Colum Kenny: Travellers are largely to blame for their negative image
Sadly, they seem to relish making a show of themselves on both TV and the internet, writes Colum Kenny
Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00
IF Travellers want to be treated like everyone else, then they should not goad and incite one another into violence or beat one another up for power and money in front of their children.
And if they make a spectacle of themselves for television, then they can expect to be treated with less respect. Travellers may protest at the advertisements for Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, but it is their participation in the programme that is the real problem. Channel 4 parades people with unusual conditions or lifestyles in a variety of voyeuristic freak-shows. That's television.
"We're a separate ethnic group and will do what we want," seems to be the message of some Travellers. It is more a case of two fingers than two cultures. But the group is not so separate that it doesn't expect the settled community to help fund its lifestyle.
Last weekend on RTE, a vivid documentary took us inside the savage world of bare-knuckle boxing between the Quinn McDonaghs, Joyces and Nevins over 10 years.
"Drinking last night, fighting this morning. Couldn't give a damn," was the response of one.
Besides the fights themselves, the most striking part of the programme was the videos that Traveller men record to send to one another to cause trouble. These could scarcely be more provocative.
And last Monday, in Longford, Judge Seamus Hughes criticised what he said was "the goading and incitement of people" on such videos.
He bound to the peace nine people accused of behaving in a threatening, abusive and insulting manner in videos posted on YouTube as part of a feud between two Traveller families.
He said that there was an urgent need for representative organisations of the Travelling community to express revulsion at the "barbaric tradition" of bare-knuckle fighting. And the role of video is vital to the perpetuation of bare-knuckle boxing.
"It was not just winning that was important to them but being seen to win," said Ian Palmer, the director of RTE's documentary, on his own programme. He admitted that he had given the Travellers some of his own early footage and that they had incorporated this into one of their inflammatory videos.
RTE's programme itself may be used to stir up further violence. While some women who appeared on it lamented the custom of knuckle fights, others seemed to regard it as a sign of manhood. And some let even tiny children into the thick of it all.
If this is acceptable ethnic culture, then what is not? Yet it was clear from clothing (US-style sneakers and shorts, Newcastle football jersey) and body tattoos (Che Guevara and Yin-Yang symbols) alone, that there is no such thing as an entirely separate Traveller culture. And it was clear too that the fights were not just about family pride. There is big money involved. In one fight alone it amounted to £120,000 (€140,000).
When it comes to clothing citizens may wear whatever they want, usually. And if Travellers want big, brash weddings that allow settled people to feel sneeringly superior, then they are entitled to them.
But, as a community, they need to know what messages some of their number are sending out about the broader nation of which they are part.
An American academic at a Californian university contacted me lately after some of her students had seen Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on a US channel. She loves Ireland and was horrified by the image portrayed.
She wrote: "Obviously, the students do not know the difference between an 'Iriish person' and an Irish Traveller. As I am American (and from California to boot) I thought I had seen just about everything and heard most of it, but I must admit I have never seen anything like this program.
"The lead-in makes the statement that it is one of the most watched programs in the UK. There is no priest in the US that would allow a child to come into the church for a first communion that was dressed like these children are dressed."
She added: "It really bothers me that my students cannot distinguish between what an Irish wedding or first communion would be like versus what is being shown on this horrible program."
But of course, there are crass programmes featuring settled people in the USA and UK. For example, Toddlers And Tiaras is a ghastly panorama of neurotic mothers and their Barbie-dolled-up daughters. Plenty of reality-TV shows are more demeaning for participants than is Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
And one could claim that at least where violence is up front, and subject to control by independent Traveller referees, as shown on RTE last week, it may me more honest than many of the subtler kinds of violence in settled communities. And Travellers do have admirable spirit and energy in them and family values that are to be envied in some ways.
But RTE's documentary was in danger of tipping over subtly into a romantic view of Travellers, not least by using the song Lost Highway as a sound track. This is associated with Hank Williams and is about being "all alone in life". It was irrelevant in the context of bustling Traveller homes in rural Ireland and west Dublin. And in posh England too, where we even met the Oxford Joyces!
This is an issue of real politics and not just personal lifestyle choice. Sometimes, as Shakespeare pointed out, discretion is the better part of valour. Most minority communities learn the wisdom of keeping their heads down and avoiding too much attention. This not the same as just letting people walk all over you.
For some citizens, there is nothing that Travellers could do that ould make them acceptable company. No matter what, there will always be people who define troublesome minorities as "vermin" -- or "Irish Traveller vermin", to be more precise in the case of one current website.
This vicious site even boasts of being "glad that threads on our site promote physical violence. That is the best kind of violence there is." The words of settled people may be more dangerous than the ritualised combat of supervised bare-knuckle boxers.
But Travellers, like any other minority -- including Muslim enthusiasts for Sharia law and Jehovah's Witnesses -- need to sign up to basic enlightened values when it comes to living in western democracies. Freedoms and human rights have been hard won and are worth defending for everyone.
And if members of society are expected not to incite others to violence or to box dangerously, then Travellers who want to be treated equally need to make it as clear as possible that they embrace modern values based on the dignity of individuals, regardless of ethnic or religious background.