Memories of a changing Travellers’ culture out in Altinure

FOR over half a century, Travellers have been coming to Altinure, just outside Park village in County Londonderry, to bury their dead.

Wednesday, 19th December 2012, 1:48 pm


Father Michael Collins, now retired, was once a curate for the parish at Altinure and held an avid interest in photography in his younger years. From the late 1960s through to the 1970s, he took pictures of “everything and anything” and when the Travellers came to the small village to remember their dead, Father Collins used the opportunity to record what he realised was a rapidly changing lifestyle and culture amongst the Travellers’ community.

Many years later, he came across the negatives of his pictures, and decided to compile a photo book. ‘Travellers: In Time and Eternity’ has now been published, and documents one aspect of the Travellers lifestyle, culture and clothing from that era.

The retired Father Collins who now lives in Altinure, told the Sentinel about his memories of the Travellers, their way of life and his reasons for compiling the book.

He said: “I used to be here as a curate in Altinure up in Park, 40 plus years ago. 1967 and I was here until 74. Every year the travellers, the Stokes family, used to come to the Graveyard on 15 August and they would fix up the grave and the afterwards they would come down to the village for a bit of a blow out.

“My hobby was photography, in those days you could carry a camera without getting arrested. I took photgraphs of anything and everything and one year I just, photographed the travellers as much as I possibly could, more for my own collection really rather than for any official purpose, I figured right enough that the Travellers community was changing. I remember as a youngster watching the horse-drawn carriages being driven into Omagh, but the dress and the traditions were very much the same in the late 60s from when I was at school.

“The women had plaid shawls and a certain type of skirt, a kind of a long, loose kind of skirt and usually boots of some kind and I photographed these things knowing that thy were unusual because you didn’t have a gathering of so many travellers, in one place that often.

“Funerals would be the only time you would get a big number of them together. This wasn’t a funeral but it was something similar – a remembrance of the dead. So, just as an occasion that wasn’t going to be there forever and a culture that wasn’t going to be there forever so I took these photographs.

“Then, of course, I got moved around six or seven different places and how the negatives survived I don’t really know – some of them got lost, some of them I cannot find and I know that I had other photographs that were good too but I thought I will hang on to these anyway.

“When I moved up here I was putting stuff onto the computer, scanning negatives and putting them onto the computer really for convenience and came across the negatives of the travellers and the, I think maybe the sport of the thing that spurred me on to put the book together – I had a visitor here from Tuam and by pure accident he had got talking about his father and his father was very interested in travellers and I had a whole lot of old photographs and I gave him a bunch of the photographs. I thought if they are interested in the travellers down in the middle of Tuam, maybe there is a kind of national interest, maybe it is not just a local thing here, and so I put these together because they would be of interest, hopefully, to other people from other places.

“There had been some interest in travellers and of course who have these television programmes now about gypsy weddings and so on, but that is the changing the culture – so I thought it would be nice to put across this aspect of their culture.”

Asked how the Travellers first came to bury their dead in the relatively remote graveyard at Altinure, Father Collins said: “I think they started down there in the 40s or 50s because one of their children, a young fellow, was drowned in the River Roe, quite near to Park village. This was either the 40s or 50s, I don’t remember it. I don’t even know what his name was but I am sure one of them could point out his grave. I was talking to a man in the village who was able to tell me what had happened and so on. Then, they kept on burying here.”

Father Collins also remembers quite vividly the burials and services he carried out during his time as a curate in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Altinure. He said: “When I was here I remember doing a burial. The burials were very emotional occasions. They didn’t hesitate to express their grief in a very vocal fashion and indeed on one occasion when I was doing a burial – the widow of the man who was being buried jumped into the grave. She threw herself on top of the coffin.

“If you ever read JM Synge’s ‘The Aran Islands’ there is an account of a funeral on the Aran Islands away back in the last century and it is exactly the same as the kind of funeral you would have for one of the travellers. Very emotional occasions.

“Very often they died quite young. If you look at the photographs of the headstones you will see that a lot of the men died in their 20s and 30s. When I was a curate here I had to attend a woman who was seriously ill. She was in a makeshift tent on the side of the road between Feeny and Claudy.

“The tent was a tarpaulin, an ordinary tarpaulin, and they had bent the sticks, these supple sally rods – they had bent them round and stuck them into the ground and then put the tarpaulin over the top. She was lying inside that there and there were a lot of other women in there consoling her and trying to help her. I was called down to this woman’s side and I thought to my myself, she should be in hospital but in those days they would have been hesitant about calling in or taking someone into the hospital. I think sometimes they felt very out of place.

“I remember I had to evict all the people in the tent to get up beside the woman to anoint her and so on and when I came out, some of the men said to me; ‘what do you think, Father?’

I said, to be honest, she doesn’t seem to good to me. I thought she was dying. And their reaction was the very same as the kind of reaction you sometimes got at the funeral. They... cursed and shouted and then they booted the tree... letting off emotion, letting off steam, very, very heartfelt.”

He added: “They are a very independent kind of people, they do things their way and they don’t really have a lot of time for the traditions of settled society. They don’t follow a fashion, they set a fashion. It might not be everybody’s idea of a fashion, but it’s their idea.

“You had to come forward into the eighties at least and into the nineties really before they had the money to dress up. If you look at the photographs, they’re wearing clothes that had been worn for quite a while before-hand and very few had any kind of fashionable clothes at all.

“At that time they had motorised transport, there is a photograph of the transit vans that they travelled in. The men would’ve gathered scrap metal, that kind of thing. They didn’t manufacture anything, even at that stage, but when I was young the women would have came round the houses with tin mugs, that kind of thing. But that had all disappeared by that stage.

“And yet they always seemed to be reasonably flush with money. The tradition was in Park when they had finished with the grave they would come down to the village and the men would mostly go into the pub. They would send out crates of beer, they sent it out to the women and children. Even the children would have got some. There is a shot of one of the women feeding a child with a bottle of stout, but that wasn’t that abnormal – you would have women giving women a spoonful of whiskey to babies to get them to sleep, I suppose, or if they had sore teeth.

“I wouldn’t imagine they had big blowouts like that too often. That certainly was an occasion when they all assembled together and seemed to enjoy it. It was in Lynch’s pub. That is still there.

The landlady is there in a couple of the photographs. There are a few locals in it, but it is a travellers collection.”

Father Collins added: “They do still come here, but I haven’t seem them that much – now this is 40 years ago I am talking about and whether they still have the same kind of entertainment, I couldn’t tell you.”