Thursday, May 31, 2012
Name Post: Names that Travel
The Travelers I spoke with today in Galway were of a particular kind. Although most people in Ireland are travelers, the Travelers with a capital “T” are a traditionally nomadic group of ethnic Irish origin. In Ireland, Travelers are often referred to as “tinkers” or “knackers,” while in other countries, people more frequently use the terms “gypsies” to describe them. In their own language, they call themselves Pavee, and in the Irish language they’re called Lucht Siúil, which means “the walking people.”
They are also called a lot of other things, many of which are not by choice. When I went in to talk to a group of female Travelers at the Galway Travelers' Movement this morning about names, it ended up mainly being a conversation about discrimination. For many of these women, throughout their daily lives in Galway, there’s been a fine line between names and name-calling. The 2006 census determined that Travelers make up about 0.5% of the Irish population today (there are close to 40,000 Travelers in Northern Ireland and the Republic combined). Perhaps because they are such a small minority, the discrimination they face seems to receive little attention.
Ellen Angela, who goes by “Nell” at home, is due with her first baby in October. She plans to name the baby Martin Joseph, after her boyfriend’s father. She told me when she went to the hospital for one of her appointments, the nurse at the front desk asked her if she was part of the Traveling Community. “I told her ‘yes,’” she said, “and she made a mark of it in the computer. I don’t know why she did that. I don’t know what it has to do with having a baby.”
Names play a crucial role in their stories of discrimination. They told me most people in Ireland could recognize Travelers by their surnames (common Traveler surnames in Galway include McDonaugh, Stokes, Sweeney, and Ward). Every woman in the room had stories of being turned away from clubs and bars in Galway. It is not a coincidence that those are places where you have to show your ID. They told me they believed it was harder for Travelers to get jobs based on their surnames as well. When I asked them if they knew anyone who ever thought about changing a surname (or using a different one on a resume), they told me they didn’t know anyone who would go that far. “That would be terrible,” one woman told me. “That’s not who you are.”
It quickly became clear to me that names are a fundamental part of their cultural identities, despite the fact that their naming traditions seem quite similar to the rest of the Irish population (or “the settled people”, as the women referred to non-Travelers). In the Traveling community, first sons are named after their paternal grandfather, second sons after the maternal grandmother, and so on. Four of the five women I spoke with had been named after their aunts. Passing on names through families isn’t an unusual trend to find in Ireland, but in Traveling communities, it's particularly significant.
There is even a name for the naming. This custom is called “getting titled.” I noticed it when one woman talked about how if she ever had a child she had to be sure to name him after her father, “So he’d be titled." They spoke of people “getting titled,” people who had already “been titled,” and someone who is “being entitled.” I love this phrase. It’s one that’s been unnamed but central to my research all year, central to so many people I’ve come across, like the Zambian man who told me he couldn't afford a camera, so he named his children after relatives who had died to remember them. The phrase seems to signify that in passing on a name, you are turning it into a title--ennobling it by sharing it with others.
I wonder if one reason why the tradition of passing on names is particularly important is because the life expectancy for Travelers is so much lower than the general population. A 2007 study showed that over half of Travelers do not live past the age of 39 years. This is due to a variety of factors, including first and foremost that there is often less accessibility in their communities to education and healthcare, but also because of congenital disorders that may have stemmed from consanguinity (intermarriage). There is also a tragically high rate of suicide among young Travelers. I’ve noticed in my travels that the tradition of passing on names seems to be more common in communities where death has a prominent presence. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, the power of a name is increased, perhaps, when the spirit behind it is fading.
It is also quite common for Travelers to have two given names, and rather than use one as a first name and one as a middle, in their families they are often called by both. Four out of the five women I spoke with had “double-barreled names” (Sarah Rebecca, Julia Cathleen, Ellen Angela and Theresa Marie). They said they weren’t sure how this tradition of using two names started, but they guessed it remains popular because it's a way to honor several people at the same time in where the idea of being titled is so central.
These women believe names are changing in the Traveler community as people start “integrating more with the settled.” They told me fewer people are using family names and more people are using names from celebrities (like “Brittney, Paris, Tiffany, and Chelsea,” one said). This is among many changes happening in the Traveling community as families have given up their nomadic lifestyles but are trying to keep their traditions and culture alive. Many of them spoke about Travelers’ experiences in schools as a sign of slow progress; originally Travelers weren’t allowed in school with settled children. Even when some of the women I spoke with were young, they were made to sit in the back of the classroom with the other Travelers. Today there is a more integrated school system, but it seems that socially, there are still large divisions between the settled and the Travelers.
For years the debate has been going on about whether Irish Travelers should be classified as an ethnic group (they are by British law but not by Irish). Many recent studies have confirmed that they are among the most discriminated-against groups in Ireland, a discrimination which many of the women I spoke with believe is due to how the media portrays them. Modern legislation entails that very few people are still traveling today (of the five women I spoke with, only two had grown up in families who had lived nomadically). But as one woman put it, “being a Traveler is not just about traveling. It’s about culture and marriages and traditions and your whole identity.”
Julia Cathleen Sweeney, who is the Community Employment Supervisor for the Galway Travelers’ Movement, told me she was wondering about my own name when I called her and asked if I could come in. “Nell is a name that’s very popular among the Traveler community,” she told me. “It’s a strange name for a settled person to have.” I wondered what it was that made the name Nell more popular among this community in particular. I wondered if it’s partially because there is such a strong tradition of passing down family names, which might mean, quite simply, that you hear more old fashioned names today than you might otherwise. I loved hearing this. I had no idea before today that Nell was a popular name among Travelers. It feels entirely appropriate that in another whimsical Watson year moment, I've learned that I'm sharing a name with many other nomads, past and present.
I can understand why names are so important in this community. It is ironic to me that so many immigrants and travelers change their names when they are in new places--whatever the reason. People may be looking for a way to blend in, or may be deliberately trying not to identify themselves as foreigners right away. Maybe they just can't stand hearing their name butchered by foreign tongues one more time. But it’s ironic to me that this happens, because it is here, so many miles from home, when your own name probably begins to mean the most. Over the last ten months I have introduced myself to so many people in so many places, and they have called me (or tried to call me) by this name. It’s an honest confirmation of what you want to hear; that despite everything changing around you, you are, somewhere, still you. That you can travel, and your name can too.