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Wednesday, October 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For Irish Travelers, secrecy keeps outside world at bay

The Washington Post

EDGEFIELD COUNTY, S.C. — In a puzzling little community of trailer homes, Cadillacs, mini-mansions and kissing cousins, Rose Kathy Sherlock opens the front door of her double-wide.

She's breaking a longstanding taboo just by talking to a stranger. Irish Travelers such as Sherlock are supposed to keep to themselves. Secrecy has ensured their survival for many years.

But that all changed last month with the rogue act of an Irish Traveler woman caught on videotape beating her child. Suddenly, the Travelers felt their culture was on trial.

Sherlock, 46, says her culture isn't nearly as peculiar or lawless as some folks say. "We're like any other community, and in any other neighborhood there's good and bad."

She's talking to a reporter only because a trusted friend has come along. No way will she pose for a picture. "We don't like to speak out," she says. "We stay to ourselves."

Descendants of nomadic Irish traders and tinsmiths known as the Tinkers who came to the United States 150 years ago, the Irish Travelers have protected their archaic culture by keeping the outside world at bay.

The older folks speak a Gaelic-derived language called Cant. Sherlock says outsiders don't understand the traditions that have kept the culture intact. Her life tells some of the story.

She left school in the eighth grade, like most Traveler girls, and entered into an arranged marriage at 17. Her husband took to the road doing home-improvement jobs and other work, as Traveler men have done for generations. Her three children, now grown, were reared in the Traveler tradition.

In a village of roughly 3,000 people, there are but a dozen surnames.

So many of the men have the same names that they go by nicknames: "Black Pete," "White Man," "Peekaboo," "Mikey Boy." People in Murphy Village are generally related, experts say: Cousins marry cousins, and always in arrangements that include a substantial dowry.

Unwanted publicity

The folks of Murphy Village rue the day they heard of Madelyne Gorman Toogood. The 25-year-old Traveler became infamous last month when she slammed her 4-year-old daughter into the back seat of an sport-utility vehicle in a shopping center near South Bend, Ind., and hit her over and over. A surveillance camera caught it all, and the footage was broadcast nationwide.

Then Toogood did the unthinkable, in the eyes of her fellow Travelers: She held a news conference and announced her ethnic origins. Toogood isn't from Murphy Village, but it didn't matter. It is here, the largest of the Traveler settlements, where police and journalists turned for clues into her life.

Law-enforcement sources say child abuse is rarely, if ever, discovered among the Travelers. And people here bristle at the possibility that others will think Toogood is one of them. She's from a different group in Texas.

"We had never met her," Sherlock says. The Irish Travelers came to the United States in the 1840s to flee the potato famine in Ireland. There are several thousand Travelers in the United States, including some of English and Scottish descent. Their precise numbers are unknown.

Toogood hails from a community in White Settlement, near Fort Worth. Another group settled outside Memphis. Scattered and smaller settlements of Irish Travelers are in northeastern states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Springtime traveling

Travelers share a distinctly suspicious view of the world, one shaped by their people's history of persecution in Ireland, where they were seen as an itinerant underclass. In the United States, they often are taunted as "Gypsies." The Travelers view themselves as at odds with outsiders, and even have a word for them: "country people."

Each spring, in caravans of trucks and trailers that have replaced the ornate covered wagons of yore, the men pull out of Murphy Village and fan out across the country to ply their trade. They are skilled driveway pavers, barn painters and roofers, often with regular seasonal customers. Sometimes their wives go along, depending on the ages of the kids.

But police in several states know some of these as something other than honest, hardworking folk. Some have a reputation, backed by arrests and convictions, as relentless con artists. They move around running home-improvement swindles.

Joe Livingston, an investigator with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division who is an expert on Traveler scams, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the Murphy Village Travelers are thieves, or "yonks," as Travelers label the wayward among them.

"They basically would go door to door seeking home-improvement work, saying, 'Hey, I was working down the street and noticed your chimney needs some work and I'd be willing to do it for this wonderful price,' " says Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte, N.C.

Unsuspecting homeowners would agree and let them up on the roof. "Then they'd come down and say, 'Hey, this is going to take more than I thought. I need some more supplies. We're going to need a deposit.' And then they're gone.

"I've been with the Better Business Bureau 20 years, and it's happened every year, like clockwork, like the swallows of Capistrano," he said.

Toogood was arraigned yesterday in LaGrange, Ind., on charges of stealing fabric from a department store in Shipshewana, Ind. A not-guilty plea was entered on her behalf. Her husband, Johnny, has a long record of arrests under several names in several states and is wanted in Montana on a felony warrant for a home-improvement scam.

An eye to the future

Along Highway 25 in South Carolina, the evolution of the Irish Travelers is obvious. Where trailer homes once stood, today there are sprawling ranch houses and two- or three-story houses as large as any suburban McMansion.

You can still see the old trailers parked out back, or deeper in the woods. These nomadic people who once scraped out a meager living now are driving new Mercedes-Benzes, Lincolns and Cadillacs.

The women living in one newly built house, a mother and daughter, did not want their names used. They know the "country people" drive by and wonder where the money comes from.

Extended family members each contribute to the dowry that ensures a proper marriage. And people work long and hard to make life better for the next generation.

"It was something we prepared for for a very long time," the older woman said softly of her home.

These women are ready, though, for change. Neither went past the sixth grade. Both were married off as preteens. They want the next generation to have more opportunities in life, more choices.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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