Traveller feuding is neither sport nor entertainment

Opinion: Suicide rates in the community are six times than the average for settled community

A protest by Travellers and supporters outside Dáil Éireann last year. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

A protest by Travellers and supporters outside Dáil Éireann last year. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill


Yet another episode of feuding from within our community hits the headlines. Comments, criticisms and opinions are welcome, but not in the form of a tirade of venom against our community. Etiquette and ethics need not apply when writing about Travellers, or so it seems. Feuding is used as a goad to question the validity of Traveller ethnicity.

Feuding or the mere mention of it causes heads to fall with shame. Thieves, criminals, the wheelers and dealers, the bare-knuckle boxer and the fraudsters are all part of the criminal landscape – familiar images from the tabloid lens. Men stripped to the waist, pictures of stolen goods and of course a view of an overcrowded site with scantily clad young women: they are images that ignite all the ambiguous, unproven myths about Traveller culture. Criminality described or implied. Our community is constantly proving its worth, while demanding respect and a much more diverse representation of Traveller ethnicity than the two-dimensional.

Feuding is neither a sport nor a form of entertainment. People get hurt. Families are damaged. The fabric of the community gets torn.

Siege mentality
The romantic view of fist-fighting in car parks or back roads to clear somebody’s name, to defend honour, is archaic. Threats and harassment have an impact on families. Intimidation and threatening behaviour via YouTube by men in masks is anathema to our culture. Reports of bullying, drugs firearms and barging into homes depict a community at war with itself. Not being able to live in certain areas, attend weddings, christenings or other celebratory events for fear of who might be there or what might happen makes for a siege mentality among all of us. The debris of feuding gets thrown far and wide. Another dimension to the complexity is that women and children are affected and drawn in, by the mere fact of being mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of feuding men.

Severing feuding from Traveller identity does not mean dissociation from our ethnicity. Antisocial behaviour, as continually stated by Traveller activists, is not part of our community’s DNA. It is not an issue of identity, it is an issue of internalised oppression.

A judge describing Travellers as “Neanderthal men abiding by the laws of the jungle”; politicians suggesting Travellers could be sent to Spike Island to live in isolation, away from settled people; schools refusing enrolment; and racial profiling of infants – these are all examples of everyday racism. Travellers don’t have to be involved in feuding to be stopped, picked up or questioned by gardaí. Racism is seen as a valid way of the State controlling and punishing the collective by not implementing policies.

Suicide rates in the community are six times than the average for the settled community. And seven times higher for men. The unemployment rate among Travellers is 84 per cent. Endemic racism, poverty, isolation, alienation and lack of opportunity relate to a much larger picture of internalised oppression and systemic discrimination. The low expectations of Travellers as citizens – police do not always protect us – mark our community as beyond the protection of the State.

The Pavee Point mediation service was established in 1999. Funding for the service was ended by Department of Justice in 2010. The call for a Traveller and Roma interagency unit to oversee various strategies relating to policies and social inclusion for Travellers has been ignored. The high-level official group that hosts senior civil servants from all departments to report to the Minister does not have any Traveller representation.

Outsiders looking in
When settled people choose to write on topics such as feuding and antisocial behaviour they are usually sensationalist and voyeuristic – outsiders looking in. The dynamics of someone commenting from inside the community is very complex. Those of us on public record for condemning feuding and antisocial actions are often viewed as not being “real” Travellers. When people question my ethnic identity or loyalty a level of rage envelops me. The fear that commenting could exacerbate a tense or a delicate existing situation is frightening. Some members of our community are more than happy to invite settled journalists and opinion makers to witness antisocial activities in real time. The encouragement to condemn a whole community, or somehow to be a cultural informer, is ever present by way of inducements.

Colluding in our own objectification adds to the impoverishment and complicates matters. It is important that we remember and check ourselves when engaging with the media. In representation there has to be some responsibility towards resistance of these puerile images. Challenging feuding – those involved, the causes and those responsible for the pain – must be a collective task. Real partnership with the State requires genuine commitment.

Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community

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