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Welcome to the caravan of love

Travellers' representatives are forever claiming they are unfairly treated in the media as well as in life. Its sniggeringly pejorative title and some jokey, hokey music aside, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was a fairly even-handed, if superficial, look at a culture that remains a mystery to most of us -- not, mind you, that this made it any less grim or depressing viewing.

For most Traveller women, their wedding -- provided they can find a hotel willing to host the reception -- is the biggest day of their lives. It arrives alarmingly soon, too. The average marriage age for a woman is 17, although the planning can begin years earlier.

Bridget had just turned 16 when she became engaged to 18-year-old Patrick. Naturally, a big day requires a big dress. A very big dress. "I feel like a Cinderella for a day," said Bridget, lost inside an elaborate gown so voluminous you could have fitted Cinderella, her prince, their coach and its horses under the petticoats.

The dress was the creation of Thelma, who is from the settled community and has the Traveller wedding dress market virtually sewn up. Unlike a lot of dressmakers, Thelma has no problem doing business with Travellers.

"They don't give you much personal space," she said cryptically, "but I get on well with them." Travellers are good payers. Thelma refuses to reveal how much she charges for a dress, but if the number of sequins and the volume of cloth is any guide, it's surely a substantial sum.

Traveller weddings are huge affairs -- as the narration put it, "a mixture of ancient traditions and celebrity-inspired extravagance" -- and are as open to any Traveller families that care to attend as they are closed to outsiders.

"There's no invitations, it's word of mouth," said Paddy, a retired bare-knuckle boxer whose arms are festooned with tattoos.

Marrying outside the Travelling community is, if not quite forbidden, then certainly frowned upon.

"We believe in our culture," said Paddy, who attends about 25 weddings a year. "You can lose it very quickly and you can go astray."

Another young bride, Joan, hasn't exactly gone astray but she's certainly bucked the trend. She waited until she was 22 to get married, which is late for a Traveller woman, and has a part-time job in a call centre -- though that's likely to fall by the wayside now.

Prior to the wedding, Joan had met her groom just twice. "Joan looks really scared to me," said Thelma, who was invited to the reception. This was putting it mildly.

As Joan, tears streaming down her cheeks, danced awkwardly with her new husband, she looked terrified.

Elaborate outfits were also all the rage in EastEnders, where wedding bells chimed once again for Bianca and Ricky. Bianca's sparkly frock would have done Thelma proud, while Peggy Mitchell appeared to have a purple plant sprouting from the top of her head.

Let's hope she's not still wearing it in tonight's 25th anniversary live episode; one small trip over a camera cable and she'll have someone's eye out.

TOMORROW: Pat is back among the EastEnders (RTE1/BBC1) to see who killed Archie and who fluffs their lines

Stacey's Stars

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding ***

EastEnders **


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