Who are the Travellers?

Rónán Burtenshaw
(Cover photo Allen McWeeney)

In the first of a three-part series, Rónán Burtenshaw talks to Brigid Quilligan of the Irish Traveller Movement and examines the plight of one of the most marginalised cultural and ethnic groups in Irish society.

The Traveller community is Ireland’s largest indigenous ethnic minority, numbering 40,000 on the island of Ireland and 36,224 in the republic, according to the 2008 All-Ireland Traveller Health Survey (AITHS). They are also one of the most socially marginalised and economically deprived populations in the country, with many living in conditions that are more akin to early 20th century Ireland than the advanced industrial society we inhabit today. But how much do members of the settled community know about this group which occupies such a controversial position in a society of which it numbers less than 1%?

There is some debate about the origins of the Traveller people as a distinct group. The 2011 RTÉ documentary The Blood of the Travellers featured research from a team of scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of Edinburgh who claimed the separation between the Traveller and settled community occurred over 1,000 years ago. The research, which acknowledged the common lineage of the Traveller and settled communities, concluded that the connection between the two was no stronger than that between Norwegians and Icelanders.

Previously, historians had tended to attribute the development of the Traveller community to the economic, social and political conditions of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was theorised that they had developed in response to economic necessity for itinerant labour as well as the displacing effects of landlordism, colonialism and widespread poverty. Travellers fulfilled a need in the developing towns of early modern Ireland for the seasonal reintegration of the leftovers of the production process – aged animals, metals and other forms of scrap – developing trades in tinsmithing and horse-rendering, and a nomadic lifestyle.

But neither of these were the history most Traveller children were taught at school, according to Brigid Quilligan of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM): “When I was growing up assimilation was the approach taken to what was called ‘the Traveller problem’. There was nothing positive about my community in the school curriculum.

“I remember being told in history class from a very early age that Travellers were just a fallout from the famine – people who were displaced and didn’t own property and came to the roads. Whereas what my grandparents had told me was that we had always been Travelling people prior to any famine. But when I challenged this in school I would be punished.”

In many ways the experience of the Traveller community mirrors that of the native Americans, whose “uncivilised tribes” were broken apart for cultural assimilation and dispossession in the late 19th century, and the Australian aboriginals, deemed “not of full blood” by the Australian government in 1937 and slated for a similar assimilation process. Both, like Travellers, maintained oral traditions of history, which the schooling of the dominant groups in society attempted to erase.

“When the state is dealing with us they always see us as a problem. If they don’t recognise us as a people, how can they respect us?”

While nomadic communities were disenfranchised by the development of the modern, centralised state, the policy of assimilation really intensified for Irish Travellers in 1963. In its first Traveller-specific policy, the government began a concerted effort to end the nomadism of the community, by introducing halting sites in set locations and through a policy of housing and settlement to end itinerancy in the community. The assimilation, according to Quilligan, was a disaster:

“When the state is dealing with us they always see us as a problem. If they don’t recognise us as a people, how can they respect us? How can any policy they develop work for the people? They have tried to ‘normalise’ us. And it has created so much dysfunction in our community. They have tried to put people into walls, taking everything that they know and value away from them. They have put people in a situation where they can’t operate – the markets, horse-dealing, all the ways we used to work have been stripped away from us. And when you do that, you have a people who don’t know how to and don’t want to cope in their environment. They want to be themselves.”

This has had a profound effect on mental health in the community. As Thomas McCann of the Travelling Counselling Service pointed out at last year’s annual ITM conference: “There is clear and compelling evidence that the long history of cultural oppression, racism and marginalisation has contributed to the high levels of mental health problems found in many communities. This is no different for the Traveller community who have experienced racism, discrimination and exclusion for generations.” The suicide rate amongst Travellers is six times higher than among settled people.

If the “dysfunction” in the Traveller community, which Quilligan acknowledges also manifests in serious problems with violence and drug abuse, is a problem then the deprivation the community faces is a catastrophe. The AITHS also found that life expectancy among men was 61.7 years – a full 15.1 years less than the rest of the population. For women it was 70.1 years, 11.1 years behind. The death rate amongst Traveller infants was 14.1 per 1,000, compared to 3.9 in the rest of the population.

The figures from the 2006 census make even starker reading. Travellers are one quarter as likely as the settled community to make it past 60 years of age. 75% of them were either unemployed (64%) or still seeking their first job (11%), compared with what was then only 8.4% of the population as a whole. (By 2011, only 5% of Traveller men and 4% of women had jobs.) The census also exposed an education crisis in the community: 52.7% of Travellers had achieved only primary-level schooling or less, compared with just 15.4% of the total population who also progressed no further. While 47.6% of those living in the Irish state had at least higher second-level education, only 3.4% of Travellers could count on this. “You only need to look at these statistics once,” Quilligan says, “to see that our community is imploding.”

“The deprivation the community faces is a catastrophe. Life expectancy among men is 61.7 years – a full 15.1 years less than the rest of the population. For women it is 70.1 years, 11.1 years behind.”

The discriminatory attitudes of the settled population have been demonstrated in a number of high-profile incidents in the past few months. In September, the district court judge, and former Fianna Fáil TD, Seamus Hughes described individuals before him in the court as “neanderthal men … abiding by the laws of the jungle”. The same judge referred to a non-Traveller woman who had committed a violent crime as a “tinker” in his court in December.

In January another judge used the word “knackers” to refer to defendants in a burglary case. Also that month, the Donegal Fianna Fáil councillor Sean McEniff suggested that Travellers should be segregated out from the settled community because people “didn’t want [to live] beside” them. He was backed up by the Fine Gael town councillor Eugene Dolan, also from Donegal, who said: “They can be sent to Spike Island for all I care.” Following this a house slated to be occupied by Travellers in the area was burned down in a suspected arson attack.

The discriminatory attitude against Travellers extends to the highest reaches of government. In September the Fine Gael minister for the environment, community and local government, Phil Hogan, was discovered to have intervened in a housing allocation to try to prevent Travellers from moving into an area in Kilkenny. Last month, Fine Gael’s party chairman, Charles Flanagan, felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Irish Times diminishing the “cultural uniqueness” of Travellers as “not of a scale to justify minority status”, concluding that suggestions of affording this to them were as “ludicrous” as affording it to Jews.

In 2011, as part of a long engagement by the Catholic church with Ireland’s most religious community, the Jesuit sociologist Dr Micheál Mac Gréil examined the history of discriminatory attitudes towards Travellers by settled people. Although attitudes had fluctuated from the 1970s onwards, he showed an alarming increase in the number of people who would deny them citizenship (almost 20%), as well as significant numbers who would not employ them (40%) or welcome them into their family (60%).

Despite this, Quilligan says that willingness persists in the community to play a part in Irish society. “Ask any Traveller anywhere do they feel valued in Irish society, and I think they’d say no. Ask them do they want to contribute to Irish society, and they’ll say yes.”

These prejudices of the settled population, whose dominant social position affords them the power to shape cultural norms and attitudes that are received by Travellers from a young age, have led to a stigma that has permeated the community itself: “It’s sad, but we see such a loss of identity amongst our people.

“You have some going off to college – to become doctors, lawyers, nurses, gardaí – and they won’t acknowledge their identity, because they are afraid that they won’t get employed. People who lead very productive lives, who own businesses, shops and bars, all denying that they’re Traveller because they’ll lose custom.”

In the face of this the community has rallied around Traveller Pride Week, a summer celebration of Traveller culture and contribution to Irish society. “It’s important,” Quilligan says, “not just for settled people but Travellers too to see a positive image of our community.” As the community faces down the crude stereotypes and wanton exploitation of shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, initiatives like this have probably never been as important.

“While 47.6% of those living in the Irish state had at least higher second-level education, only 3.4% of Travellers could count on this.”

Yet, despite a distinct culture, evidence of separate ethnic lineage and a history of individual and systemic discrimination, the Irish state continues to refuse to recognise the Traveller community’s status as a minority group. In Britain, the ethnicity of Travellers was put into law in 2000; in Northern Ireland they have been classified as a distinct “racial group” since 1997.

A little over a year ago, the government decided to reject a recommendation from peer UN states to recognise the Travellers as an ethnic minority, despite its representative acknowledging that it was “quite clear we need to do more”.

Members of the Traveller community, however, are undeterred. Quilligan says the movement is “determined” to see legislation passed to recognise its ethnic-minority status, as a symbolic step forward for the group and a potential silver bullet against the myriad of discrimination they face.

“What we want here is to start off on a proper footing with a recognition of our people. We are not failed settled people. We are not a problem to be fixed. We want our people to walk tall again, to lift the generations of oppression and the sense of shame that’s been imposed on us. Because this is who we are: we’re Travellers.”