Olympian Francie Barrett uncovers new information about the origins of the Irish Travelling Community by tracing their DNA.
The origins of Ireland’s Travelling people is a subject that has been debated for many years. Some say they are related to Romani Gypsy’s or some other ethnic group that arrived here over the past 1000 years, others say they have been a community in Ireland long before the arrival of the Celts and subsequent invaders while more say they are ‘settled Irish people’ who ‘took to the road’ during times of famine and eviction in the years since Oliver Cromwell.
Now for the first time this subject has been approached using the tools of DNA technology. Over the past year Olympian Francie Barrett has collected 40 Traveller DNA samples from every corner of Ireland. This DNA has been analysed by a team of scientists from The Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, The University of Edinburgh and Ethnoancestory.com to unlock the history of Ireland’s Travelling people.
In 1996 a nineteen year old Francie Barrett captured the imagination of the Irish general public. Forbidden since he was a child to join his local boxing club because he is a Traveller, he trained in the back of an old container on an unofficial site without running water or electricity. He dreamed of getting respect for the Travelling people by qualifying for the Olympic Games where he was told everybody was treated equally. When he qualified for the Atlanta Olympics he won the hearts of the nation. When he was given the honour of carrying the Irish flag in the opening ceremony it was a defining moment in Traveller history.
With the boxing gloves now hung up and the relationship between the ‘settled’ and ‘Traveller’ community seemingly at an all time low Francis has a new quest. He wants to uncover the history of his people and in doing so try to understand why their culture is in danger of being wiped out today.
Francis has enlisted the help of geneticists Dr Jim Wilson (The University of Edinburgh) and Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri (The Royal College of Surgeons) to analyse the DNA samples collected and to help him answer the question of what are the origins of the Irish Travelling people. They are using cutting edge technology to untangle this question and their results will break the mould on what was known up until today about the history of the Irish Travellers.
“This work represents a landmark in our understanding of the origins of the Traveller community in Ireland and illustrates how genetics can help us illuminate history where documented records are lacking”- Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri (Royal College of Surgeons Ireland)
A Scratch Films Production for RTE made with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland 2011.