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Sunday 26 January 2020

Secret lives and suicide among Travelling men

Andrea Byrne

FORTY years ago when an American couple came to Ireland to live with and study the Travelling community in Dublin, death by suicide was virtually unheard of.

Now, however, a man from the Travelling community is six times more likely to die by suicide than a settled man.

"Travelling people, they just commit suicide and that's the end of the story. If you catch him, you cut him down, and if you cut him down they go back and do it again. They keep on doing it and keep on doing it until they succeed in doing it," says Jimmy Connors, as he clutches memorial cards of young men who have died recently by suicide.

"Mind you, I often thought about it from time to time but I always got over that hurdle. A lot of Travelling people are very private people, they don't like talking: it could be money problems, father and mother problems, and a lot of problems created in their own head. Me personally, I wouldn't express my feelings to nobody. I wouldn't even express my feelings to my wife," he says, speaking in a documentary, Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller, which airs on RTE One tomorrow night.

In 1971, Californian anthropologists George and Sharon Gmelch lived for one year in a barrel-top wagon on the Holylands halting site in Dublin with three different extended Traveller families. Four decades later, they have returned to Ireland with a huge archive of photographs to find the people they once knew. Sadly, however, due to Traveller mortality rates, few people of the Gmelchs's own age are still alive.

Explaining her interest in Traveller culture, Sharon Gmelch says: "I was fascinated by the fact that you have a group of people who are so distinct, but in many of the overt measures of distinctiveness are the same, at least visually -- they are white, they are Irish, they speak English, some of them know some Irish. Everything is the same apart from maybe occupations. The thing that intrigued me is how they remain distinct. Why have they remained distinct?"

A wedding the Gmelchs attended 40 years ago was actually the marriage of the bride in the documentary's oldest brother. "It was a very sombre affair," remembers George, "none of the opulence that you see here -- limousines and horse-drawn carriages, all the bright colours and fancy dresses."

The relationship between men and women is another obvious change in the Travelling community. In the early Seventies, according to George Gmelch, women were just beginning to assert themselves. Now, according to Traveller Pa Maughan, women are the "top bosses", adding: "Men have no say, really. If you said anything to a woman now, she would put you out of the house and if you didn't go they would get a barring order against you and the Gardai would come and put you out, get a court order."

Kevin Donoghue was only a teenager when he lived beside the Gmelchs. He chose to abandon life on the road and become settled.

"I wanted to be educated. I wanted to learn how to read and write. Around Christmastime, you used to go begging the houses, and you'd look through the window and see the decorations. We had none of that. I wanted that. I wanted to sing hymns," he says.

The documentary, which is produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Liam McGrath, draws the interesting conclusion that Travellers were a lot happier 40 years ago. That is certainly the sentiment of those interviewed, anyway. "One thing about the photographs that has surprised both of us," George says, "is the amount of nostalgia expressed for the old days. Old-timers are often nostalgic about the old days no matter how good or bad they were, so that doesn't surprise me too much, but to have so many young people around these kitchen tables talk about how much better life must have been . . ."

'Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller' is on RTE One tomorrow night at 9.35pm

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