The Irish Travellers of Murphy Village, SC, USA

Paddy Doherty, his family and friends in Queensferry, North Wales, January 2012
Dino Evans on a Travellers site in North Wales, UK, © Elisabeth Blanchet

I started taking pictures of Irish Travellers in the UK in 2002 and haven’t stopped since, travelling from sites to sites all over the country. I discovered very early that Irish Travellers had not only fled Ireland and poverty in the 19th century to come to the UK but also to the USA. I did some research and found out about a few communities, one of them was called Murphy Village, near North Augusta, in South Carolina*. Going there to meet the Travellers became a dream and finally, recently a reality.

Murphy Village - Irish Travellers - South Carolina - USA 2018
Murphy Village, © François Moura

Thanks to a grant I received from the CNAP (Centre National des Arts Plastiques), I went there last January with my partner François Moura. The community I discovered was not only geographically and but also culturally miles away from the Irish Travellers I had met in the UK. There was no welcome, just suspicion and even fear. Our first approach was to contact the priest who had been in charge of the diocese for sixteen years.

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Catholic Reverend Cherian Thalakulam has been in charge of St Edward Church since 2001 in Murphy VIllage, © Elisabeth Blanchet

He was very friendly but warned us: people would be very reluctant to talk to us…  And this is what happened. The outside world was not very welcome on the streets of Murphy Village. We understood why, after a long afternoon talking to Tammy, an Irish Traveler woman, working for the diocese.

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St Edwad Church in Murphy Village, © Elisabeth Blanchet

Irish Travellers from Murphy Village are regularly accused of different scams. Since almost a decade, several court cases have been occuring for life insurance fraud, racketeering, scams. About 50 Irish Travellers are now in Custody. In 2016, the DSS (Department of Social Services) took six girls, as young as six years old, from Murphy Village under allegations of sexual abuse. Arranged marriages have been part of the village tradition for decades and the Irish Travellers were accused of under-age marriages.

Murphy Village headlines
Papers headlines about Murphy Village

After 3 months, all the girls were brought back to their families after staying in foster care. “We don’t marry them under-age, we get them engaged very young and wait for the legal age to marry them”, Tammy explained. In such tense conditions, it was not surprising that Murphy Village residents were not very keen to talk to strangers and reluctant to be filmed or photographed.

Murphy Village - Irish Travellers - South Carolina - USA 2018
A mobile home in the original part of Murphy Village, © François Moura

The community is very reclusive and the large majority of Murphy Village’s Irish Travellers keep to themselves. On one side of Edgefield Road, where St Edward Church was built – which is the original Murphy Village -, people still live in trailers and mobile homes. On the other side of the road, Travellers live in huge brand new mansions which can only raise anyone’s suspicions… How can people who live from asphalting roads, trading and painting barns afford to build such houses?

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A huge mansion in the rich part of Murphy Village, © Elisabeth Blanchet

Personally I have never been exposed to such a closed community. I went to Murphy Village hoping I could work like with any other Travellers’ community in the UK, that people would open up, tell me stories, let me take their pictures. I struggled. I even felt threatened: some women came yelling at me at a deadend of the “posh” side of Murphy Village, almost insulting me. And one afternoon, I even thought about giving up…

Murphy Village - Irish Travellers - South Carolina - USA 2018
Another big house in the rich part of Murphy Village, © François Moura

Fortunately, I didn’t! The same day I met two very nice women, Jackie O’Hara and Jeannine Harris. The first one was born outside the community and married an Irish Traveller almost 50 years ago. The second one decided to live in the original Murphy Village by choice, having a strong connection there.

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Jackie O’Hara in her trailer, © Elisabeth Blanchet
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Jeannine Harris in her trailer, © Elisabeth Blanchet

They reconcilied me with the project but walking in Murphy Village had become a bit of an every moment challenge, feeling there was always a bloody huge pick-up with tainted windows slowly driving around us, and there was…

Murphy Village - Irish Travellers - South Carolina - USA 2018
Another wandering pick-up, © François Moura

More photos here and a trailer of a short film we did with François, M.V Superficial, a few things about Murphy Village, which will be released soon:

Superficial because we are hoping to go back again, getting more interviews, in-depth information and more photos, also desperately wanting to get into one of these huge and mysterious houses!

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The rich part of Murphy Village, © Elisabeth Blanchet

More about Murphy Village

*Murphy Village, South Carolina is a community of around 2,000 Irish Travellers who settled on Edgefield Road in the late 50s.

They are originally from Ireland. One of the first Irish Travellers who came to the USA is Tom Carroll. He arrived in New York in the middle of the 19th Century to escape from the misery and the financial distress caused by the Potato Famine in Ireland (1845-1852). Very soon many of his relatives migrated to the US. Just before the Civil War (1861-1865) the Travellers slowly moved to the South, living in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

As the town of North Augusta began to grow, many Catholics relocated there from the Northeast. In the 50s Rev. Fr. Murphy, an Irish immigrant himself, was made Pastor of the local diocese. He encouraged the Travellers to buy land a few miles north of the town. A village was born, called Murphy Village, after Father Murphy.

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The original Murphy Village map

The main family names in Murphy Village are Carroll, Sherlock, O’Hara, Gorman and only a few others. Everyone seems to be related. While men mainly work asphalting roads and driveways, painting barns in states as far as Ohio and Michigan, or selling agricultural machinery, women stay at home and raise the children. They still speak Cant, an old form of Gaelic and most of them are practising Catholics.

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Catholic knick-knacks, © Elisabeth Blanchet

 

4 Comments

  1. I have read countless news articles about American-Irish Travellers and their way-of-life that have been published, but all have revealed only fragments of the truth. I have at no time read an article written by an American-Irish Traveller printed by a national magazine or any other publication. It’s time for the other side of the coin to see the light of day. It’s time to give a voice to my people and the opportunity for them to expose the discrimination, intolerance, and racism they have suffered for generations. I am an Irish Traveller and live in Murphy Village, a small community located seven miles north of the city of North Augusta, in the state of South Carolina USA. Reverend Cherian Thalakulam encouraged the publication of my book, entitled; “Irish Travellers: An Undocumented Journey Through History.” A history that at no time revealed to anyone not born of our blood. My book is available on amazon.com.
    Mike J. Carroll, Irish Traveller USA
    mikej.carrollauthor@gmail.com

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  2. As an Irish settled traveller myself, living here in Ireland I have to say well done to Murphy’s village and the travelling community living their. Thank our Lord that these families have not forgotten their culture, or where they have come from.

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  3. In the Early 70s I managed a mobile home sales center in Florence. One day they showed up and everybody ran to a different home. Having dealt with them in Ohio. So I just stood in the middle and I would see the curtains move as they were figuring out what I was doing. At last a man came out laughing he says what are you doing? I said I’m standing here by your vehicles so I can collect up my drapes and stove knobs( I have no idea wha they did with the stove knobs. So he calls all of them out. He says put everything back. Then he calls over a young man.
    He tells me that he is fixing to get married soon and needs a mobile home. So I show the youngins a few and they picked out one of the most expensive that I had. But she wanted three throw rugs and two mirrors. So I want to see this village. So on delivery day I go with the set up guys. While there a little kid steals a carpet knife. He gets caught by adult and he brought it back and said he was sorry. Then another couple says that they too are getting married and will need a mobile home. So come over to Florence to pick out one. But she wants 3 throw rugs and 3 mirrors!!! I got it and started running mobike homes over and would sit in front of it in a lawn chair on street but it had lottsa throw rugs and mirrors. I sold a bunch that year. While sitting I learned much about there customs. It seems when the World Series come on. They all would come back home. A guy of marrying age would propose to a girl. Then they would both save up there money and get married the next year. It was fun for me. They accepted me and I them!!!

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