Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air in Ireland

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

The State’s failure to recognise the ethnic identity of Travellers is a denial of equal status with others

IN DUBLIN Castle today, at a conference called “Ethnicity and Travellers: an Exploration” being run by the Department of Justice and Equality, the “experts” are at it again – the settled academics, that is.

They will explain and conceptualise ideas about my Traveller identity. Catherine Joyce and Brigid Quilligan, Pavee beoirs (Traveller women), will bring authenticity to the discussion, making real the notion of self-determination.

Personally, ethnicity can only be described in relation to the tangibility of friendship. Often it’s the direct opposite of the abstract language used to describe ethnicity and identity politics.

I have a friend called Katherine, who is a settled woman, and when she came into my life, from the get-go my statement was: “You’re settled. I’m a Traveller. In our country you belong, you’re counted. I’m the nuisance that they don’t know what to do with.”

There have been unsettling moments in our friendship relating to how Traveller identity is perceived and how wilfully ethnocentric Irish society is. Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air between us. It is an often covert racism, an undermining racism, a difficult racism to challenge or articulate. Being friends with me, the buoyancy of Katherine’s position as a settled person gets unbalanced whenever the malignant tides rise intensely against Travellers. Identity is something that can’t be escaped. We’re all grounded in who we are – our tradition, culture and heritage.

Katherine has never wavered into that space of ambiguity where reasonable, kind-hearted settled friends often say “but” and “if”, wanting Travellers to behave more “responsibly” even when they are being hated.

There’s a place for the rights mantra and responsibility mantra – on both sides. There’s a constant realisation that we’re both evolving, developing and stretching the possibilities of what it means to be Irish women, each with our own identities. My mother had settled friends. She paid them “visits”. That’s how she described her connection with them.

The separation of the State from the Catholic Church, the State recognition of the damage done to children in institutional care, decriminalising homosexuality, legislating for divorce and civil partnership, and now the children’s rights referendum – all of these are milestones of progressive change.

But the burning issue of Traveller ethnicity is unresolved.

In Britain, the ethnicity of Irish Travellers has been law since the case of O’Leary and Others v Punch Retail in 2000. In Northern Ireland, since 1997, Travellers have been classified as a “racial group” for the purposes of the Race Relations Order. And the world hasn’t stopped turning.

These pieces of legislation admit Traveller ethnicity is a status equal to that of settled Irish ethnicity. Discrimination towards Travellers in Britain and Northern Ireland hasn’t gone away, but younger Irish Travellers there have a stronger sense of pride and self-esteem.

Across the Border and across the Irish Sea, recognising Traveller ethnicity has had an impact. Travellers there have the opportunity to be treated with a new respect and accorded a more equal status in engaging with the state. The relationship shifts to a treatment that takes account of and respects cultural difference.

There’s a symbolic value too – my identity, my history, my culture are still not validated. The 2010 All Ireland Traveller Health Study: Our Geels revealed a strong self-identification among our people. Membership of the Traveller community was important for 71 per cent; Traveller culture for 73 per cent; and Traveller identity for 74 per cent.

Yet the State will not recognise this identity and afford us the status that would go with such recognition.

Friendship with Katherine is unlike that unequal relationship my mother had with settled women, where even to those she paid visits to she was still the subservient beggar at the door.

When Katherine talks about her days in school, the conversation is about expectation and entitlement. Ambition and opportunity are also built into the fabric of her memory.

The dialogue becomes fragile when I speak about my people being brought to special school where we were humiliated by being washed and ridiculed. Believing I wasn’t worthy of an education, they relegated our ethnicity to the dirty corner and the special class.

Katherine’s and my social, cultural, political and personal histories are so different. We share a national identity but there are so many intricate, nuanced differences in how we are prescribed a role in Irish society. Being born into settled privilege gives her more status, more respect, more opportunity.

However, we’re part of a small cultural revolution of friendship that allows us as women to talk about the diversity that we hold. Ironically, it also opens up a chasm of silence and shame as we mutually recognise how Traveller ethnicity has been disrespected, ignored and devalued.

Perhaps such connections and alliances, such sisterhood will form the seedbeds to bring, at last, more radical lasting change whereby Traveller ethnic identity achieves recognition, protection and respect.


Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community

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