Thursday 21 November 2019

Amongst women: inside Dale Farm

Unusually for a Traveller site, Dale Farm seems to be run by welfare-class matriarchs, writes Paddy O'Gorman

Dale Farm Traveller site in Essex is run by women. That's unusual. Any other place I've met Travellers I've made a point of deferring to the men, even though it's their wives I really want to talk to. The women are better with words than their husbands are. But to get to talk to the women you have to first get the approval of their bosses, the men. Dale Farm is different. The few men there seem happy to stay in the background and let the women run the show. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that the way to get on with Spanish gypsies was to give the men tobacco and leave the women alone. On Dale Farm I gave the women tobacco and left the men alone. And the women made me welcome.

Last Sunday, when I got there, was the eve of the expected eviction. Most of the media were stuck outside the gate. Political activists with posh English accents and insufferable arrogance were telling us that we weren't wanted. Furthermore, there was to be no photography of them. These activists don't seem to have grasped that taking a public political stance entitles the media to report on that stance, including taking photographs. Where do these people get off?

Then, before I had time to get into a row, one of the true rulers of Dale Farm turned up. Margaret, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, gave me a big smile and in her strong, clear, Irish Traveller voice, welcomed me as the man who had put her and her sisters on Irish radio when I had been on Dale Farm last April. She took my arm and walked me in past the silenced Brits. Jesus, it was sweet.

So how are you Margaret, and how are all your family? Last time I was here, I had learned nothing about where the husbands of Margaret or her sisters might be. I wouldn't learn much more this time, either. Travellers, I find, are friendly but cautious with the outside world. They tell you what they want you to know but no more. So Margaret answered only the bits of my questions that she chose to as she set about proudly bringing me around to meet her extended family. Look who I have here, she told her sisters, nieces and aunts. Then I was led to a small caravan in the yard of Margaret's chalet. This would be my home for the next few days. You could be cynical and say that the hospitality I got was in the Travellers' self-interest, but I think the warmth of their welcome was genuine.

Margaret invited me to join her and the other women for a few drinks later. I would, I said, I just had a report to file first. Parting from Margaret got me into trouble. I was sat on the step of my caravan enjoying the evening sun, laptop in front of me, when I was confronted by more obnoxious English political activists.

Are you media? You shouldn't be here. There's a compound outside for you. As I swore at them I let the Cork part of my accent emerge over the English part. That did the trick. Left-wing Brits are racked with a post-colonial guilt complex. As one of them came back later to apologise to me I actually felt sorry for him. Maybe I was a pain in the ass too when I was his age. I accepted his apology and headed over to where I could hear the singing starting.

I brought a bottle of brandy to the women's table. Their drink of choice was whiskey, and they had plenty of it. They were mainly middle-aged women and their choice of songs reflected this. Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart were favourites.

I sang Ewan McColl's Freeborn Man of the Travelling People, which the women enjoyed and told me it was one they had never heard before. So do they sing Irish songs? Very few, it seemed. Nor do they follow Irish sport. No television in Dale Farm had the All-Ireland on earlier that day. So, ladies, are you Irish or British? We have British passports, sir, we were born in England, so was our mothers and fathers, but we talk Irish. (That means they talk with an Irish accent. They have no clue of the Irish language). So how do you stay sounding so Irish? It's because we stick to ourselves sir. We marry Traveller men and so will our daughters, sir.

Do you ever go to Ireland? Only for funerals.

I dared ask the question again: where are your husbands? There's a lot of widows here, I was told. I accept Traveller men die young. But if, as I suspect, there's also lots of separated women on Dale Farm, then that's something they chose not to tell me.

The next day the bailiffs came, and went away again. I'm glad it didn't get violent. Some of those young English activists were certainly putting themselves in harm's way. Please God they grow up and get sense before they get themselves seriously hurt.

At the barriers, there was a chance to talk to some of the young Traveller women. We heard you're a good singer, they said. Sing us a song and we'll talk to you. They asked me to sing Galway Girl which, luckily, I know. Then they talked to me. They go to discos in town but have no interest in Essex boys. November will be the marrying season and Traveller boys will come to Dale Farm to meet them. We hope we're still here, sir, and that we'll a get a priest-uss to come and marry us.

Their speech is full of strange pronunciations and malapropisms. All very fine so long as they stay among their own people but it must seriously disadvantage them in the outside world.

Do you go to school? Not any more, sir. We can't read or write. That's 'cos the council keeps moving us on and sure we never got a chance to go to school. Will you sing us another song, sir?

I found it depressing. Another illiterate generation. One of the girls' mothers spoke to me with passion and anger about how illiteracy means that she still has to ask a coun-

try person to read her post to her. (Country person is the Traveller name for non-Travellers). Like her daughter, she blamed the outside world for her illiteracy. I don't accept that. There's all sorts of special education available for Travellers who missed out on school and there has been for a long time now in Britain and in Ireland. I think there's a more fundamental problem: Travellers don't value literacy enough.

I remember a Traveller woman in Tralee telling me that learning to read was a liberating experience for her but that she couldn't read in the company of her own people. The problem was, she said, the pair of specs. She needed reading glasses but would be mocked if seen wearing them. Travellers don't wear spectacles. I think no amount of outside intervention is going to help Travellers so long as they let their own silly prejudices get in the way.

I'll finish by trying to answer the question I posed at the start. Why is Dale Farm run by women? Traveller women leave home when they marry and live among their husband's extended clan. That's why you find sites full of McDonaghs, Wards, Joyces and so on. These are the men's surnames, not the single names of the women. So how did so many closely related women come to be living together in Dale Farm?

Dale Farm is less like a typical Traveller site and more like an Irish council estate where welfare class matriarchs try to ensure that any available housing near them goes to their daughters, granddaughters and extended family.

And therein lies a clue. I believe the Dale Farm Travellers are not rich and that their main source of income is social welfare. If you're on welfare then it makes sense to live among your extended family so you can all help each other out. Dale Farm looks poor but that in itself proves nothing. Travellers never bother with flowers or anything else that most people find beautiful. But in Dale Farm even the cars, which are the most prized of Traveller status symbols, are virtual piles of scrap with broken suspension and rotting bodywork.

And it's not that they're hiding the limos from the cameras. When I needed to use a phone charger that runs on a car battery one of the women obliged me but said she would have to turn her engine on periodically so that I wouldn't burn out the coil. That's not a thing that most women would know about. The Dale Farm women know something about car mechanics because they have to.

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