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Traveller Tinsmithing

Traveller tinsmithing consists of a particular skill mastered by Travellers in the making of utensils from tin. The craft requires little soldering and is carried out mainly with the use of small anvils and hammers and rivets. The metal is bent and tapped, hammered, rolled and riveted into shape. This makes the craft highly mobile which was a key part of its success.

9.4.92. Dublin. JAMES COLLINS Traveller Tinsmith at his Finglas Travellers Site. ©Photo by Derek Speirs (Image Use subject to licence – credit photo -Derek Speirs)

11.8.17. Dublin. National Museum, Collins Barracks. JAMES COLLINS Traveller Tinsmithing classes (with Michael Collins & Patrick Reilly). ©Photo by Derek Speirs
(additional caption information from Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre)

Background information

Starting with a basic sheet of tin the Traveller tinsmith or ‘tinker,’ as Travellers were and are called, cuts, shapes and hammers tin to make everyday utensils that were in use by the general population up until the 1960s.

The main category of utensil is that of container and this ranges from the cup or ‘ponger’, to a variety of pots, saucepans and jugs for various purposes – for humans to drink from, for animals to drink and eat from, to transport liquid and fuel.

Other items that were manufactured are lamps and candleholders as well as toys such as a whistle for children. Musical instruments were also made from tin such as the tin whistle – an important instrument in traditional Irish music – and the tin fiddle or violin which was responsible for the proliferation of fiddle playing in parts of Ireland before people could afford the wood instrument. Renowned Traveller musician Johnny Doherty of Donegal was one example of a tinsmith and musician combined.

The craft is enhanced by decoration which varies from simple to ornate and is usually carried out by punching indents into the metal.

Tinsmithing was an important way for Travellers to make a modest living and often the skill was bartered for food and no money was exchanged.

Along with the craft itself is a vocabulary based around the tools and the elements of the craft was developed. Some of the tools of the craft are unqiue to tinsmithing such as the stake, hatchet stake, scutcher and marking sticks. Different stages of making the utensil have special names such as the seams and the buff.

The craft was key in the good relationships between the Traveller and general population and provided a portal whereby communication took place. This is still the case today, although in a more minor way, as people exchange memories and information around the craft of tinsmithing.

The skill of tinsmithing was passed from father to son and some of today’s tinsmiths come from a long line of ‘tinkers’.

11.8.17. Dublin. National Museum, Collins Barracks. JAMES COLLINS Traveller Tinsmithing classes (with Michael Collins & Patrick Reilly). ©Photo by Derek Speirs
(additional caption information from Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre)

Practice and practitioners

There are a small number of Traveller tinsmiths who continue to ply the trade. They continue to make the traditional pots and containers as well as more modern objects such as lamp shades and coal scuttles.

Its key practitioners are Traveller men in their sixties and up. There are few younger people taking up the trade as while tinsmithing can add to your income it cannot, at this point, provide sufficient income to support a family.

There is no geographical variance of practice but more so a particular style that may be developed by individual tinsmiths. Some prefer to make particular objects while others prefer to decorate in a particular way. For example one tinsmith makes drinking cups for children while another specialises in buckets.

Tinsmithing skills are still looked for in relation to stabling horses and tinsmiths have recently been involved in making stable door protections out of tin. The metal is hard enough to protect the door and soft enough not to damage a horse should he kick the door.

Tinsmiths continue to produce and sell their craft and sell it in the traditional way – at fairs in different parts of the country – and their produce is sought after and prized.

Tinsmithing is practiced in the same place where the tinsmith lives and no special facilities are required.

13.6.19. Dublin, Ireland. Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre. JAMES COLLINS Traveller Tinsmith at the launch of Traveller Horse Ownership Research by Minister for Equality, David Stanton, TD. ©Photo by Derek Speirs (Image Use subject to licence – credit photo -Derek Speirs)

Development, transmission and safeguarding

Traditionally tinsmithing is a skill that is passed from father to son. However this line of transmission is now broken. Tinsmithing is no longer considered financially viable and young Travellers look to other commerce to generate income. The advent of plastic and mass production of utensils has rendered the skill largely unnecessary.

Its successful transmission from one generation to the next has also been hampered by a lack of respect for Traveller culture and identity. It is only now, particularly with the development of Traveller organisations in the last 30 years, that the skills are being better valued and promoted.

Traveller oragnisations around the country often feature tinsmithing in festival days or days where Traveller culture is celebrated. Tinsmiths are invited to come along and to give a demonstration of their work. This is quite sought after.

Some Traveller organistions have run tinsmithing courses to try and attract younger people into the craft. This has had moderate success but a lack of the traditional tinsmithing tools is hampering this process.

In 2017 Pavee Point embarked on a project with the National Museum of Ireland to promote and give visibility to this craft. A series of tinsmithing classes took place in Collins Barracks, National Museum of Ireland. This highlighted the need for more tinsmithing tools.

Work following on from that is raising money for tinsmithing tools and for continuing the work of highlighting and promoting the craft.

Pavee Point features video on tinsmithing on its website and social media and the National Museum is also promoting film archive of Traveller tinsmthing at the side of the road.

In an attempt to generate a future for the craft, tinsmithed items were sourced, marketed and sold at a high end arts and crafts outlet. Work in this area is continuing.

The Irish Government’s 2017 National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy has a number of actions to support and value Traveller culture and identity including supporting Traveller cultural centres.

The skill of tinsmithing is an integral part of promoting the wider Traveller culture and identity as it is clearly identified with Traveller identity and embodies the Traveller economy and the positive contribution that Travellers have made and continue to make to Irish society overall.

15.6.17. Dublin. National Museum, Collins Barracks. JAMES COLLINS Traveller Tinsmithing classes (with Michael Collins & Patrick Reilly). ©Photo by Derek Speirs
(additional caption information from Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre)

Contact organisation

Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre

Related and supporting organisations

Irish Traveller Movement

Meath Traveller Workshop

Minceirs Whiden

National Traveller Women’s Forum

Galway Traveller Movement

Donegal Travellers Project

Cork Traveller Visibility Group

Tallaght Traveller Development Group

Location Dublin and West of Ireland; historically all around the country
Categories Traditional craftsmanship
Keywords Craft, Traveller culture
Contact organisation Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre