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At home with the Travellers

WORDS like 'knacker', 'pikey' and 'tinker', are often used by settled people to describe Travellers. It is almost acceptable to use these names, but why?

We would never use the 'N' word to describe black people, so why is 'knacker' used so brazenly? When you think about it, with its connotations of horses unfit for anything but the slaughterhouse, it's an obnoxious way to describe anyone.

Making the documentary series, The Truth About Travellers, for TV3, I saw a side to this community most people never experience.

I travelled the country making the three-part documentary which began last Tuesday night and met Travellers at the side of the road, in legal and illegal halting sites, and in their own homes.

I got invited to a colourful wedding, attended a young girl's extravagant First Communion and visited shrines like Knock and Croagh Patrick with them.

The purpose? To imbed myself in their culture, experience their life first hand and allow them to tell their story without prejudice. The majority of Travellers we met were extremely warm, friendly and hospitable and were no trouble, it was just a tiny fraction who made our lives difficult. According to CSO figures there are 22,000 Travellers in Ireland but the real figure is more like 40,000.


Travellers are often misunderstood, shunned, and given a hard time. When they are mentioned, it's often in the context of dodgy scams, bare-knuckle boxing, feuding, slash hooks, dumping, and it seems to result in an underlying, deep-rooted hatred.

I woke up under my leopard-skin-patterned duvet feeling stiff and cold in a small caravan with no running water or electricity.

I was on an illegal halting site on the Headford Road at Carrowbrowne, Co Galway. I slept reasonably well, considering I could hear the rain pelt off the fibreglass roof. There was just one shouting match between my neighbours, but that stopped just before I fell asleep.

It was the morning of Stacey Ward's wedding.

Stacey had only turned 18 the day before and her mother was kind enough to invite me to her big day. Travellers don't post traditional invitations, so it's all down to word of mouth.

Stacey's cousin was her Mini Bride -- it's a relatively new trend where a young sister or cousin dresses in an identical dress to the bride and carries a replica bouquet. It's a tremendous honour for the child. No expense was spared and the extended family chipped in to make sure Stacey had the biggest day of her life.

For years Travellers had to make do with simple weddings with no reception, just back to the tent or barrel-top caravan at the side of the road.


In recent times, however, Travellers want to have the best of everything. Stacey's family went all out, with two beautiful white horses and a large carriage, two huge Hummer limos and a wedding dress that was heavier and bigger than the bride, weighing 20 stone.

Her tiara had been handmade in England and was decorated with hundreds of Swarovski crystals. The width of the dress made moving from room to room tricky. Even with the help of her mother and bridesmaids, she struggled to climb into her horse-drawn carriage.

Family is the most important aspect of Traveller life. Parents, siblings and children mean more to most Travellers than work and socialising. Many choose to get married in their teens and start a family as soon as possible. Sex before marriage is seriously frowned upon.

One female teenager said to me that "if you do have sex before marriage you are considered dirty and a slut and you have no hope of ever getting married". Some might say this culture is a little like 1950s Ireland, but many of the young girls I spoke to were happy with their lot.

Many were wearing revealing high-vis boob tubes and colourful circus-style outfits.

Meanwhile, Traveller men have no hope of having sex unless they get married.

I had previously made a radio documentary for Newstalk about living and experiencing Traveller life. It was a complex project but was a great experience overall. Because it was for radio, none of the participants had to be identified and, of course, there were no cameras.

When TV3 approached me to make The Truth About Travellers, I knew it would be more difficult to make. Luckily, I was in good hands with director Owen McCardle, producer Michelle Carty and cameramen Eamon Cleary and Daniel Flemming.


The production team stayed cool, calm and professional, even when we faced major obstacles, such as threatening behaviour from some bad- tempered Travellers who were verbally abusive. When we visited Rathkeale we were followed and watched.

I was covering a dispute between settled Mass-goers and Traveller girls who were wearing revealing tops and hot pants to church and making phone calls in pews.

In Rathkeale, half the 1,700 population are members of the Travelling community. In fact, it's been described as the spiritual home for Irish Travellers.

But not all the 'Rathkealers' made us feel welcome. Some openly swore at us in the street, others stared at us and followed us around town. On one occasion, a door was slammed in my face.

I lived with a lovely Traveller family on the Tuam road in Galway, called the Sweeneys, who took me in like I was a long-lost member of the family. The Sweeneys looked after me, fed me and let me hang out with them so I could experience Traveller culture first hand.

Discrimination is a huge problem for Travellers. They can't get served in bars, security guards follow them around shops and they are profiled by the gardai. I'm not saying all of them are angels -- some are into crime and shoplifting -- but this is only a minority.

Domestic violence towards women is not openly talked about. Gay and lesbian Travellers are shunned and have to run away from home and their families very rarely accept them back.

Unfortunately none of the gay Travellers I spoke to would agree to be filmed. When I managed to persuade one in the west to meet me, the hotel would not allow me inside because I was with a Traveller. So just by association I was being discriminated against too. In order to film the gay Traveller we had to conceal his identity. Martin (not his real name) has already been assaulted in the street because of his sexuality.

Marrying between cousins still takes place and there are also some arranged marriages. Teenage girls can't go to discos, making it hard for them to meet boys. Their main outlet for meeting boys is wedding receptions.

Reading and writing is still a huge problem for Travellers, many still can't even read road signs, so often get lost. However attitudes are changing and parents are beginning to keep their sons and daughters in school after third year -- though some girls are leaving school at 14 because parents are worried that their child might meet a boy and have sex before marriage.

The Travellers' future is in question because they want to hold on to their traditions but some just don't fit into modern society. Because of the Anti-Trespass Act, central Government and local councils want them to settle. The authorities make it difficult for them to travel the country by blocking off halting sites.

This nomadic people see bare-knuckle boxing as a noble proud pastime that settles disputes. The settled community see bare-knuckle boxing as barbaric.

If the settled community and Travellers want to get along there has to be a little give and take on both sides.

I want to thank all the Travellers who took part in the documentary.

Henry McKean's The Truth About Travellers continues on Tuesday, May 11 and 18 at 9pm on TV3