Fellow Travellers

Old Friends touches slightly the relationship between Travellers and the people around them. It’s a subject that many of us largely avoid because the situation of Travellers within the larger Irish community continues to be a highly divisive issue. There is nothing about the situation for any of us to be proud about. 

This was again highlighted when the brilliant John Joe Nevin won a silver medal for Ireland in the London Olympics. The whole country cheered for him. Huge numbers gathered in his home town of Mulingar to watch the final on a big screen. Yet we heard afterwards that his extended family had to go to neighbouring towns to watch the fights – not allowed in the pubs in Mulingar. And many of the same ‘settled’ people who were supporting John Joe while he wore the Irish jersey, also sympathized with the publicans who barred Nevins from facilities in the town. Apparently we still do not see anything wrong with punishing an entire community for the offences of a couple of individuals. The Nevins and John Joe himself were deeply hurt and compared their situation to that of pre-Civil rights era African Americans. Even these conflicts of perspectives and clashes of emotions have not provoked us into bringing the discussion back into the public arena.

If there’s anything that a majority of ‘Travellers’ and ‘Settled people’ seem to agree on these days it is that ‘they’ are virtually another race from ‘us’. Each for different reasons wants to put distance. Bad news though. Genetics, culture, and history all tell us that as my Grandmother used to say, we are ‘all the one dirty tribe’

Getting the names right

It is quite confusing for people not from Ireland, to figure out the differences that we Irish see so starkly. A ‘Traveller’ is a person who doesn’t travel very much any more. A ‘settled person’ is someone who is not a Traveller – even if they travel a lot! There, I hope that helps.

Also, there are names that we call each other. Some Travellers’ ancestors were itinerant tinsmiths. A few may have traded in fallen animals. Hence, Travellers were variously called ‘itinerant’ and ‘tinker’ and ‘knacker’ in the past. These terms, especially the latter, have been used in a derogatory way in recent times and Travellers find them offensive.

And then, some Travellers call settled people ‘countrymen’. I’m sure there are a few less flattering names but I haven’t heard them.

It might also be a surprise to outsiders to learn that most settled people have never been in a Traveller estate or halting site, let alone visiting a Traveller home. The divide is wide, the ignorance and suspicion mutual.

And so where do I stand? I’m not very settled so call me countryman.

Why would Travellers disown their Countrymen?

For Traveller groups the main motivation I believe is to get proper recognition for the discrimination suffered. If you are recognized as a person of separate ethnicity, there’s a whole stack of rules and protections already in place and backed up from Europe. These still do not always protect you from nastiness. But at least your plight is formally recognized. It has words like racism to put your tormentor in a shameful box. And there are established channels you can take to look for legal justice if you wish to. 

However, if you are a person of the same Nationality but of a disadvantaged social class, there is less ready legislation to protect you from discrimination or abuse. People can call you names and treat you badly just on the basis of your surname or your accent and usually there’s nothing you can do about it.

For example, if you are called a derogatory name or passed over for a job because you come from Dolphin’s Barn and have an inner city accent, you will get little sympathy and have no easy legal recourse. If you are called a derogatory name or refused a job because you come from Ghana, respectable people will be on your side (rightly) and you have an established case.

And let’s put no tooth in this: Travellers suffer extensive negative discrimination at almost every level in Irish society. The facts around life expectancy, child mortality, and access to education are worse than in many developing countries, a sad and shameful situation in a well-off country. What happened to the Nevins is a common experience for many Travellers. Law-abiding and peacable people are often denied access to services and facilities – or made to feel so unwelcome that they would rather not try. Everyone in the Traveller community is punished for the actions of a few individuals. Everyone knows that is unjust. Yet sympathy levels amongst other Irish people are low and people freely use the derogatory terms such as the k-word without any shame.  

It is quite understandable for advocacy groups to seek the established protections of a separate ethnic group. That doesn’t make it so, however.

There are also arguments about cultural differences. It has been argued that in the way people speak and behave, the difference is as great as between two separate ethnic groups. I think that this argument too has more to do with denial, on both ‘sides’. But the genetics as well as a closer look at where all of Irish culture comes from put us all in ‘the one boat’ whether we like it or not.

Why would settled people disown Travellers?

I just read a discussion thread relating to a group of Travellers who had just arrived in Sweden from the UK. The group was being blamed for tarmac rackets, extortion, and a wave of thefts. Some Irish expats on the site were angrily denying that ‘these people’ are Irish. They were saying that they are hated even more in Ireland; warning of all the terrible things that Swedish people could expect; saying that the Swedish police are too soft on them; claiming that the relationship between Irish people and the Travellers is as between Romanians and the Roma.

Let’s leave aside the festering bigots. Most people are decent and want to do the decent thing. Most people want to be alright with those around them and do not want to be unjust. Yet many settled Irish people have hardened attitudes about Travellers as many Travellers have about settled people.

So why would generally decent settled people disown our Traveller brethern? For some, especially the elderly, it’s plain fear. For some it’s resentment at a misperception of ill gotten wealth being widespread. (The vast majority of Travellers live in poverty but those with the flashy new jeeps and bling are seen more often.) 

For many, there are other factors.

Too close to the bone: Some of the reason Irish people at large react so vehemently against Travellers and their perceived lifestyles has to do with it being so close. We know in our hearts that the way we see ‘them’ is the way our ancestors were seen by others. Travellers as a group preserve elements, some good and some not so good, of a culture that once belonged to all of us. The way that Travellers are outsiders to the established ‘civilized’ society is the same way that all of our ancestors were made to feel uncouth and uncivlized outsiders in their own country not so long ago.  The Travellers’ commonly devout traditional Catholicism and adherence to older beliefs are regarded by most settled people as backward and superstitious – in the way that our own ancestors’ faith was regarded by the ascendency up to a hundred years ago. The inter-family feuding that consumes some Travellers seems surely to be a direct continuation of faction fighting that went on in fairs and villages in every part of the country. Even in recent times many of us have experienced reflections of how we regard the Travellers in how we ourselves are still regarded by some when we work on the buildings in London, when we travel to support the footballers in Poland, or when we go on destructive binges in Australlia. It’s hardly a wonder that settled people tend to have a strong negative reaction to much of Traveller life. It’s uncomfortably close. 

 Subculture clash:  Yet, peoples move on. The Irish people in many ways have moved on culturally. There is great sadness about good things that we have lost as we have assimilated ‘Western’ ways. However there are also many good things in being part of evolving ‘Western’ culture. Things that I, for one, will never apologize for subscibing to.

For example, I would never want society to go back to where many individuals did not have rights and protections. So I cannot romaticize those elements of Traveller culture that in my view are regressive.

The fact that I see how some of these elements could have evolved from old Irish (rather than alien) customs, is even more reason to say this. For example, I see Traveller children as Irish children. Therefore, they have equal rights to education. This sets me apart from many Travellers who seem to argue that the only reason for lack of education is discrimination in the schools. It is not the only reason. There are many schools that have made special efforts in recent decades to make Traveller children welcome, to bridge the gap, and to keep the children coming. But there are other factors. Like some farmers used to think that if they deprived the chosen son of education, he was sure to stay at home as he had no choice, I believe some Travellers do not make enough effort to give their children education out of fear that they will reject the lifestyle. On this, respect for Traveller culture comes second. Respect for the law of the land and for the rights of the child come first.

The same goes for child marriage, consanguinity, denial of rights to women and girls, indentured labour, and certain other practices that appear to be common in Traveller communities. The laws of Ireland come first. It is wrong that girls are taken out of school even earlier than boys in case they might meet a boy and form an unapproved relationship. It is wrong that because of denied education, people are then trapped in a lifestyle that they might still have chosen if they were educated but that they had no choice about.

And it is wrong that when Irish Travellers were put on trial in the UK for enslaving homeless men, Travellers’ advocacy groups accused prosecutors of racism.

It is wrong to use culture as a shield behind which backward practices may survive.  

There are many ills in the Traveller sub-culture. Yes, there are many ills in most other sub-cultures too. The dominant Westernized settled subcultures too. But there’s no point in fudging or gloosing over this point. There are cultural mores surviving in the Traveller community that are not acceptable in our modern society. This has not to do with politeness or embarassment. It has to do with a modern understanding of basic human rights and obligations.

And it is one of the reasons (not a justification) for settled people hardening into the view that we are fundamentally different.

Predatory crime: there is no point in not saying this. The commonest reason you will find voiced amongst settled people for the feeling of distance and alienation from Travellers is to do with a certain type of crime. In my experience, most Irish people are more tolerant than other Nationalities, of petty crime committed by anyone who is down on their luck, Traveller or settled. However there is very little tolerance of crime that involves preying on elderly, isolated, and weak people. Unfortunately, it is widely perceived in the countryside that crimes against vulnerable people, intimidation, extortion, assault, and robbery is mostly carried out by members of the Traveller community. A ‘salesman’ who visits an old person every day until they buy some shoddy product is not a salesman.  A ‘salesman’ who comes back to a widow every week for more money for a painting or tarmac job that was never asked for, is not a salesman. I can’t say whether that is true that Travellers are mainly responsible for these crimes and/or for attacks and burlaries that often follow. But I can say that you would go a long distance to find a settled person who does not have some experience that they feel confirms this.

It is good to remind ourselves that: 

  • there are criminals and predators in every community;
  • the first victims of most such criminals are in their own community;
  • people who feel cast out have less reason to respect the rules of the powerful.

Nevertheless, in terms of healing the divide, it would also be reassuring to hear Traveller advocacy groups accepting that there is an element in the Traveller communities that is involved in extorting money from vulnerable people through aggressive intimidating and criminal behaviour and condemning these tendencies out of hand. Otherwise, many settled people conclude that the Traveller communities as a whole condone it. It would also be a great step towards mutual understanding to hear Traveller leadership calling for the Gardai to be assisted in rooting out violent and predatory criminals from within the communities. When Traveller advocacy groups appear to downplay this type of crime or to dismiss out of hand the links to sections of the Traveller communities, the divide hardens immeasurably.

Settled Reflections

There is not much that I can do about the divisions stemming from within the Travelling communities themselves. But I do think it will help for us people of the settled and countrymen variety to remind ourselves of a few things:

  • most people in every community just want to live their lives and do nobody any harm
  • most people in the Travelling community did not choose the life they find themselves living
  • Travellers are as confused about the future and nostalgic about the past as we are ourselves
  • Travelling societies have much to remind us of that is good about family and community values
  • Our own ways of life are flawed and lacking in many ways
  • as the people with the power in society there is more responsibility on us to bridge the divide
  • we are not being racist or discriminatory in asking for the law to be uniformly enforced in the protection of the rights of people in any community in our country
  • the negative epithets so readily applied to Travellers are the same ones were applied to our ancestors
  • if we cannot help bridge the divide we must all at least try not to make it any wider, not to disrespect or prejudge any person for their accent or where they come from