The Irish Travelers of North Augusta, S.C., stopped their pickups in the middle of the road last week to commiserate over the "outing" of Madelyne Gorman Toogood. The woman caught thrashing her 4-year-old on a surveillance video in Indiana is also, as it turns out, an Irish Traveler. And though they don't know her, they know what her arrest means: 15 minutes of grueling fame for a community that thrives on secrecy.
"I'm not going to tell you they're all honest, good citizens here," says Mike (Mikey Boy) Sherlock, 68, gesturing out toward his 3,000 fellow Travelers who live in Murphy Village, the country's largest Traveler community. "You got some people that I wouldn't trust with nothing I got." But, he says, and here law-enforcement officials familiar with the Travelers basically agree, "you don't have no child abuse out here."
What you do have is a far more unusual phenomenon: a group of roaming laborers who spend half the year painting houses around the country and then return in winter to a self-contained, anachronistic universe. The Travelers arrange their children's marriages and, in front of "country people" (non-Travelers), speak a Gaelic-English dialect called "cant." ("Misli shayjo!" means "Go away, the police are here!") Some have traces of Irish accents, though their ancestors arrived in the U.S. 150 years ago. Says Michael McDonagh, one of the 30,000 Travelers still in Ireland, who has worked with hisU.S. counterparts: "Their sense of tradition is stronger there than here."
Many Irish Travelers, once known as tinkers, moved to the U.S. to escape the potato famine. They started out as horse traders. Today, between 20,000 and 100,000 English, Scottish and Irish Travelers (nobody knows the actual number) live in groups, mostly in the South. They are reviled by some as con artists who prey on the elderly by overcharging for shoddy home-repair jobs. Others insist the Travelers are hard workers and have no more lawbreakers than any other community.
"Ninety-five percent of the Travelers got what they got from busting their butts," says Jim (Penn) Sherlock, 50. Penn is Mikey Boy's brother (the Travelers go by nicknames, like One-Eyed Pete and Curly Joe, since they share the same dozen surnames). Penn began his childhood in a tent but graduated to a mobile home and then a brick house--a common pattern among the more successful Travelers. In Murphy Village, the rows of trailer homes are suddenly interrupted by ornate pink and white mansions.
The Traveler life is an odd composite of Old World and McWorld. Like most other Travelers, Penn has a madonna statue on his lawn. Hisdaughter was 14 when she married her 20-year-old fiance--an arranged match, like "99%" of village marriages, he says. And like many other Travelers, Penn never made it past sixth grade. But he drives a muscular black pickup with tinted windows, and the Traveler women draw stares when they go into town, dolled up with layers of makeup and halos of hair.