WHEN did Travellers go from being craftspeople to establishing themselves as a pan-national crime gang?
That's the question that's occurred to me after a series of shocking revelations in recent months about serious criminal activity led by Irish Travellers.
The story of 24 men allegedly held in captivity in a Traveller slave labour camp is the latest -- and the one that's shocked me most.
The details of the incident were truly shocking, deeply disturbing and almost beyond belief in this day and age.
The victims were found severely malnourished, held in horse boxes, some covered in excrement.
Many of the captives were people who were homeless or had alcohol or drug problems, and were targeted at soup kitchens or hostels for the homeless.
The details are like something from a Soviet gulag. One was established at a caravan park in Bedfordshire, allegedly by a group of Irish Travellers.
The shocking details from Green Acres caravan park come on the heels of recent disclosures that a gang of Travellers with connections in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, have been stealing rhino horns for sale from museums in Europe and the US.
In Dublin we've seen Travellers murdered in drugs feuds. In rural areas they've been responsible for 20 years worth of targeted burglaries.
How has the travelling community come to such a low pass?
As a youngster I remember -- with affection -- the many Travelling families that camped around my Kerry neighbourhood.
This generation of Travellers repaired metal and sold horses. Their main infringement was letting animals graze in a farmer's field.
As a young garda in Rathfarnham, I met more Travellers and I became friends with many of them.
Most of the Travellers years ago were likable people.
But late in my career as a detective I saw ominous changes coming.
Travellers left their old lifestyle and embraced a different culture. Unfortunately many turned to drugs and crime.
The signs first came in the 1980s with Operation Shannon, when gardai were forced to set up checkpoints on every crossing of the River Shannon to monitor the movements of Travellers targeting elderly people's homes for burglaries.
This culminated in the high profile case of burglar John 'Frog' Ward, shot dead after terrorising farmer Padraig Nally in Co Mayo.
Meanwhile, many Traveller families have banded into major cross-border crime syndicates, with connections in many countries. They are suspected of social welfare fraud, sprees of burglaries, the supply of drugs and now -- as we have seen in England -- forced labour.
In light of the recent revelations about organised traveller crime we now need a dedicated unit to monitor what appears to be Ireland's biggest crime gang. They have shown themselves to be as ruthless as any mafia.
They need to be tackled as such.