Gypsies and Travellers are renowned for their traditions and extravagant celebrations, from christenings and communions to outlandish weddings. But the desire to celebrate life’s big landmarks begins the moment they’re born and continues until their dying day.
This special episode explores attitudes to birth and death among the travelling communities, witnessing the unique approach to childbirth and the spectacular sight of a huge Traveller funeral.
From blinged up baby cots and diamante encrusted dummies to the incredible tributes and wreaths presented by grieving mourners, it is a show that reveals the cycle of Gypsy and Traveller life from the cradle to the grave.
The family of Irish Traveller Thomas Ward are preparing for his funeral. The 21 year old was shot as he slept in his caravan – the suspected consequence of a family feud that has dragged on for over two decades. To make matters worse just five days earlier Thomas had become a father for the first time.
Thomas’s family are understandably devastated, but are determined to ensure he has the most spectacular send-off possible. Funerals in the community are seen as a chance to celebrate a life as much as mourn it’s passing. Sister Elizabeth is in charge of the preparations and no expense is being spared. Balloons have been ordered to decorate the church and huge posters are being made up baring Thomas’s image.
The most unusual aspect of a Traveller funeral, though, is the incredible floral wreaths. The design for each tribute must embody something personal to the deceased. Each arrangement is unique – depicting everything he loved from floral Pot Noodles to Blackberry phones to Digestive Biscuits, Reggae Reggae Sauce, pick-up trucks, pool tables, Irn Bru bottles, BBQs and Nando’s signs.
Meanwhile we are catching up with 20-year-old Irish Traveller Helen (Gypsy Weddings: Life on The Run) who is preparing for imminent arrival of her baby twins. But her life on the move is causing her problems; she has been to six hospitals during the pregnancy and is forced to reregister each time.
Even once the babies are born Helen doesn’t plan to follow a conventional parenting approach. As she explains, in her community breastfeeding is considered “disgusting” and “shameful”. Traveller midwife Kathleen backs up the sentiment – she has worked within the community for over 30 years and has only ever met a handful of Traveller mothers who have breastfed.
Finally we meet Romany Gypsies Rosemary and her 9-year-old daughter Nyesha. Rosemary has just given birth to her third child – Precious Charmaine Joanna Rosemary Cheeky-Shirley Paradise Edwina Lee. Nyesha has been taught that babies are bought from hospitals – with boys costing more than girls and Rosemary explains that it would be dirty to teach her about ‘the birds and bees’ before she is married. Regardless Nyesha is far from enamored with the new addition – saying Precious “stinks”, life has been “horrible” since she turned up and claiming she feels like “killing it cause it’s taken the love away” from her.
Rosemary is busy planning Precious’s dedication ceremony – an event similar to a christening which is becoming increasingly popular within the travelling community. At baby dress maker Ronnie’s shop they choose the outfit for Precious - made from her mother’s wedding dress and complete with a diamante encrusted baby dummy. But Nyesha is determined to outshine her new sister.
Fresh, revealing and at times jaw-dropping My Big Fat Gypsy Christening is a film that is informative and fascinating in equal measure.