RATHKEALE, Ireland -- Christmas in Ireland is a time of homecomings, with joyous family reunions at airports and ferry piers. But the largest single gathering of all briefly turns this little town into the only place in Ireland where armed police officers patrol the streets 24 hours a day to deter internecine feuds and other disorderly conduct.
Usually, Rathkeale is an unremarkable rural town in County Limerick, but every year at this time, cavalcades of Irish nomads -- known as travelers -- return here to the place they regard as their spiritual home. It is an opportunity to hold fairy-tale weddings and christenings, and to settle old scores. The highly mobile families are deeply interwoven through marriage and kinship, and extremely suspicious of outsiders and the authorities.
For about six weeks of the year, the town's population swells to 4,500 from 1,500, and ostentatious displays of wealth are common. Expensive sport utility vehicles create gridlock in the narrow streets and alleyways, trailers and mobile homes clutter the sidewalks and young men speed through the surrounding country lanes in their sports cars.
A long history of violence between clans hangs like a cloud over the travelers. 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.
Over the past couple of decades, the travelers have bought or built houses in Rathkeale. The rows of extravagant, mock-Georgian mansions that have sprung up just off the main street are boarded up for most of the year but come alive around Christmas when their owners return, mainly from Britain but also from increasingly far-flung places.
The Rathkeale travelers have long had a reputation for business acumen, making fortunes by developing property, dealing antiques, trading in scrap metal and asphalt paving. But in recent years, a growing body of evidence has fueled suspicions that not all of the money flowing into Rathkeale comes from strictly legal transactions and that the property deals are a form of money laundering.
"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," said one Rathkeale resident, who did not want to be named. "Who really believes tarring driveways or fixing gutters gets you those massive houses or flashy cars?"
Certainly, travelers with links to Rathkeale have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years.
Five members of one family were sentenced to prison this month after being found guilty of forcing vulnerable men to work for them under virtually slavelike conditions. According to court documents, the British police believe that the family owns several properties in Rathkeale, and the British authorities are working with their Irish counterparts to seize the family's assets.
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, the deputy chief of law enforcement with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency expected "more indictments of members of the Rathkeale Irish Traveler group."
"These Irish Traveler gang members are the middlemen in the operation that also involves Chinese and Asian gangs," he said. "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 fueling an illegal trade and that means more incentive to kill endangered species."
According to Mr. Grace, rhino horns fetch about $5,000 a pound in the United States, but it is worth $25,000 a pound by the time it gets to Asia, where it is ground down to make potions with unproved medicinal benefits and perceived aphrodisiacal qualities.
The Irish police have long been aware of the Rathkeale rhino connection.
In January 2010, customs officers at Shannon Airport seized rhino horns worth an estimated $700,000. Later that year, Europol, the pan-European police force, issued a statement implicating a network of gangs it called "The Rathkeale Rovers" in a variety of crimes, including the smuggling of rhino horns.
"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," Europol said in a statement.
"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."
But just before Christmas, the streets of Rathkeale were relatively quiet. Joe Williams, the local butcher who also runs a boxing club where many travelers train, described the police presence as "overkill" and said the travelers had been unfairly stigmatized.
"You would get the impression it's not safe to walk out your door, but it's simply not the case," Mr. Williams said. "The vast majority of travelers are very good people. There are a few bad apples, but that's the same in every part of society."
But he also said that he might as well close his shop earlier than usual because the sheer concentration of outsiders was enough to deter year-round residents from coming out.
"Locals from the surrounding areas prefer to shop in the mornings because they know the lads are still sleeping off the night before," he said.
John Dinnage, who operates a small clothing store and volunteers on the local community council, insisted that relations between the travelers and the other residents of Rathkeale were largely cordial.
"They're good for business," he said. "They're the only ones who seem to have any money. It's the media that gives this town a bad name, not the travelers."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.