Travellers remain on the edge of society
When we hear 'Traveller', we still think dirt and violence, despite the millions given to the 'Help the Travellers' industry, says Willie Kealy
WE started off with a downtrodden group of disenfranchised people who were the same as the rest of us but different, in that they lived in tents and caravans and travelled around the country, especially in summertime. They were also different in that they were illiterate, poverty-stricken, tolerated terrible conditions and were prone to illness and alcohol abuse and had a relatively short life expectancy.
Since the late Victor Bewley first campaigned for the rights of Itinerants -- as they were then known, having discarded the then more accurate but deemed demeaning title of Tinkers -- they have been at the heart of social debate in this country, and frequently a focus of political discussion.
But as the rest of the country gradually became more prosperous, the lot of the Traveller -- Itinerant was also discarded as this group sought to claim they were of different ethnicity to the rest of us -- began to see changes in what was available to them. They were offered halting sites and, for those who wanted them, small houses were built. They were encouraged to send their children to school and, more importantly, to keep them there all year round.
Many availed of these opportunities. Those who took the housing became known as settled Travellers -- though it was not until they had been off the road for a few generations that you could conclude they had really settled and would not revert to type. And even among those who settled, they tended to want to live beside each other and to continue to socialise with each other and engage in trades such as horse dealing, which were not ideally suited to their new urban environment. In a way, they formed little ghettoes, which made them feel more secure in unfamiliar circumstances. But with the customs and traditions and closeness, including intermarriage, came also old grudges and tribal feuds, so that these ghettos could be violent places.
And as on the halting sites, drink continued to be an ever present problem as did the lack of education. Some small number of Travellers did go to school. Some managed to stay long enough to complete their Leaving Certificate. But they were the minority. Many mothers appeared to want better for their children but the menfolk were suspicious. They viewed outside influences on their children as threatening their way of life. It was mostly girls who availed of education, but these were the same girls who were still in the main subject to arranged marriages and childbirth at a young age.
And if their marriages weren't arranged, their choices still were constricted as marriage to a non-Traveller was frowned upon. For the young Traveller boy, going off to school, especially if he wore a uniform, would make him the butt of the jokes and sarcasm of his fellow male camp dwellers who would often prefer to sit around drinking, smoking, talking and indulging in more traditional pursuits, such as bare-knuckle boxing and its attendant gambling. A very few defied this stereotype and went on to third level but invariably remained in the Travelling community, taking on the role of adviser and counsellor in the "help the Travellers" industry that had now grown up around them.
So the biggest change for Travellers generally was that they replaced horses with Hiace vans and they collected the dole and/or worked at tarmac laying or scrap collecting and still kept their involvement in horse dealing as much out of sentiment as anything else. Some moved into houses but very few actually integrated in to what is referred to as the "settled community," ie, anyone who is not a Traveller. But the progress of settled society did have one huge effect on
the Travellers. It opened up the path to criminality for a minority who leaned that way. Travellers always had a name for stealing a farmer's chicken to fill the pot, but as society generally became less caring and more coarse, the criminal element among the Travellers tracked it every inch of the way. They specialised in stealing what they could sell, taking plant or machinery from farms or building yards. Then they graduated to targeting the old and vulnerable rural dwellers, and with that came a viciousness that had not been evident in Travellers before -- not evident to the settled community, anyway.
And as the scourge of drugs took hold of towns and suburbs, there were Travellers who got involved there too, teaming up with the cocaine-fuelled thugs to share in the fortunes that were to be made.
But even those who did not go that way, those who took on some of the trappings of regular society, providing services such as tarmacing for payment, could not always bring themselves to play completely by the rules. Because that would mean going into the system. That would mean paying income tax and car tax and car insurance and having driving licences and dog licences and television licences and being subject to the dozens of other impositions, like planning permission, that non-Travellers are subject to. That would mean social welfare would have a better chance of detecting dole fraud. And it would give the gardai a better chance of tracking down a transgressing Traveller. And it is this unwillingness to embrace the sacrifices necessary for the common good that has kept the Travelling community apart from the rest of society for so long.
Once the Irish Traveller was looked on as quaint. They were always believed to be highly orthodox Irish Catholics. Sex before marriage was a taboo -- and just to remove temptation, marriages took place when the girls were still teenagers. Now elderly Travellers complain that their own grown-up children and grandchildren have changed. "They have no nature," is the way they often express it.
So we see Travellers shot dead in campsites because they are drug dealers and they owe money to other drug dealers. We see young men of impressive physique boasting "they own this town". They mean that they control it through intimidation and muscle. We see innocent American tourists beaten to a pulp in a scenic town by out-of-control young men who believe they are beyond the law. We see housing estates which can turn into riot zones for several days as old slights are remembered and exaggerated through drink or drugs.
Decent Traveller families are unfairly discriminated against when they try to book a hotel or other venue for their daughter's wedding, but then we see a hotel closed for repairs with the consequent loss of business, because an argument got out of hand. We saw one Dublin pub damaged so badly by a gang of Travelling men that it had to close down and a family livelihood was lost. We see funerals and cemetery Sundays and horse fairs turned into battles with slash hooks and shotguns and improvised weapons to kill or maim.
And so we react to what we see and we process it and we decide that Travellers have had too much done for them, and Travellers get away with murder -- literally sometimes -- and they are all criminals and if they come to you offering to do some work, they are most likely really just casing the place and will come back later to rob you. And just as we think of certain Dublin and Limerick inner or outer suburbs and immediately picture junkies and alcoholics living side by side with the savage and exploitative, despite the majority of their populations being decent, law-respecting people, when we hear the word "Traveller," we think of drink and ignorance and violence and criminality. We think of rubbish and dirt and beauty spots despoiled.
And when we hear about Irish Travellers in Britain enslaving the hapless and the helpless with violence and threats, our opinion, our judgement based on generations of observation, is reinforced. And the millions of pounds and euros of taxpayers' money and money voluntarily given as charity to the "help the Travellers" industry, over the decades has done nothing to make us think otherwise. Irish Travellers remain a marginalised sub-culture within our society.