'Tinkers': Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller

December 10, 2009

In the age of The X Factor, it is difficult to assess someone else's work without slipping into the Simon Cowell syndrome. For a literary critic, it feels as though reading for review has become a matter of determining a book's, as well its author's, fate. That may not always be the case, but it is exactly how I felt as I went through the pages of Mary Burke's 'Tinkers': Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller. Thumbs up, then, or "Sorry, dear, but ... "?

Dedicated to images of nomadism in continental literature vis-a-vis "representations of the historically nomadic Irish Traveller minority in literature" since the literary Revival in the early 20th century, the volume - evidently based on Burke's doctoral thesis - kind of does what it says on the cover, and it does it sort of well. Travellers have long existed on the margins of Irish society. Until Partition in 1922, the existence of a third ethnicity alongside Catholics and Protestants posed a serious problem, which was tackled through massive state intervention in the 1960s. Travellers were then an "underclass in need of correction", an undesirable presence that fuelled fantasies on the part of the dominant sedentary culture. Today, Burke observes, the issue "remains a blind spot in the disciplines of Irish literature and history", which have helped to "cement the image of the exotic tinker".

Hence what she sees as the need to trace the cultural history of the travellers, first back to the Revival, when tinkers became "the embodiment of exotic indigeneity", and then to the views of post-Partition Irish writers, who looked at J.M. Synge as an exemplar either to subvert or emulate. Burke focuses on Synge's The Tinker's Wedding because that neglected and often misinterpreted play (a commission for the Abbey Theatre, completed in 1907 but not performed there until 1971) "epitomises the arc of Traveller status after the Revival" from hero to symbol of ridicule or menace, until its return to the public sphere more than six decades later.

Synge's play thus may be taken as a metaphor of travellers' history of marginalisation; indeed, it reflects what Burke identifies as the playwright's "ability to inhabit the viewpoint of the Other". The "othering" of travellers results from, says Burke, a "general lack of interest" of most established scholars of Irish culture, and from the narcissistic inversion of sedentarist/dominocentric images. But she seems to lose track of her argument at times, and she might profitably have narrowed a set of references that, while extensive, nevertheless overlooks works that are equally emblematic of cultural representations of Ireland's nomadic groups. Marina Carr is a case in point, and I am perplexed at Burke's omission of an Irish playwright whose literary tinkers are notably influenced by Synge's. Although she acknowledges the work of an exceptionally marginalised artist, Rosaleen McDonagh, a traveller who is also disabled, she leaves out figures such as Michael Collins of Traveller Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Clearly a selection had to be made, but Burke seems to struggle with it. This comes, unfortunately, at the expense of her argument, which could have gained from a reduced weight of material: so, for instance, Pat Sheeran's model of the espace rayonnant and espace itinerant is not as central to Burke's methodology as initially suggested, and in the end, the emblematic role of The Tinker's Wedding is never fully explored. Both notions are complementary rather than pivotal to this work; in fact they add little to the substance of the six chapters, which are intended to be a "cultural history of the Irish Traveller" and recognise the "overlooked achievement" of one of Ireland's most valuable writers on the centenary of his death.

So, thumbs up, although Tinkers reads sometimes like a PhD thesis, and thus does not do justice to Burke's extremely well-researched work.

'Tinkers': Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller

By Mary Burke. Oxford University Press. 344pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780199566464. Published 16 July 2009

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