Indiana incident has Irish roots

SUN JOURNAL

Group: The videotape of a woman beating her daughter on a parking lot carried across the sea when it was revealed that she is part of a nomadic clan called the Travellers.

October 06, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

The videotape of a woman beating her daughter in a parking lot in Indiana did not reveal one large wound that the incident reopened.

It's hundreds of years old and half a world away.

Madelyne Gorman Toogood's trouble with the law made front-page headlines in Ireland as well as the United States because she belongs to a nomadic clan called the Irish Travellers - spelled with two l's. It was the first time many in the United States had heard of the group, even though its members settled in the United States in the 1840s to escape the potato famine that ravaged Ireland.

The news also surprised many Irish, who have wrestled with acceptance of the wandering people for generations but were unaware the group had grown in the United States to 15,000, by some estimates.

"The woman's photo was on the front page of the Evening Herald" in Dublin, says Thomas McCann of the Irish Travellers Movement, referring to a picture of Toogood. "The general discussion was the political climate is not good toward Travellers now and this story will make it even worse."

In northern Indiana, Toogood faces charges of felony battery of her daughter, Martha, 4. The 25-year-old woman was identified from a grainy videotape that showed a child repeatedly being struck inside a vehicle.

The graphic security camera footage fed media coverage and analysis like wind in a brushfire.

Some felt the videotape illustrated parental abuse. Others pointed to the child's apparent physical well-being afterward and contended that the tape sensationalized a common but typically private breakdown: a parent losing control with a child on a shopping trip.

The strange story became stranger: Toogood was additionally charged with giving false information to an officer after the address she provided turned out to belong to a vacant dry-cleaning store. Her husband, John, 29, had given authorities the same apparently false address. It was also listed on one of several driver's licenses the couple held.

Madelyne Toogood is to appear tomorrow in an Indiana Superior Court for a preliminary hearing on the felony charge, says her attorney, Steven R. Rosen. She is free on $5,000 bond. Martha is in foster care.

The Toogoods and their ethnic group were described in various accounts as "con men" and "grifters" who deal in "illusion and confusion."

The characterizations, broadcast across the Atlantic, were met alternately with disgust and agreement in Ireland where the Travellers have been traced to nomadic workers who predate the Celts' arrival in 400 BC.

An estimated 30,000 Irish Travellers reside in Ireland, less than 1 percent of the population. Another 10,000 live in Great Britain. The group is often associated with other historic, itinerate cultures in Europe - including English and Scottish Travellers and Romany gypsies. But Irish Travellers have their own ways and dialect, an English-Gaelic blend called "cant" or "Gammon."

Irish Travellers have been scorned, feared and ignored in their homeland. They initially made a life roaming from town to town by horse and cart, selling and shaping metal. Their tin work became the source of a nickname - "tinkers," from the Irish word tinceard.

English kings beginning with Henry V sought to outlaw their activity. After Ireland gained independence in 1922, the new Republic sought to "take the Traveller out of the Travellers," says Caoimhe McCabe of Pavee Point, a Traveller advocacy group in Dublin.

Towns sought to thwart Travellers by placing barricades and boulders to block their campsites. Subsidized housing was built to induce the Travellers to stay put, but roots never held. "It's just the way they have always been since the beginning," McCabe says. "Why does a prosperous culture have to rule out a nomadic culture? They thought they could educate them to stop being what they were, but it was based on a false idea that Travellers were just settled people who had failed at being settled people."

Their cause became a civil rights issue in Ireland over the past 20 years, spawning equality laws and advocacy groups.

McCann of the Irish Travellers Movement, an umbrella of about 70 local and regional Traveller groups, recalls a meeting several years ago with a group of Native Americans. They had been invited to Ireland to help return a terribly lost bald eagle to the United States. Feeling that their culture also had been assailed and ridiculed by their countrymen, the Native Americans saw parallels with the Travellers, he says.

"We lived in caravans without basic facilities such as running water and toilets," McCann recalls of his upbringing as a Traveller. "There are memories of good times, but you had the knowledge you did not have the same facilities everyone else took for granted."

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