Friday 19 April 2019

The racism we feel about Travellers is nothing new

In the Fifties, Dail deputies often called Traveller men 'hulking brutes'. They also introduced austerity budgets. Is that a coincidence?

'Many a Traveller mother would love to see her children educated and getting a job among the settled community. But education is looked upon with suspicion by many Traveller men as the thin end of the wedge to lure the next generation out of the life, the culture'
'Many a Traveller mother would love to see her children educated and getting a job among the settled community. But education is looked upon with suspicion by many Traveller men as the thin end of the wedge to lure the next generation out of the life, the culture'

Willie Kealy

We have wrestled with the problem of the Travellers for ever. And "wrestled" is the correct term, for throughout the decades we have not so much sought a solution as submission.

If somebody got up in the Dail last week and said that Travellers were "going in bands, large enough to terrify any isolated women in farmhouses", we would assume they were talking about the current problem of rural crime. But we would also be astonished at their insensitivity in a week when 10 members of an extended Traveller family, mothers and fathers and small children, lost their lives in the most appalling circumstances.

Well those words were uttered in the Dail, but it was not last week, last year or even in the last decade. It was in 1926. And throughout the years since then we have heard similar stuff from our elected representatives without anything much being achieved. We have always been a bit racist about Travellers.

In this country a man or woman is born with a reasonable expectation that they will be fed and clothed and kept in some comfort throughout their childhood. They will go to school and play games and make friends and get an education that will allow them to get a job that will earn them a living. And they will pay taxes and PRSI and the USC. If they would like a car, they have to borrow from the bank and pay it back with interest, then car tax and insurance.

And as life moves on and maybe they settle down, they will get planning permission and a mortgage to build or buy a house and pay it back over years - with interest. And they'll pay property tax and water charges and house and contents and public liability insurance and all the rest. It's the price they pay for what we know as ordinary civilised living.

You can see how some rebellious souls might view that as a form of enslavement to the system. Certainly that is the way many Travellers see it. They say they prefer their own "free" way of life, their own "culture" and insist on their right to chose as an ethnic minority.

But there is a price to pay for that, too. A Traveller child is reared on the side of the road or on a crowded halting site with the minimum of hygiene and basic facilities. The health of the child is compromised from the start. Life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than for a settled person. Infant mortality is double. Traveller women are three times more likely to miscarry or have a stillborn child, and three times more likely to suffer from depression.

Travellers marry young - thus reducing any educational chances, and they have lots of children. They marry among their own and indeed they seem to prefer to live cheek by jowl with their relations, maybe for security as much as anything. No doubt there is strength in numbers.

Traveller children are discouraged from going to school. Many a Traveller mother would love to see her children educated and getting a job among the settled community. But education is looked upon with suspicion by many Traveller men as the thin end of the wedge to lure the next generation out of the life, the culture. The only concession to "the system" is a willingness to accept social welfare and children's allowance payments.

And while those in previous decades saw Travellers as criminals because they might steal some eggs from under a hen, or maybe the hen itself, of let their animals loose in a field of corn, it is an unfortunate reality that some modern Travellers have embraced a life of crime like drug dealing and stealing plant and machinery. And it cannot be disputed that violence has become a part of the Traveller culture as never before.

The good people at Pavee Point are always first out of the traps to condemn attacks on one Traveller family by another, or the bare-knuckle fights that are supposed to settle scores, but rarely settle anything and feuds continue.

But even when Travellers were viewed in a more benign way as harmless beggars, there were always those who thought otherwise. Take the contribution of one farmer deputy in the Dail in the 1950s.

He said: "There was a time when these Travelling men were supposed to be poor people. I do not think they ever were. But now they are... in a whole lot of trades and there is hardly one of them who is not able to pull out £500 or £600 in ready money. They are going around in their motor vans and station wagons now... These people are useless, they are no good to themselves or anyone else."

That deputy was probably influenced by the fact that he could no longer persuade young Traveller men to work on the land for labourer's wages, but his attitude would not be out of place today.

Nor would the deputy who, in 1944, talked about "big hulking brutes of men who. . . would go into the farmhouses where the wife, mother, sister or daughter is preparing the midday meal and terrorise the womenfolk". Or his colleague a year later, who said: "It is not a very pleasant experience to see two or three hulking young men appearing at the door. . . their very appearance is frightening and it would be a very brave woman who would refuse to help them."

One deputy called for internment because Travellers were supposed to be spreading Foot and Mouth disease. Another said, in 1958: "If you cannot make citizens of the Travellers, put them into homes. It would be better than having them going around rearing their children, without education and giving them no chances. You may not succeed in one generation but you might succeed with the second generation."

Some deputies in that era worried about the effects on tourism and the danger of Travellers inspiring negative publicity in foreign journals. But a Wexford deputy who saw Travellers as "colourful people" and "the real Irish," said that "tourists almost break their necks looking out the windows of cars and trains to see what they describe as colourful nomads". Today they don't. Today the problem of the Traveller community persists and is worse than ever. And today there is still only one long-term solution - education. But it cannot be forced, it can only be encouraged, not with words but with tangible, visible incentives.

Meanwhile, in the short term, we have to rectify the sub-standard (a polite, legally safe word) halting sites all over the country so we never again have to wake up to the horror of last weekend. But the hostility between the settled and the Traveller communities will continue. Some of the language used today to vilify Travellers may be a bit more subtle than the naked racism of the past, but, for it's time, it is about as bad as it can be.

Sadly we have become fatalistic about Travellers. Last weekend nobody talked about the lost potential. And it is probably no coincidence that this rise in negativity towards Traveller feeling seems to have been over the past decade when austerity was at its most extreme here. We all know that the 1950s in Ireland were pretty harsh, but did you know that the government of the day brought in austerity budgets under pressure from abroad, in which food subsidies were cut and wages and social welfare payments were limited? Sound familiar?

Sunday Independent

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