THE disastrous action that saw two Roma children removed from their families and taken into State care, only to be returned within days, highlights the dramatic history of the Romany people.
On the one hand we are presented with a very proud ethnic group, with a recorded history stretching back to at least the Fifth Century AD. Particular elements of their culture have been commented upon even from this earliest stage, most notably their love of and talent for music – one origin story paints them as wandering minstrels, tasked by a king to bring music to the poor people of the world. Their skills with carpentry and all kinds of craft are also widely acknowledged.
Yet the tragedy in their story overwhelms the positive.
Archaelogical evidence shows that the Roma originated in the Punjab province of Rajasthan, and probably migrated towards Europe, more than likely fleeing famine and persecution, in the medieval period.
The earliest recorded encounter between a Western European and the Roma occurred in 1322 when an Irish monk, Symon Semeonis, a Franciscan from Clonmel, came upon a group of them outside the town of Heraklion (then Candia) on the island of Crete. He described them as "the descendants of Cain", and commented on their unique language, which he struggled to understand, their nomadic lifestyle and unusual dress.
By the 16th Century the Roma were recorded as far West as Scotland, but their passage across Europe was not an easy one. Their nomadism and unique appearance set them apart, and in countries such as Russia and Moldavia they were seen as a slave caste and forced into bondage. In England they were forced out of towns and villages or simply hanged if captured. In Bohemia female Romany had their ears cut off, and in Lithuania branding of Romany children was commonplace.
Pogroms against the Romany probably began in Switzerland in the 15th Century, where they were blamed for crimes as diverse as causing crop failure, the spreading of plague and – interestingly – child abduction. Where precisely the idea of gypsies stealing children came from is unclear, but sociologists propose that it more than likely stems from classic scapegoating of an "outsider culture", combined with a projecting of what mainstream society was actually doing to them; slave auctions of Romany people – including the selling of Roma children – were common right across Europe.
Whatever the reason, the myth stuck.
The attempted genocide of the Romany nation during the Holocaust is well documented, as is their degeneration into a kind of modern serf people within Europe's cities, colourfully dressed figures commonly seen begging or busking.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must accept that their reputation as thieves, con-artists and ne'er-do-wells has pervaded our collective consciousness, centuries of bad press culminating in acts that bear comparison with the conduct of the authorities towards the Australian aboriginals in the 1930s.
Thankfully, the modern Irish State differs from the British dominion back then in one significant detail, and it may be the only saving grace in this story: the Roma children were given back to their families. In hard times, we must find grace where we can.