic ethnic minority. Something like gypsies—though unrelated to them—the Travellers were more commonly called "Tinkers" back then, since many did a bit of metalwork to mitigate their often dire poverty.

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MacWeeney entered Cherry Orchard somewhat fearfully; he shared the deep mistrust of Travellers common to middle-class Dubliners at the time. He was hoping to get a picture of a Traveller woman for a photo essay on William Butler Yeats' poems, one of which describes a girl dancing "a tinker shuffle / Picked up on a street." He intended to get the necessary shot as quickly as possible and move on. Instead, he kept coming back for half a decade.

Though Travellers are known as a closed and clannish bunch, MacWeeney had no trouble making friends in Cherry Orchard and the other camps he went on to visit. The Travellers found it endlessly amusing to listen to the recordings he made of their singing, since most had never heard themselves before. They appreciated the rapt attention he paid to the folk tales they told him, and they treasured the portraits he gave them, sometimes fashioning foil frames for them out of chocolate wrappers. "He'd sit down with us all, light the fire, like one of our own.... He had time for you like," says Kitty Flynn, a Traveller woman MacWeeney befriended.

"I felt a need to show the world (or at least Dublin) what it had dismissed and overlooked," MacWeeney writes in his just published book, Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More. The book includes several dozen photographs taken between 1965 and 1971: of weddings and funerals, of work and play, of grown men horsing around and of children who seem far older than they are. ("It must have the longest history of almost getting published," he says, sounding both exasperated and relieved.) The squalor visible throughout is merely incidental; like the best portraits, MacWeeney's capture the dignity of each subject. Some of the photographs had previously been published and admired, particularly those of Traveller children; the image MacWeeney chose for the cover of his book is of a young girl playfully holding a scrap of cellophane over her face, opposite.

Without meaning to, MacWeeney became one of the foremost amateur anthropologists of Traveller culture. He recorded Kitty Flynn singing "Lovely Willie" because he thought her voice was beautiful and the song deep and soulful. He recorded her father as he told tale after tale because he thought the old man was funny and could spin a good yarn. But when MacWeeney finally took leave of his Traveller friends (to look for a publisher and "to pick up my neglected career," he says), he donated his recordings of their music and folklore to University College Dublin; it was the largest collection of Traveller-related material the institution had ever received.

Though there are more Irish Travellers today than ever (there were some 7,000 in the early 1960s; they now number about 25,000), the way of life that MacWeeney documented has all but vanished. Beginning in the '60s, the Irish government began to curb Travellers' freedom to travel. The sight of them on the roadside was an eyesore to many settled Irish, says MacWeeney, so Travellers were increasingly corralled into campsites and encouraged to live less peripatetic lives. Now, many younger Travellers choose to become "buffers"—settled people—and move into cities, where many feel ashamed of their distinctive accent. "Things is dying away," says Kitty, now 66, most of whose 14 children have married into settled life. "At that time things was better," she says of the era captured by MacWeeney.

Ten years ago, the photographer returned to Traveller camps to make a documentary film about his old friends. "Some had died, some had gone away; others picked up with me as though I'd only gone down to the corner for a pint of milk," he writes. But most of them had settled into houses or campsites.

Wherever he went, MacWeeney showed the photograph of the girl with the cellophane, asking who she was, what had become of her and how he might locate her. Someone said she might have been called Mary Ward. "We found everybody, with the exception of that girl," he says. Whether she remained in a Traveller camp or settled in the city, whether she sang Traveller songs to her children and passed on the tales she had been told, and whether she will recognize herself peering through cellophane on the cover of MacWeeney's book is anybody's guess.

David Zax is an intern at Smithsonian.

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