News Analysis

Monday 15 September 2014

Almost two in every five Traveller marriages are between cousins

Published 04/05/2003 | 00:11

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ON being informed that consanguinity is, as a government-funded paper put it last week, "a central part of (Traveller) culture", many people could be forgiven for suspecting that the word must be an archaic one referring to the practice of terrifying the publicans of Mayo.

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What it actually means is marrying one's first or second cousins. Up to 40 per cent of all marriages involving Travellers are between first cousins, and the Traveller Consanguinity Working Group clearly does not intend doing anything to bring the total down. "It is unrealistic to try to radically change their marriage behaviour," the report simply says, adding that whilst marriage between cousins may be considered "sleazy" in the West, it is common throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Nora Lawrence, a Traveller working with Pavee Point, put it bluntly to the Irish Times: "We've never seen anything wrong with it. The settled people have a lot of myths about it, but it wasn't an issue for us. We've always had cousins marrying." So that's alright then.

It does seem bizarre, though, that we have a society where judges put lapdancing clubs out of business for allowing minor degrees of sexual contact between dancers and punters, and where two students can be prosecuted for making love on the pitch at Croke Park, but which determindedly stays morally neutral on the question of sex between the daughter of one man and the son of his sister.

Making love on the pitch at Croke Park is unlikely to lead to any congenital defects in resulting offspring, after all, whereas the risk of congenital defects and mental retardation in children born to kissing cousins is widely recognised as significant.

What next? Are we going to legitimise sex with farm animals too on the grounds that it is an essential part of rural culture - as, indeed, in some parts of Wales it practically is? Or sex between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, grandparents and grandchildren? If everything is relative and depends only on one's culture or opinion, then surely nothing is wrong, anything goes?

To turn it into a matter of mere cultural expression is absurd. Tradition can be used to justify anything. Isaac and Jacob in the Old Testament may have married their first cousins, but Jewish law also permitted polygamy.

So should immigrants to Ireland who come from cultures embracing polygamy be free to practise multiple matrimony on the grounds of cultural diversity?

Likewise, if all mankind is descended from Adam and Eve, then intercourse between brothers and sisters must be okay too, otherwise the human race would not exist; so should that be legislated for as well?

Consanguinity is best seen as a practice which, whilst it may have made sense in less developed cultures, has long outlived whatever tribal usefulness it once had.

That is why marriage between cousins accounts for less than one per cent of the total in more advanced societies such as those of Western Europe. And even in those European countries where it is more common, like Portugal or Spain, the practice is still in single percentage figures, not the 40 per cent figure for Traveller marriages.

In all countries with a higher degree of civilisation, marrying one's first and second cousins is generally frowned upon, and logic suggests there must be some good reason for this.

And that surely is a deep-seated, instinctive understanding in the collective consciousness that turning such close blood ties into intimate sexual unions is playing with social and psychological fire.

It is not often one gets the opportunity to quote approvingly the words of the cf,mili Catholic Encyclopedia, but in this case it gets it just right: "In the moral order, the prohibition of marriage between near relations served as a barrier against early corruption among young people of either sex brought habitually into close intimacy with one another."

Not for nothing does the standard psychological profile of incestuous and abusive relationships neatly fit the pattern of much of Traveller society too. "Enmeshed family relationships" where the father is put on a pedestal and the mother is submissive, where there is little private personal space, alcoholism is common, education poor, self esteem and social status low - sound familiar? In such scenarios, culture can just become a convenient cover for abuse.

Travellers get married far too young as it is, and intermarriage between family members is one reason why; but still we fear to pass ethical judgments lest we be accused of discrimination.

But is it really so terrible to say to Travellers that, all things considered, we'd really rather they stopped sleeping with their relatives? If it was happening on this scale in Ballymun, it would be considered suspect at the very least.

Why is it any different just because it's happening on halting sites?

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