As if my journey to Murphy Village had not taught me a lesson, I embarked on another trip to the USA last May to chase Irish Travellers, this time to White Settlement in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas.
Apart from Murphy Village in South Carolina, there are a few other communities in the USA, in Georgia and Texas. As for the Murphy Village community, I couldn’t find out much about the Texan Irish Travellers except for a few facts: there were a few hundreds of them living in White Settlement and they would have settled there at the end of the 19th Century…
So I went. Dear, dear, dear, what an experience or a fiasco, rather… It didn’t take me long to find the three sites where they lived. It didn’t take me long to get evicted from them either!
I entered the first one despite the “NO TRESPASSING – VOLIATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED”, naively thinking I’d be able to find someone to talk to. Among the immaculate trailers, shining under the Texan sun, I came across a boy who showed me the manager’s chalet. “That’s her you have to talk to”, he said. I headed to her shiny mobile-home. I didn’t have the time to knock at the door that a woman of a certain age, wearing hair rollers and a dressing gown opened it. I introduced myself to her, tried to explain what I wanted to do: walk around, talk to people, and if possible interview and photograph some of the Travellers. She interrupted me and yelled at me: “Nobody will talk to you here. You are not welcome. You have nothing to do here. It’s a private property”. She then slammed the door in my face. Well, there was no other option than leaving but I decided to walk out of the site slowly, maybe hoping for a miracle in the shape of a welcoming Irish Traveller opening his or her trailer door to me. Yes, I am a dreamer and an eternal optimist… The miracle didn’t happen. Instead, an angry woman driving a pick-up (Murphy Village style) chased me. It turned up she was the hair rollers lady’s daughter. She shouted : “Go away or I call the police!” I complied.
The second site was just on the other side of the road. Another “NO TRESPASSING” sign did set the tone but I braved it. This time it was not the manager who kindly asked me to leave but two men in their 60s who even escorted me to the exit, making sure I wouldn’t take any “detour” to try to chat to someone. A few miles from there, the third site was as unwelcoming as the other ones and I decided to take a break to recover at the petrol station opposite. I started to talk to a guy working there. He told me I was mad to try to enter their site and even worse to try to get to know the Irish Travellers: “They are scam, thieves. The kids are not educated and behave like animals. We don’t want them in the shops around here. And things have gone worse since the car crash”.
The car crash? What crash? Then he started to tell me the awful story of five Irish Travellers boys who lost their lives in a horrific pick-up crash very nearby in 2000. Relatives of the victims were uncooperative with authorities, and after questions arose about the boys’ names and ages, the local medical examiner took the unusual step of fingerprinting them in their coffins to try to learn their true identities. According to the local paper, The Star Telegram, “The dead youths had identifications from Oklahoma, Georgia and Kansas indicating that three were at least 18. But at their funeral in downtown Fort Worth, a program listed none older than 14”.
There was some heavy background there and again an inside and an outside world. I belonged to the outside and obviously didn’t stand much chance to talk to anyone. But I hadn’t travelled all that way for such a fiasco so I decided to try to seek the Irish Travellers’ attention. I made a banner with the following words: “I am a documentarist interested in Irish Travellers’ Heritage. Would someone talk to me? Elisabeth Blanchet”. Then I stood in front of each site. I didn’t stay long as I was a bit nervous about the bloody threatening pick-ups wandering around. Accidents quickly happen… Of course, my attention-seeking operation failed.
At the petrol station, they told me I was definitely mad and even told me off! So I didn’t insist and spent the remaining days of my trip wandering around Dallas and nearby Oklahoma, asking myself a lot of questions about my job, my work. I had encountered the limits of documentary. Also who was I to try to penetrate a community who obviously didn’t want to have anything to do with the outside world? The only Irish Traveller – an old woman – I managed to exchange a few words with in White Settlement told me: “What would you do if someone came and knocked on your door to ask you to them you life story?”. She had a point.
So I wandered around, thought a lot about other ways of expressing what I had lived and felt in White Settlement, maybe through art, words, drawings or fiction? I also remembered another trip in Texas, 11 years before. I had taken my kids to the Space Center in Houston. After the visit, we inevitably went to the shop. And there was this T-shirt with the words “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION” printed on it.
Failure was what I felt after that educative though disturbing trip in White Settlement.
Sometimes failure is an option.
To find out more about Irish Travellers, read my Murphy Village post:
And for French readers: toute l’histoire en français, publiée sur le site du CNAP – Centre National des Arts Plastiques –