Irish Travellers have again staged their annual version of The Gathering – and descended on the Limerick town of Rathkeale.
The travelling community regard Rathkeale as their spiritual home according to a new report in the New York Times.
The paper says that hundreds of families return to Rathkeale every Christmas from all across the globe.
Some use the trip home to stage fairytale weddings and christenings.
Others, according to the report, say that old scores have to be settled as armed police patrol the streets in a bid to prevent outbreaks of violence.
The town’s population of 1,500 will swell to 4,500 for the Christmas holidays with expensive cars and trailer homes on view.
The report says: “A long history of violence between clans hangs like a cloud over the travellers. When they congregate at Christmas, brawls involving knives, cudgels, iron bars and screwdrivers have been known to erupt, and traffic violations multiply. Last year alone, the police seized 30 vehicles for various offenses.”
Many of the travellers have bought or built houses in Rathkeale in the last decade.
The majority of the houses remain boarded up during the year but burst into life over the festive holiday season.
The New York Times alleges that some of the property deals have been funded by money laundering schemes.
One resident told the paper: “People won’t say a bad word against them in public because they’re afraid of getting a bottle through the window or something a lot worse.
“Who really believes tarring driveways or fixing gutters gets you those massive houses or flashy cars?”
Travellers with links to Rathkeale have been involved in major news stories in recent years including the recent jailing of four men and a woman in Britain for enslavement.
British police believe the family involved own property in Rathkeale.
The New York Times says that others with Rathkeale connections have been jailed for various offenses from Australia to Iceland, including smuggling and handling counterfeit goods. In 2010, two men were caught trying to buy illegal black rhino horns from undercover federal agents.
Edward Grace from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service told the paper: “The agency expects more indictments of members of the Rathkeale Irish Traveller group.
“These Irish Traveller gang members are the middlemen in the operation that also involves Chinese and Asian gangs.
“They have access to large amounts of cash to buy the horns, and they have the network to sell them on at exorbitant prices. Some people will say, ‘What’s the harm here? These animals are already dead.’ But they are fuelling an illegal trade and that means more incentive to kill endangered species.”
Grace added that rhino horns fetch about $5,000 a pound in the United States but are worth $25,000 a pound by the time they get to Asia where they are ground down to make potions with unproved medicinal benefits and perceived aphrodisiacal qualities.
Two years ago Irish customs officers seized rhino horns worth an estimated $700,000 at Shannon airport while the pan-European police force Europol has identified a network of gangs it calls the Rathkeale Rovers in a variety of crimes, including the smuggling of rhino horns.
A statement from Europol said: “Significant players within this area of crime have been identified as an Irish and ethnically Irish organized criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends.
“Elements of this group are also involved in a variety of other serious crimes across the European Union such as drugs trafficking, organized robbery, distribution of counterfeit products, tarmac fraud and money laundering.”
Not all residents are concerned by the influx of travellers at this time of year.
Butcher and boxing club coach Joe Williams told the New York Times that the police presence is ‘overkill’ and claimed that many of the travellers have been unfairly stigmatized.
Williams said: “You would get the impression it’s not safe to walk out your door, but it’s simply not the case.
“The vast majority of travellers are very good people. There are a few bad apples, but that’s the same in every part of society.”
Businessman John Dinnage insisted that relations between the travellers and the other residents of Rathkeale are largely cordial.
He said: “They’re good for business. They’re the only ones who seem to have any money. It’s the media that gives this town a bad name, not the travellers.”