Commenting on A.L. Beier’s Masterless Men (Methuen, London 1985), Helleiner informs us that “the breakdown of the agriculturally based feudal order… resulted in growing lawlessness and insecure wage labour, which combined with rapid population growth to create a large population of wandering poor who were perceived as a social and political danger to society”. Various statutes were introduced to combat this ‘danger’ including a 1530 Act which banned the emigration of Gypsies or ‘Egypcians’ to England. A subsequent Act some 25 years later declared that those presently in the country must leave within one month or face the death penalty! In her notes on this period, Helleiner quotes Nicholas Canny’s The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (Harvester Press, Sussex 1976) which informs us that “Sir Henry Sidney executed many itinerants at a court session in Cork in 1575... (and) Sidney’s successor in Munster, as well as the Lord Deputy of Connacht, continued the execution of masterless men”. Unsurprisingly, Helleiner concludes that “origin stories, whether colonial or pre-colonial, are profoundly linked to relations of power and resistance”, thereby underlining and going some way towards explaining the common misconception of Travellers as a whole being fundamentally anti-establishment as if to be so was a genetically inherited trait rather than a reaction to the appalling mistreatment by government institutions of Irish Travellers both under British rule up to 1922 and under Irish rule since independence! To our great shame, Travellers have been treated little better under Irish rule than they had been previously. So much for adherence to the principles of our great Proclamation of 1916!
For centuries, Travellers were referred to in the same terms as roving journeymen, seasonal workers etc. However, in Gypsy-Travellers in Nineteenth Century Society (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988), David Mayall describes how by the 19th century, the Travellers’ way of life could be distinguished from other mobile persons who travelled in order to obtain employment but otherwise conformed to a sedentary way of life. Unfortunately, regardless of changes observed and noted by concerned academics, the process of changing public opinion and perception is an often exasperatingly slow and difficult one. In The Observer newspaper of 15/11/’04, an article by A. Asthena warned that “Travellers are subject to negative, discriminating discourse that would not be acceptable against Black and Minority Ethnic communities”. This warning, while it seems to have gone mostly unheeded, went some way toward offsetting the unbridled bigotry of the likes of Bracknell MP, Andrew MacKay, who, while discussing unauthorised camping during a House Of Commons debate, under Parliamentary privilege, described Travellers as “Scum… (who) do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents” . Statements by Irish politicians during recent debates such as RTE’s Frontline and Primetime have been similarly dismissive and negative if not quite as blatantly bigoted. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed grave concern at the Irish State’s “persistent refusal” to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority and pointed out that they (i.e. Irish Travellers) satisfied the internationally recognised criteria for such a group. (K. Quarmby).
Settlement and Assimilation:
For four decades, since gaining independence in 1922, successive Irish governments paid little more than lip service to Travellers’ rights. In the early 60s, in response to the lack of a cohesive state policy to address Travellers’ problems, a radical Travellers Movement was instigated by Gratton Puxon, an English journalist. In 1963, Puxon was framed by the Gardai on an explosives charge and given the option of leaving the country or a lengthy jail sentence. Puxon chose the latter alternative and returned to the UK where he continued to work as a dedicated Traveller advocate up to and including the Dale Farm evictions. For the remainder of the 60s and 70s the interests of Ireland’s Travelling Community were mostly represented by middle class liberals as a disastrous policy of Settlement and Assimilation was adopted by the government with no Traveller consultation or participation whatsoever! (Workers Solidarity Movement, rewritten Oct. ’08).
Two major events have occurred in recent years which brought the issues of prejudice against the Travelling Community and lack of progress in dealing with Travellers’ problems to worldwide public attention; the Dale Farm evictions in the UK and the tragic deaths of ten Travellers (inc. 5 children!) in a fire on an encampment at a so-called ‘temporary’ halting site in Carrickmines, Co. Dublin.