Who are Ireland’s Travellers? – A Babylon Radio Q&A

Travellers have lived in Ireland for centuries, but this group, recently given ethnic minority status, may be unfamiliar to Ireland’s newcomers. 

The traditionally nomadic group faces documented challenges like discrimination and poor living conditions as indicated by a 2019 survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. However there is more to Travellers, who made up just .7% of Ireland’s population in 2016, than these struggles from their culture and history to contemporary life. 

The recognition of this group by society is important, “because we are a part, in essence, of what Irish is,” said Bernard Joyce, the director of the Irish Traveller Movement. 

Babylon sat down with Joyce to discuss who Travellers are, what struggles the group faces, including as winter approaches and the cost of living remains high. 

The following interview was edited for clarity and significantly condensed down from the original hour-long conversation. 

Culture undefined by borders

Babylon Radio: If someone who’s new to Ireland were to ask you, ‘who are the Travellers?’ What would your response be? 

Bernard Joyce: “My response would be, for somebody coming to Ireland to like see Travellers and who they are, they might find it a bit more difficult. But if you equate it with other groups across Europe and across the U.S. and Australia, Travellers are an Indigenous ethnic minority group in Ireland. 

They’re Irish, but they also hold a very important part of culture in terms of their language (Cant/ Shelta/Gammon) that can be very different from Celtic Irish and even predates the Irish that was taught within education curriculum in Ireland. They are very much a nomadic group and have been nomadic across Ireland and across Europe and beyond that in terms of the U.S. 

So in terms of their nomadic way of life, that has and continues to be an important part of who Irish Travellers are, but that’s not just who they are. Family, community, values and beliefs, traditions, customs are all significantly important. And in that there’s Traveller music, Traveller storytelling, and it’s significantly important. And there are some fantastic musicians in Ireland that are well established and respected throughout, similar with the storytelling. 

So in essence, they are custodians of counter culture and also of the past ancient Ireland in terms of cultures that have been lost. 

For some within the community horse ownership is really significant, really, really important and that becomes a part of their identity and who they are. So the ownership of horses plays a significant role and work and with animals is really, really important. In terms of kind of nature and the surroundings, the Travellers always felt a type of freedom, in terms of their identity as well. 

So they never really thought borders, they predate borders. So in terms of Northern Ireland and the Republic, they would travel freely, so they’d see the land as land is connected. The partition of that happened afterwards. 

So in some ways it’s something that is really fast, where we’re constantly having to be resilient to hold that identity to hold who we are as a people and that belonging to one another. There’s also in terms of recognition, an importance of their recognition and by the wider society because we are a part, in essence, of what Irish is. And our cultures and nomadism and language are significantly important not just (for) our own sake but to the greater society as well.”

BR: And what of the culture that you spoke of, what of that culture remains and what has kind of faded away as time has gone?

Joyce: “So when you look into the cultural norms, culture is forever evolving and changing. And some of it is a natural flow, it’s not stagnant. So it’s constantly changing and similar to Irish society in terms of times and technology and advancements and other areas of social norms like legislation and policies . . .  it kind of drives uniformity. So there’s always that push to conform Travellers into something they’re not. 

And I’m saying that kind of diplomatically because when you look at kind of the norms and changes, you have to kind of then question who are making those changes, who are the key decision makers, who are making those decisions but also in terms of where that power leverage is? So in terms of legislation, there’s never been a Traveller, in terms of an elected representative.

So the 1963 Itinerancy Report commissioned to assimilate and find the solution to the itinerant problem in Ireland, was developed by no other than the wider settled population. There were no Travellers involved in that particular committee. 

I think an important part of that is that the legacy, that also had a significant fallout because it did force families from the roadside, it forced families into housing, it forced families into education. But it also had a significant fallout because it then resulted in things like mental health, suicide, high unemployment, substance misuse. 

So all of these other issues really were starting to come to the fore because you’re really kind of eroding a whole way of life that people had for generations or hundreds of years. And now all of a sudden this was now being put in place. So that still is a significant factor today for the Traveller community.”

‘Excluded’ not isolated

BR: Many speak of Travellers as a group that’s isolated from the rest of Irish society, and I’m curious what this isolation looks like on a day to day basis? 

Joyce: “I would use the word they’re socially excluded and kind of what that looks like is that when you’re kind of walking, you’re in a small town, and you go to your local store. The first thing that can happen is that you get somebody in the store who’s kind of starting to follow them around . . . an unwelcome feeling that the staff don’t like you but yet they’ve never met you, but they know that you’re a Traveller. They can see that you’re from that small Traveller site where a caravan or mobile home is.

Maybe a young person might decide, you know what the closest school that I have to walk (to), it’s only five minutes away, but I’m actually going to travel to a school in the next town and some Travellers will do that. So they’re not going to the local school, they’re going to a farther school away, they’re not shopping locally because (their) experience has been really that the staff are judgmental, they’re treating them differently. On the field it’s a very uncomfortable and unwelcoming space to go to. 

So they’re being pushed back, back and back into this little, tiny sector where they only feel comfortable within the community because they’re not getting that treatment. There they can be themselves, they can feel comfortable in their own skin, they’re not being questioned or have to defend who they are.”

BR: What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about you and fellow Travellers? 

Joyce: “Probably the most misunderstood piece is that people have, often time, misinformation, so they think we’re all the same. I think there’s a concept – we’re all the same, we’re no different. 

There’s really misunderstanding there because there are Travellers who are LGBT, there are Travellers who are autisitic. That we’re, I think, the most diversified community in our society, so we’re very different, and we’re not the same.

Our culture has been completely just kind of misunderstood in that people just don’t understand, the biggest thing is that people don’t understand that we actually have a culture. They just don’t get that. And then the other part then is they don’t understand that their behaviour toward, it’s discriminating. 

And they think that we’re, the community, there’s a misunderstanding that somehow we’re all responsible for the actions of one or two people.”

An Irish Traveller Movement rally
One of the Irish Traveller Movement’s rallies for Traveller rights. (Photo from the ITM)
Travellers this autumn and beyond

BR: There are many concerns in Ireland currently about the cost of living with rising energy costs and inflation and as you kind of alluded to earlier, there are already well documented inequities in the Traveller community in areas like life expectancy, employment and living conditions. What do you expect to see with the Traveller community this winter?

Joyce: “The cost of living, like 70% of Travellers are living in what’s called fuel poverty. This is before the cost of living (crisis) actually came into place. 

The credit being universally allocated to all households, that’s in the budget again. 

What’s really surprising here is that, the intention is good in terms of what the plan (was), but because it wasn’t quality proof the most vulnerable and the most needy in society, in this case Travellers being one of those groups, wasn’t avail of that credit. 

So if you’re in kind of like Sandyford as a household and you’re living in a, pretty much a mansion, you’ll be able to build that credit, while a Traveller living in Traveller-specific (housing) won’t. Because there’s only one metre, one unit maybe for five families. So one person will get to receive it. They will then distribute that across five families.”

BR: To wrap up, how can everyday Irish people and those that are new to Ireland support the Traveller community?

Joyce: “We need to look at what type of society that we actually want but also recognizing that we all have a role and a responsibility in terms of how we treat one another.

 And a lot of people in Ireland they look at equality and human rights at a global level, you know what’s happening in Ukraine, what’s happening in terms of the Middle East or these other countries. But you also have to look at the local level because that’s where it starts. And it starts with individuals and how people react to certain things.

A lot of people would say, I’m not racist but, and then comes the big “but.” But this is why . . .  or this is why I wouldn’t have a Traveller as a neighbour or this is why my children wouldn’t play with Travellers or this is why I would be objecting to Traveller accommodation.

And that “but” is really important because you have to remove that in a way. People don’t recognize that, but people have to live and you have to have accomodation and you have to have the same basic fundamental rights to water, sanitation . . .  I don’t think that we’ve got there yet because many people are living under such bad, inhumane conditions across Ireland. 

That’s really important, that it’s not just Travellers saying it, but it’s a wider community amplifying Traveller voices in that case. And that shouldn’t be left to the Traveller community alone, to advocate, articulate and represent the community. It is for all of us to do that, and for any single group that I mentioned. That we’re all working towards this greater, inclusive, fair, just, equal society.” 

More information on Ireland’s Travellers is available online at the Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point.

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Jacob Owens

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