The night i inadvertently caused an Irish gypsy riot


Irish gypsies are a mystery. Literally. Nobody’s quite sure where or when they came from. Some think they started roaming during the Famine days of the 1840s. I disagree with that. Others say they got their start during the wars of the 1600s. i disagree with that too.

Irish gypsies aren’t related the European gypsies (The Roma). Although they do tend to have darker black hair and kind of look a bit different. I can spot an irish gypsy a mile off. They even have their own language. or is it a dialect? either way they can be very hard to understand. i grew up in the part of Ireland with the biggest concentration of gypsies. i had childhood friends who were gypsies. one of my fondest early memories is being in a gypsy cart driven by a macho teenage irish gypsy who courageously stood up as he raced his shallow two-wheeled cart around my neighborhood.

BTW, Brad Pitt did an awesome job of impersonating an irish gypsy in the movie SNATCH. i was blown away by his dead-on accent. I know the accent well but would never attempt doing it. it’s too hard. and brad pitt, a southern boy from Columbia Missouri, nailed it.

So anyway. I was seventeen and working in a bar in Galway. And one day at lunchtime two gypsies came in. I gave them two pints of guinness. and then two more. and two more. the owner of the bar spotted them and was angry with me for serving them. he went over and explained that it was bar policy not to serve gypsies. blatant discrimination, in other words. but they were used to this. they did seem a bit surprised I served them. but i was kind of outraged at this policy. but i also knew the gypsies didn’t exactly help their image by getting pissed drunk daily in the town square. and fighting each other.

but i knew a few and so was sympathetic. but this bias against serving them in pubs was pretty widespread. so it wasn’t really a problem. they all drank together.

two years later i was working at the same bar in the afternoon in the midweek. my gypsy friend Sean Ward, who i had attended high school with, came in for a pint with his brother Eamon. it was about four in the afternoon. Sean was really a good boxer. his family had given up the road and so lived in permanent housing. Like in the movie Snatch, boxing is big in the gypsy community. But Sean boxed with gloves and in a ring and that. totally legit!

There was no way in hell i was telling Sean and Eamon they couldn’t have a pint because they were “travellers” as we daintily put it. i actually gave them a free pint each before my shift ended at six pm. my relief bartender was a very happy go lucky Gaelic speaker also named Sean. I bid all the Seans good night. As i left the bar i noticed that Sean and Eamonn’s cousins had joined them at the bar. This troubled me for some reason.

At this point, I should point out that the bar i worked in was very 1980s-modern lounge bar. lots of comfortable banquette style couches and carpet on the floor. and mirrors on all the walls. mirrors everywhere! this was no quaint irish pub. it was a booze dispensing machine.

Well when i came in the next day all the mirrors were broken. Apparently a long-simmering feud within the Ward clan had come to a head a couple of hours after I left the bar. with more and more members of the clan meeting at the bar. and we had these very durable, very heavy glass ash trays which had been deployed as missiles in the fracas that ensued. hence all the broken mirrors.

My boss was furious. what idiot had served these gypsies??? i just shook my head and tsk-tsked. who indeed!

18 responses to “The night i inadvertently caused an Irish gypsy riot

  1. Splendid article! I’ve always been fascinated with Irish gypsies, and hearing about them from the perspective of someone who knew a couple is very enlightening. Good show!

  2. Jennifer Ward

    Hi! I am a Ward (maiden name) living in Berkeley, CA. Have heard from a few Irish people that my name is associated with a feisty clan of Irish hobos/gypsies/grifters. I am very interested in learning more. Can you lead me to some good sources of information?


    Jennifer Galanis
    aka Jennifer Kate Ward

  3. jennifer, you are in luck. are your people from Galway? Ward is a big gypsy name in Galway where i’m from. but if you were to send me a picture i could probably tell you one way or the other. it’s a look.

  4. How are ye’s…..
    Im a WARD…my mothers ma, was from Galway and so was me Granda.
    Shayne Ward from the X factor ( dont know if ye know it) is also a cousin of ours

  5. Viv, thanks for commenting. Ward is a big name in Galway. (for all you non-Irish folks Ward means “son of the poet” in Gaelic).

  6. WHOA! Dont be glamourising it to much. The Wards, Stokes, McDonaghs, Finnies and Mongans are well known criminals as well as fighters and also have a few feuds within the community. John Mongan RIP was sadly beheaded by 3 members fo the Stokes family in front of his wife and baby daughter, this happened in Ireland and you can find it online. Earlier a group of Irish travellers had killed another gypsy in a cemetery at a funeral, again in Ireland. Yes they have their own language, yes they have arranged marriages sometimes, and also marry their cousins. But dont be taken in by the romance of it, *some* of these families are involved in gun and drugs crimes. We lived by the Finnie gypsy family and although they were good as gold with us, there were enough in-family fights and dubious comings and goings on.

    • i wouldn’t say i was glamorizing anything here. i was just telling a true story. the fact that gypsies in my home town had a talent for creating lousy PR for themselves wasn’t my idea.

      the irish gypsy culture is very rich. that’s what makes it attractive to people like brad pitt and guy ritchie.

      my mother grew up neighbors with the Mongan clan in north galway. they have been there as long as anyone. the farmers didn’t own the land but they owned the road.

      I have lots of cousins in Tuam. I know of what i speak. ;-)

  7. Hi, I was wondering if you could tell me where my name came from. my gran says that her great gran parents where Irish travellers. The name is O’Neil

  8. Seamus Mac an Baird

    The joke in my family “Ward’s” from Galway is that we descended from travelers and that we ended up in the states because he was either involved with the IRA or committed some crime as a traveler. My understanding is that there is a big distiction between travelers and Gypsies. The travelers were Irish folks who were kicked off thier lands by the English and the Gypsies. What is the look of the Gypsie that you spoke of? All my aunts and uncles have dark jet black hair and blue eyes…..OOOpppss!!! I have also heard that there are an equal number of law abiding Wards in Galway so who knows where I came from.

    • seamus,

      one thing you have to remember is that being a traveler only became a problem when their traditional skills suddenly became obsolete in the 1960s. they had enjoyed a neat symbiotic relationship with the agricultural rural community. they sharpened blades and worked as casual labourers.

      my mother had nothing but good things to say about the Mongan clan that had parked on a stretch of road near her farm for generations. never travelled for decades. but were travellers.

      all the theories you suggest were just recently discounted by a reality TV show in Ireland where they took many DNA samples and did tests that proved that the Irish travelling community has been apart from the settled community for 2000 years.

      nobody was expecting that!

  9. All quite interesting. I am a Ward. My father’s family Dark skinned black hair came through Canada in the 1800’s. My mother’s family came through Newyork about the same time. Fair skinned Blonde and Red haired. Such a scandle when they married. We were considered halfbreeds. My father’s family claim to be from Castle Ward in county down. The Robinsons and McKallistrers also claim the North. My mother’s family are of the order of the orange. My father’s family are also Protestants. My Father’s family had no education. He learned to read as an adult. All of this makes me wonder where I really came from.

  10. wow. zac. that’s quite a cocktail of irishness you got there. but we’re all irish right? what i’ve learned is that you are 50% your genes and 50% you. you have to decide which side wins.

    • I agree. I do not get very upset about the sins of the dead. I have become the man I wish to be. If it is not to another man’s liking then so be it.

  11. Ward is a “50-50” name, about half have nothing to do with travellers, as for phenotypes (looks) v little genetic material is involved.

  12. I’m a ward man living in uk all my life from an Irish traveler family I never got refused from a pub in my life and never co used any trouble I am sick of people saying nasty thing about us u don’t no most of us but get away with calling us what u like

  13. Irish “gypsies” dont like to be called gypsies. They refer to eachother and would prefer to be referred to as travellers. The language they speak is not really a language at all. Its called CANT (not can’t). Its basically a method of desguising English or Gaelic with the odd authentic Cant word thrown in. I am a Ward from Salt Hill in Hallway but I dont know the people you spoke of. What happened to the pub you worked in was unfortunate. We are not all like that.

  14. Hi!! i am from england but my mother and all that side of the family are born and bred in galway!!! i hear my mothers dad is a ward i have been told i have gypsy blood as that part of the family are gypsy’s. isit possible to have any more info? as i have never met my real grandfather and would love to know some information.

  15. We are no way assosiated with gypsies. us irish travellers are nomads of ireland. my uncle took part in a documentary not long ago and it shows that my family are desendants to niall of the 9 hostage a high king of ireland.

    i am one of the tuam wards.

    my grandfathers uncle was the original king of the travellers laurence ward and as it stands there is NO king of the travellers, the only man in my opinion who could claim that title is a cousin of mine paddy jaws ward. but as paddy said himself there was a king of the travellers and he is dead now

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