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Tinsel, Tiaras and Travellers

13 December 2011 By: Sarah Harris

In a sleepy corner of South West Ireland sits the market town of Rathkeale; its unremarkable high street peppered with the usual hair salons, green grocers and coffee shops. But for one month of the year the town lights up like Santa's grotto on acid, as thousands of Irish traveller families from across the globe descend in an avalanche of diamante for their annual Christmas homecoming.

Boarded-up houses on the town's Fairhill Estate are repopulated once more with O'Briens, Sheridans, Quilligans and O'Donoghues and Rathkeale locals brace themselves for the colourful Christmas cavalcade. Tis the season for the so-called 'Rathkeale Rovers' to party, flash their cash and forge all-important bonds with the cream of traveller society.

One might reasonably ask, why Rathkeale? Over the past 20 years, the town has unwittingly become the 'spiritual birthplace' of the travelling community. For decades, prominent gypsy families have laid down roots and bought a significant portion of Rathkeale's real estate - and are developing an ambitious 33-home housing estate. But it's not all business: the town's famous Virgin Mary-shaped tree stump has also become a prize attraction.

Last December stood out as one of the most eventful in Rathkeale history. The town's population soared from 1,500 to 4,000; its narrow streets crammed with an estimated 10million Euros-worth of Porches, Mercedes, Audis and Range Rovers.

But beneath the hum of 400-horsepower engines, there is also the throb of excitement in the air for the traveller girls wishing for the most sought after Christmas gift of all: a husband. And where better to meet a future spouse than at a wedding?

Romance is rife in Rathkeale. Last December the traveller community squeezed in an incredible 13 weddings over one riotous festive break. The town transformed by Cinderella carriages, acres of snow-white tulle, glittering diamante and raucous all-night parties. In church pews and on dance floors, reputations and relationships are cemented for future generations.

Status and rivalry are the twin driving forces behind the travellers' month-long marathon of extravagant celebrations - and it's not just the brides who are competing. A gypsy girl's first Holy Communion is widely regarded as a 'dress rehearsal' for her wedding - and every child is in ferocious competition to outdo one another. Thousands of pounds worth of diamante, silk, satin and fake tan are lavished on the day, providing the ideal opportunity for her family to flaunt their success - and raise eyebrows among the 'settled' residents of the town.

As Rathkeale comes out of hibernation for its annual gypsy fiesta with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, you can't help but wonder what Christmas has in store for the town this year?