Wikipedia describes Irish Travellers as “a traditionally nomadic people of Irish origin living predominantly in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States”. An exact figure for the Traveller population of Ireland is not known. A national census in 2006 put the figure at 22,369. A subsequent All Ireland Traveller Health Study estimated their revised statistics to be 36,224 in the 26 counties of the Republic and 3,905 in the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. However, it is widely acknowledged that a significant number of Travellers, because of illiteracy and/or suspicion of authority, did not participate in this or any other census. So, at best, it is a conservative estimate but one which does give some indication of Traveller status, i.e. that they are an overall but significant minority and, as such, one whose needs and rights must be recognised and addressed by the Irish people and state.
During the latter half of the 20th century and, in particular, during the era of the so-called Celtic Tiger, Irish society has seen extremely rapid and wide-ranging cultural and demographic changes. The traditional self-employed businesses of the Travellers including horse and scrap metal dealing, door-to-door sale of domestic goods, tinsmithing and music-making have all come under threat from so-called ‘progress’. Such threats to Travellers’ way of life need to be addressed in a manner which includes rather than excludes the Travelling community in mainstream Irish society.
Discrimination and Prejudice:
During the same period in both Ireland and Britain (where Irish Travellers make up a significant percentage of the nomadic population until recently officially referred to as ‘Travellers and Gypsies’) growing discrimination, legislation restricting travel, lack of official sites and loss of traditional halting sites have all threatened the ancient nomadic ways of the Travelling People. Travellers as a whole are routinely branded by the media, politicians, a significant number of the Irish Gardai and British constabulary, not to mention a large percentage of the settled public as ‘criminal’ although the begging and petty crime pursued by a minority of Travellers are relatively rare features of respectable Travelling People. A major challenge for Travellers today is how to retain their unique culture and lifestyle when the fundamentals of their existence are under threat from so many sides including the criminal and anti-social minority within their own community. One of the main difficulties from which respectable, settled Travellers suffer is a problematic one – as so many Travellers maintain a very low profile in order to remain ‘under the radar’ they have become so invisible as to be referred to by people who attempt to understand their predicament as ‘hidden people’.
In the USA, it seems that most Americans are unaware of the existence of Irish Travellers in their midst. Following reports of a series of scams involving a particular Traveller family in South Carolina in 2002, a Dateline NBC report claimed that American Irish Travellers habitually defraud their neighbours. However, just as in Ireland and Britain, there is no statistical evidence that Traveller presence either raises or lowers the local crime rate. This prompted Lee Wetherington, the Chief of Police of N. Augusta in South Carolina, to challenge the Dateline statement by declaring publicly: “Sure... there are scam artists. But the scoundrels among the Travellers are about the same proportion as in society at large” (Lynn Duke, Unknown Stares at Quiet Clan, The Washington Post, 20/10/2002).