In Brief

For several paragraphs in Proteus, Stephen watches "A woman and a man" and "Their dog," who have walked out onto the sands not far from him. They are "Cocklepickers," out to harvest seafood. But before long he is calling them "Red Egyptians," or gypsies. These may be Romani people, in Ireland also called "tinkers" or, their preferred names, Travellers or Pavees. But it seems possible that Stephen may simply be imagining them as gypsies or tinkers, based on their skin color or other details of their appearance. He takes an interest in them chiefly for the ethnic jargon, often called "cant," that he imagines these people speaking.

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Romani in various places and times have been called gypsies, reflecting an assumption that they originated in Egypt. The assumption is false: scholars have determined that the travelers came originally from north India. A small population of these people have lived in Ireland since the early 19th century. They speak English mixed with some non-standard words, in patois dialects called cants.

Cant seems to have developed partly as a cryptolect, to keep outsiders from understanding what insiders are saying to one another. Cockney speech in London is another such cryptolect. Its rhyming slang—e.g., using "trouble" as an expression for "wife" by derivation from the rhyming phrase "trouble and strife"— reportedly developed as a way to elude police scrutiny. As Stephen contemplates the couple on the beach he thinks of cant words used in England in the 17th century by the criminal underclass. This language is often referred to as "thieves' cant" or "rogues' cant," but much of it apparently derived from the talk of English gypsies.

In The Canting Academy (1673), the work from which Stephen draws many of his words (and four lines of memorable poetry), Richard Head wrote: "The principal Professors of this Gibberish or Canting, I find, are a sort of People which are vulgarly called Gypsies; and they do endeavour to perswade the ignorant, that they were extracted from the Egyptians . . . they artificially discolour their faces, and with this tawny hew and tatterdemallion habit, they rove up and down the Country, and with the pretension of wonderful prediction, delude a many of the younger and less intelligent people" (2).

Travellers are mentioned again in Cyclops, when the Citizen uses their name figuratively, and disparagingly, to inquire about a meeting: "What did those tinkers in the city hall at their caucus meeting decide about the Irish language?" Gifford notes that "tinkers, like Gypsies, were notorious for indigence, for cunning and thievery, and for a shiftless, nomadic way of life."

The Romani are mentioned in Oxen of the Sun, in a more English context. In an 18th century prose style reminiscent of Defoe, Frank Costello is described as having consorted with gypsies: "One time he would be a playactor, then a sutler or a welsher, then nought would keep him from the bearpit and the cocking main, then he was for the ocean sea or to hoof it on the roads with the Romany folk, kidnapping a squire's heir by favour or moonlight or fecking maid's linen or choking chickens behind a hedge."

JH 2015
Janine Wiedel, photograph from collection "Irish Tinkers On the Road in the 1970s." Source: socialdocumentary.net.
Irish Travellers, or tinkers, in 1946. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Tinkers, in 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons.