I’m just going to come out with it. When the Irish Traveller Community was first described to me, my madcap American mind wandered completely in a hippified direction, conjuring up images of long-haired, carefree, wacky tobacc-y imbibing folks listening to Sugar Magnolia on a warm summer’s eve.  Caravans = campers. And living on the road in one for years = Grateful Deadheads or Phish Phans, right? Needless to say, I was terribly wrong on that one. But to me, the Travellers are still are a bit of a mystery. And I am still trying to really understand their origins and culture…

This topic is particularly top of mind at the moment as TV3 have produced a program on the Irish Traveller culture and we eagerly watched the first of three parts on Tuesday evening.  I certainly learned a few things that I hadn’t known. Namely, that Christianity is highly revered in their society. Communions and other sacraments are celebrated in a much more grandiose manner than in the settled society (frankly, I didn’t realize that was possible). Funerals are flamboyant and headstones are criticized for being too showy and large, but they feel that these shrines honor their dearly departed in the greatest sense. Nearly all Travellers make the trek up the massive holy mountain of Croagh-Patrick where the famous Saint Patrick fasted for 44 days. I had no idea the Traveller community were so devout. Sadly, based on my limited knowledge and rhetoric heard on the streets, I had regrettably made the false assumption that these nomadic people were not of the religious ilk at all…and I have a feeling I am not alone on that.

According to the Irish Traveller Movement website, an Irish Traveller is defined as this:

Travellers are an indigenous minority who, historical sources confirm, have been part of Irish society for centuries. Travellers long shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions make them a self-defined group, and one which is recognisable and distinct. Their culture and way of life, of which nomadism is an important factor, distinguishes them from the sedentary (settled) population.

There are an estimated 25,000 Travellers in Ireland, making up more than 4,485 Traveller families. This constitutes approximately 0.5% of the total national population. It is estimated that an additional 15,000 Irish Travellers live in Britain, with a further 10,000 Travellers of Irish descent living in the United States of America.

Travellers, as individuals and as a group, experience a high level of prejudice and exclusion in Irish society. Many have to endure living in intolerable conditions, with approximately one third having to live without access to the basic facilities of sanitation, water and electricity. This leads to ongoing health problems among the Traveller community. A report of the Health Research Board (1987) revealed that Traveller men live, on average, 10 years less than settled men, while Traveller women live on average 12 years less than their settled peers. Discrimination and its effects are a daily feature of Travellers lives.

Over the past few years, I have clearly come to realise that, generally speaking, the Travellers are definitely not viewed as fun-loving, American-style hippy types I had imagined. I can see that they are actually viewed as just the opposite: a threat to mainstream society. In fact, many settled people speak of the Traveller community with utter disdain. I have overheard countless complaints regarding the Traveller’s nomadic lifestyle and what happens when a community decides to “move into” your neighborhood and destroy it. I have read a litany of newspaper articles about the “menacing traveller caravans” lined up and using private or public fences for firewood or creating outdoor toilets that fill up and are left behind hence posing a serious health hazard for the area.

On the TV3 program, a young man describes what he considers racism along the lines of what minorities experience in America. He explained that the terms, “knacker” or “pikey” for which they are often called, are basically used in the same way as the term, “nigger” is used in the U.S.A.

Without a doubt, Travellers experience a tremendous amount of prejudice and feel they are greatly misunderstood. I titled this post “The Road Less Travelled” because in the last two years I’ve noticed that I don’t see the caravans parked along the motorways or lined along the roundabouts approaching the city anymore. Perhaps I will find out why on the next installment of “The Truth About Travellers” and do a follow-up.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Find out more about Alen Macweeney and the Irish Traveller photo book here

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2 Responses to “The Road Less Travelled”

  1. Thanks for tackling this subject, Imen. For me, it was one of those topics — like The Troubles — that I was just resigned to not being able to figure out fully. I stopped asking about travelers a while ago because no one can seem to properly explain them without getting really racist (classist? discriminatory? I don’t know what to call it). All I know is that when I was working at the retail shop in Galway, when a group of three travelers came in the managers whipped into action commanding employees to tail them at every step making sure they didn’t steal anything. When I asked why, my boss explained that last time “they” (travelers) came in they stole hundreds of euros worth of product.

  2. Foodie Mummy says:

    I have watched it too and found it fascinating. Like you coming from a different country, I had a different idea of what the Travellers would be like. What really broke my heart was the woman who said that her 9 or 10 year old attending school is already being faced with prejudice and other kids will not play with her. I find that horrifying that people instill that type of prejudice in such young children! Great post!

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