Trapped by the Traveller code?
MEMOIR: Gypsy Girl, By Rosie McKinley, Hodder & Stoughton, 278pp. £12.99
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of a woman born in 1970s England to an Irish Traveller family, Gypsy Girlis as much an account of domestic violence as it is of a life on the road. So it appears under a pseudonym, a brief line on the copyright page explaining that all names and identifying details have been changed to protect the author’s family.
Under the pen name Rosie McKinley, she describes her early years spent in relative happiness within a large extended family. Her grandparents had 18 children, and she rambled free with aunts and uncles of a similar age. Traveller life involved moving on (to find work, to attend funerals and family events), and as a result her education was patchy, which she later came to regret.
Although she describes her early years as carefree, the term seems to be relative. The community experienced prejudice from settled people. Rogue Travellers would occasionally arrive on site, demanding cars, lorries or trailers. Standing up to them meant violence. Being moved on by police was another regular occurrence.
Settled people were referred to as “country people” and eyed with suspicion. To the young girl, observing from her father’s truck, they looked like they were always in a hurry.
Prejudice turned to violence when her father moved the family to Belfast for work. It was at the height of the Troubles. Travellers were known as strongly Catholic. Sites were regularly petrol-bombed by loyalists.
The family returned to Britain, moving into a council house, where, for the first time, she was living in a mixed community. In a poignant scene a settled neighbour throws bleach on the path after she and her sister pass by. Sometimes, though, it was her own people who made life difficult. She wanted to learn, but if it looked like she was trying at school she would be taunted by other Traveller children on the bus home, who accused her of wanting to become a country person.
When she was 13 three things happened to ensure the end of her childhood: her maternal grandfather died; her father began an affair with a country person; and her mother gave birth to a seriously ill child and suffered postnatal depression. All three events coming together had a huge impact on her mother, who withdrew completely and turned to alcohol. The burden of caring for the family, including looking after the newborn child, fell on the author’s shoulders.
The Traveller code was strict. Sex before marriage was unacceptable. Girls were expected to marry before they reached 20. The family of the bride had to provide a dowry – or the marriage wouldn’t go ahead. Eloping meant leaving together for a night with a chaperone to confirm that no sex had taken place. The couple would return, in shame. To save their dignity, they would marry. A Traveller wife had one priority: to look after her husband and children. And she had to stay married, whatever happened.
At 17 the author did elope. She knew her husband was trouble. She went ahead anyway. Before long he was binge-drinking, staying away for long periods, seeing other women and bringing home sexually transmitted diseases. The night she returned from hospital with her first child the beatings began. She told no one. She accepted what she was dealt, trapped by the codes of her community. What kept her going were the love of her children and a determination to make their life better. It was this concern that ultimately led her to freedom.
After years of abuse she used her husband’s long absences to try to build a life away from him, repeatedly moving so he wouldn’t find her. He always did. Then he would leave again. But, as alcoholism tightened its grip on him, she became stronger, joining an education group for Travellers. Soon she was teaching others and helping to fight for Traveller rights. Her husband, increasingly weak, died of a heart attack.
A year later she met a country man. Ironically, this introduced her to Travellers’ prejudices towards the settled community.
It would have been good if it had been made more obvious that this book was written anonymously. It wouldn’t have stopped me reading it, but it would have put that reading in context. Still, Gypsy Girlgives an insight into domestic abuse and how the codes of a community can keep its citizens trapped. It is an argument for many things: education, acceptance of differences and an understanding of the way a community’s codes can be abused by some at the cost of others.
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