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Grim Times for Irish Travelers

While the history of Irish Travellers is to a large extent shrouded in the mists of the past, records indicate that they have contributed to Ireland’s cultural tapestry for close to a millennium, ever since the 12th century. As far back as 1551, in a sober premonition of the discrimination Travellers have continued to suffer from, an ‘Acte for tynkers and pedlers’ prohibited their engagement in nomadic trading.

Like most communities in Ireland that experienced poverty, Irish Travellers have their history of emigration, which has taken place predominantly to the UK and the US. In Britain, there are Reports of Irish Travellers dating as far back as 1850.

Although largely unrecognized by non-Travellers, Irish Travellers have a rich vein of cultural history with their own identifiable language and customs. Indeed, the Travellers language Shelta, which is comprised of two dialects,  Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant, can be traced back to the eighteenth century.

As recently as the mid-twentieth century, Travellers played an important role in rural Ireland where they were important participants in seasonal agricultural work. Traveller families would journey around the country, helping out on farms where they would stay on a yearly basis. Travellers also earned their keep by engaging in horse-trading, scrap dealing and craftwork, while also being a valued source of news and lively entertainment. However, despite their acknowledged role in Ireland, Travellers were often made feel unwelcome in the communities where they stayed, to which Irish folklore sadly pays testament.

Since then, the situation of Travellers has only deteriorated. They have seen their work in the seasonal agricultural sector all but disappear while income from their other occupations has also declined precipitously. This sobering economic reality has seen them grow more isolated from mainstream Irish society and resulted in their encountering an increasing level of antipathy from settled people wherever they go.

The boom years also passed the Travellers by. Despite the rapid increase in economic growth and wealth that Ireland experienced during the Celtic Tiger years, Travellers remained predominantly in the same impoverished condition as before. Indeed, many travellers actually saw their economic status deteriorate. Unfortunately, the current recession means that their situation is unlikely to improve any time in the near future.

The 2006 Census records the number of Travellers usually resident in Ireland as 23,509, though this figure has been disputed due to the manner in which the relevant question was posed. Alternative calculations, using the 2002 census figure as a base, estimated that Irish Travellers probably number over 25,000 today.

In terms of demographic data, it is perhaps the age profile of Travellers which is the most notable. Amongst the general population, young people between 0-14 make up 20.4 per cent of the population, while the corresponding proportion for Travellers was 41.4 per cent. On the other hand, while 11 per cent of the general population are over 65 this only comprises 2.6 per cent of the Traveller population. These disparities can be attributed both to the tendency of Travellers to have larger families as well as their inferior economic status and lack of adequate health care.

One of the major issues concerning Travellers is that of accommodation and the reaction of the mainstream Irish community to their way of life. This is at least partly due to the manner in which settled people tend to believe that the identity of Travellers is based solely around the issue of their nomadism. As a result, there has been a widespread belief that if an end is put to the nomadism of Travellers, their assimilation into mainstream society would soon follow.

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that the 2006 Census tends to focus on this area of Traveller life, noting that the overall number of Travellers living in permanent accommodation had risen by 1,750 (13 per cent) since the 2002 census with a corresponding fall in temporary housing units of 2,295 (29.5 per cent) during the same period.

However, behind the statistics lies the grim reality of Travellers attempting to come to terms with living in permanent accommodation in the midst of settled people, who are often unhappy to have them there. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that many settled people have little or no understanding of the Travellers way of life, culture and traditions.

For many Travellers, the dislocation in their lives which results when they are obliged to move into permanent accommodation can be highly traumatic. For people used to being able to move around freely, the static nature of their new existence can be extremely stressful, often resulting in mental health problems. Women, in particular, can find themselves cut off from their previous social networks and support with their concerns such as childcare.

Therefore, in addition to the standard problems faced by anyone moving into new accommodation, Travellers also have additional support needs including, for example, the practical issue of living in a house as well as potential discrimination and isolation.

Education is also a source of serious concern for many Travellers. Although virtually 100 per cent of Traveller children, approximately 6,000 children, attend primary school, it was estimated in 2004 that 15 per cent fall out of the system when transferring to post-primary education, well short of the 95 per cent  transfer target.

The picture is even worse in terms of the total percentage of Travellers of post-primary school age (13 to 18) that actually attend school with in 2002 almost two-thirds having left by the minimum statutory age of 15 compared with 15 per cent of the general population.  As a result, many Traveller parents are highly alarmed at the failure of the educational system to cater for the needs of their children.

A central component in the failure of Traveller children to adjust to the educational system is the absence of any connection between Traveller culture and society within the Irish secondary school educational system. This can lead to Traveller children feeling isolated or even more worryingly being subject to bullying from other students who are unable to understand or appreciate their way of life.

It is hardly surprising therefore that many Travellers quit formal education at a young age and, if possible, drift into other forms of training where they might be in the company of other members of their community.

In order to remain true to the credo ‘no child shall be left behind’, the Irish educational system needs to provide urgently required additional support that will ensure Traveller children are able to fully realise their potential while at school. In addition, anti-discrimination and anti-racist training should be provided to educational professionals, particularly those in the front line such as teachers, in order to support them in their efforts to successfully provide an effective intercultural education.

A critical issue in this respect is that the cultural identity of Travellers has never received any explicit acknowledgement on the part of the Irish government. Travellers are still not recognized as a particular ethnicity or ethnic group, which means that any discrimination experienced by Travellers will not be categorised as ‘racism’. However, the discrimination that Travellers experience is frequently similar to that faced by other ethnic groups in Ireland.

Interestingly enough, since 2000 Irish Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic group in the UK following the High Court case involving Kiely and others v. Allied Domecq and others. As a consequence, Irish Travellers are covered by race relations legislation in Britain.

Following their recent annual conference the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) issued an appeal to the Irish government that Travellers be recognised as a separate minority ethnic group. The ITM call for ethnic recognition is being supported by a broad range of organisations including the Equality Authority, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) and Amnesty International.

As the ITM Chair, Catherine Joyce, explains

“Ethnic status would provide greater protection of Travellers cultural independence under law. This would include official recognition of Traveller culture in the provision of housing, education, health services… It also would have implications in terms of ensuring Traveller representation in the political system. Furthermore, there is… an important symbolic meaning of Traveller Culture becoming validated as both distinct and valued within Irish society.”

However, by itself, this recognition of Irish Travellers as a separate and unique ethnic group, while serving as an important first step in helping Irish Travellers improve their political, economic and social status, will not prove enough in itself.

Indeed, if Ireland is to be serious about helping Travellers overcome the problems that afflict their community, the one-dimensional and assimilationist approach currently in favour needs to be discontinued immediately. Instead, the rich heritage and identity of Irish Travellers, which is an intrinsic part of Ireland’s cultural mosaic should be acknowledged and appropriate legislation confirming their equal status introduced. Above all, Travellers themselves should be fully incorporated in and at the very centre of any future decisions that bear upon the well-being and future of their communities.

JUSTIN FREW can be reached at cead_milte@yahoo.co.uk.

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