The 'Tinkers' in Irish Literature
By José Lanters
Irish travellers or 'tinkers' have appeared as characters in Irish literature since the early nineteenth century. Representations of this semi-nomadic cultural and ethnic minority in works by non-traveller authors almost invariably function in some way within the context of Irish identity politics, whereby the 'tinker' often serves as a 'primitive' Other to a modern, civilized Irish Self. This study considers the 'tinker' character in a large body of serious and popular literary texts, some well known, others rarely if ever discussed, and traces how the literary construct of the 'tinker' figure as domestic or foreign Other evolves over time. Three chapters concentrate on specific historical contexts, as the 'tinker' shifts from being a relatively straightforward scapegoat in the literature of the early nineteenth century, to being a more complex and ambiguous embodiment of both the aspirations and anxieties of the Anglo-Irish writers of the Revival, to being a barometer of aspects of modernity and regression in the mid-twentieth-century Irish Republic. Three further chapters focus on thematic contexts that have particular relevance for the development of the 'tinker' figure: children's literature from and about Ireland; fabulist narratives, particularly those with plot configurations derived from Celtic mythology; and crime and detective fiction set in Ireland. Finally the way in which individual travellers represent themselves in autobiographical narratives of the late twentieth century is considered, often in response to the fictional 'tinker' stereotype that has persisted in sedentary society and its cultural expressions for centuries.
Publication Date: 6/1/2008