A Traveller doesn’t just mean someone who is nomadic. A Traveller who settles in a home doesn’t cease to be a Traveller. My good friend, the great Traveller singer, Tommy McCarthy, who currently lives in a flat in London often quotes his mother Mary’s facetious but pertinent response to that conundrum: “if a cat shelters in a kennel, at what stage does he become a dog?” Jake Bowers, a Romany Gypsy journalist who writes for the Travellers Times, estimates that “about half of all Gypsies and Travellers nowadays live in houses. The other half live in caravans on private caravan sites, public caravan sites and on unauthorised encampments”. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that permanent housing or halting site solutions also go a considerable way towards easing two of the other major problems for Travellers, those of health and education.
Historically, non-Settled Travellers, by virtue of moving from one site to another, rarely remain in one location long enough for ‘continued’ education to be possible. Most Settled Travellers, on the other hand, rarely attend schools much beyond primary level (if even that) as they regard these as places where children will be bullied for their way of life. Like many people with whom I discussed teacher (lay and vocational) bullying of Traveller children, I personally witnessed teachers bullying Traveller children at the Christian Brothers primary school which I attended – consequently it came as no surprise when Traveller kids ceased to attend. A consequence of such circumstances is that “Gypsy and Traveller pupils have the worst school attendance record of any minority ethnic group” according to Grace O’Malley of the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain Charity. In various cities and larger towns in Ireland this problem is currently being addressed by some of our more enlightened teachers and school administrators and a significant increase in Traveller attendance can be seen in secondary and third level education. This progressive approach is long overdue because education is, without doubt, the greatest tool by which Travellers can become empowered, become more eloquent, cohesive and confident in the presentation of their own case to an often very ignorant outside world. What is currently happening for Travellers in Ireland’s education system is long overdue and addresses just the proverbial tip-of-the-iceberg. It represents a most welcome beginning, albeit only the beginning, of steps along the right path to a better future.
“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 without access to the basic facilities of sanitation, water and electricity. This leads to ongoing health problems among the Travelling Community. 10% of Traveller children do not live to reach their second birthday compared with 1% of the children of settled parents. A report of the Health Research Board (1987) revealed that Traveller men live on average, ten years less than settled men, while Traveller women live on average, twelve years less than their settled peers. Discrimination and its effects are a daily feature of Travellers’ lives”. (Irish Traveller Movement website 2010). These figures sound more like statistics for an emerging Third World country than for modern Ireland, a country for which there are otherwise many, many reasons to be justifiably proud.
Whatever the long term solutions to the problems of Irish Travellers, in the short term in the context of the wider society of modern Ireland, we cannot and must not continue to marginalise these fellow citizens whose human rights and needs are no less a priority than those of any other Irish citizen. Summarising the need for social change in respect of Travellers’ rights, Louise Harrington and Michael Hayes conclude that “what way the wheel turns depends very much on the steps being taken by the Irish public and, indeed, the Irish state to make Ireland a more inclusive country in which to live”. (Travellers, Gypsies, Roma: The Demonstration Of Difference). We, as a group of concerned writers, artists, performers, etc., are committed to continue our public celebration of the culture and lifestyle of Irish Travellers.