My own life as a Traveller is not perhaps a typical one. I qualify that statement, as there is no such thing as a typical life for an Irish Traveller, considering how diverse the group actually is. I, personally, grew up in a house and attended primary and secondary school and in that sense would be indistinguishable from most non-travellers. However, in that sense alone I differed a great deal from my family. My grandparents are barely literate, my parents have no educational qualifications and I am the only one of my siblings to complete A-levels.
In another way, I differed a great deal to many of the people I went to school with. Strangely, for someone in Northern Ireland, I did not readily identify with either the Nationalist or Unionist Community; rather, I was first-most a Traveller and all else second.
Some people would find it odd, that for someone who has lived in a house for all his life, that I would readily identify as an Irish Traveller, a phrase that by definition would imply a nomadic existence. This speaks, however, of a misunderstanding, as being a Traveller is being part of a separate ethnic group that one has to be born into. It relates to being part of a large extended family with cultural ideas often different from the general population. Whether you live in a house or trailer is immaterial.
My first day in Trinity Halls, at the beginning of first year, was a day which vividly echoes in my mind a year and a half later. Roughly half an hour after I was dropped off, two of the new flatmates began to discuss how awful it would be to have a Traveller as a flatmate, unaware that one was sitting right beside them. One of them dropped out some days later. The other found out I was one and apologised, and we became friends afterwards.
It was a tacit remainder all the same of the low opinion of my background that is held by many, though thankfully not all, of the settled community. Though indicative perhaps of a generalisation, it is one that had been reinforced by reading or watching any media depiction of Irish Travellers, which are often offensive and ill-informed.
Coming to Trinity, I had a fear I would be ostracised because of my background. This fear was accentuated by a determination on my part not to lie about my background if it ever came up, and a realisation of how generally unpopular Irish Travellers are in Ireland.
With this underlying fear, Trinity in some ways confirmed my views. On a regular basis as I walk through the arts block I overhear negative comments on the topic of Travellers. Normally these comments would refer to “Gypsies” or “Knackers”, and their apparent involvement in crimes such as stealing. On numerous occasions since coming to Trinity I have heard people use those words as a jokey insult to their friends for taking something, most memorably in the living room of the apartment I was living in at Halls.
On Facebook, following a horrible and vicious knife attack on a security guard at the Milltown Luas stop, one individual decided to inform the Halls page that it was most certainly these Gypsy lads who were apparently always there. Needless to say, his accusation was groundless. He apologised on Facebook and made a donation to Pavee Point after I decided to report the matter to College. My decision to report the matter was ultimately due to a frustration at my experiences to that point. Settled people claim they often feel alienated by the Travelling People; rarely do they admit that the feeling can run both ways.
Now I will be the first to admit that some Irish Travellers do in fact deserve and earn the opprobrium of society as a whole. There is a criminal element within the community – but it is a small group. Reports by several Garda Commissioners in the Republic have often shown that even in areas with large Travelling populations, they do not in fact commit most of the crimes.
From my perspective as Traveller, the vast majority of all crime, minor or serious, is carried out by non-Travellers. Yet I don’t assume that every Settled person I meet is going to rob or murder me. As with Settled people, the vast majority of Travellers are not involved in criminal activity, but the actions of those who are involved are used to tarnish the whole community. This perception makes it difficult sometimes to be a Traveller in Ireland, and often it is infuriating.
However it must be said, I have had positive experiences as well. Most of my friends are aware of my background, and this hasn’t affected our friendships in the slightest way. Trinity itself has been very supportive as well towards me, treating me as an ethnic minority.
The latter point must be emphasised as in Northern Ireland, where I am from, I am an ethnic minority, yet whenever I cross an invisible line between Tyrone and Monaghan I magically transform into a social group member. Though the distinction may not seem important to some, it is important all the same. Personally I see myself as being part as an ethnic minority. One cannot become or stop being a Traveller; you are born one.
Furthermore, it allows legal protection, which is sadly normally missing in the South of Ireland. Too often there are reports of politicians promising Traveller-free areas to electorates and the infamous case of the Garda placing young Traveller children on the Pulse system.
Given this, I have still felt comfortable expressing my identity within Trinity. At the end of last term, I gave a short talk with a fellow Traveller in college on our experiences and it was well received by those present.
On the whole, my experiences have been mixed. Positive in that those who know me have never made an issue of my background and occasionally have shown some interest in it and asked me questions. It has never hindered my work. On the contrary, it acts as a sort of motivation to do better. It’s not so much to prove Travellers can be intelligent, it’s not that at all; rather, it’s a desire to be the best I can and to overcome prejudice.
There has also been the negative side; it is not a pleasant to overhear racist comments on the matter. In Irish society, it is often still seen as acceptable to make those kind of comments without rebuke. It can be frustrating to deal with and has on occasion left me feeling alienated from my fellow students.
My aim in writing this article was to improve awareness. Most people are unaware that there are Irish Travellers in Trinity and many don’t believe that they could get in. I for one came in through direct entry, yet others have came in as mature students or through access programs. Currently there are four students in college who identify openly as Irish Travellers. It may be higher as some Travellers may not have felt comfortably to identify as such due to public perceptions of us.
Settled people should recognise that Travellers are not a homogeneous group with identical views, or all part of the same family, but accept that Travellers do see themselves differently from the main population. Being a Traveller is not a lifestyle choice but rather an integral part of our identity.