First Traveller to stand for Dáil amid increasing confrontation with State

Obituary Nan Joyce: Was the face of the Traveller community in the 1970s

In 1982, having become the first Traveller ever to stand for Dáil Éireann in that year’s general election, gardaí aggressively raided Nan Joyce’s home near Tallaght. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

In 1982, having become the first Traveller ever to stand for Dáil Éireann in that year’s general election, gardaí aggressively raided Nan Joyce’s home near Tallaght. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

 

Obituary: Nan Joyce

Born: June 24th, 1940

Died: August 7th, 2018 .

Two stories, 30 years apart and both involving police, frame the story of the extraordinarily difficult life of Ann (Nan) Joyce, who has died aged 78.

In 1952, when she was aged 12, and living with her family on a Traveller campsite just outside Belfast, her father, John Donoghue, died while in the custody of the RUC in a police station in circumstances that were never fully explained.

In 1982, having become the first Traveller ever to stand for Dáil Éireann in that year’s general election, gardaí aggressively raided her family’s home at a site near Tallaght, a site that had been targeted for protest, although not attack, by an anti-Traveller group previously. Joyce was arrested and charged with the theft of jewellery and receiving stolen goods found on the premises. After months of court appearances, both charges were eventually dropped; the jewellery had, in fact, been Nan Joyce’s property.

Both events could be said to describe in microcosm the conditions under which Traveller people lived in Ireland in the 20th century, and in response to which Nan Joyce finally found the courage to rebel. In the late 1970s, this was to propel her to national notoriety as the face of the Traveller community, and a female face at that.

Era of confrontation

Travellers and the Irish State were moving at that time into an era of confrontation, which had many causes but which manifested itself principally (with telling resonances today) as a housing crisis as Dublin Corporation moved Travellers from halting sites in Finglas and Glasnevin to Tallaght.

Nan Joyce and a number of like-minded people, both other Travellers and settled people, including Mervyn Ennis, a youth and community social worker with the then Eastern Health Board and a local couple, Tony and Marie Hackett, formed what became the Travellers’ Rights’ Committee (TRC).

An earlier appearance by Joyce in the late 1970s on RTÉ television’s The Late Late Show had been the first significant exposure for her on national media, as it had been followed by great interest from other media outlets. Following the march on the Travellers’ Tallaght site, broadcaster Gay Byrne had brought his morning radio show out to interview Nan Joyce, and in the months following this, the interest generated was mirrored nationwide with visits by the TRC to community groups and third-level institutions across Ireland.

Later that year, and for the first time in the history of the state, a Traveller stood for election, with Nan Joyce polling a respectable 580 votes in the Dublin South-West constituency. In the mid 1980s, Joyce moved back to what had always been her favourite place, Belfast, childhood memories of which were vividly recorded in her autobiography, My Life on the Road (Gill and Macmillan, 1985, edited by Anna Farmer).

Women’s refuge

Having trouble in her marriage at the time (her husband, John, and herself were reconciled after a few months’ separation), she moved with her children into a Women’s Aid refuge, where she met Catholic and Protestant women, and became involved gradually in setting up what became the Northern Ireland Council for Travelling People (NICTP), of which she became chairperson.

This renewed activism brought her into contact with people right across the spectrum of Northern politics and society, and included meetings with then secretaries of state Tom King and Peter Brooke, and representatives from Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Democratic Unionist Party, including Rhonda Paisley.

The NICTP held regular meetings with councillors at Belfast City Hall, and community groups across the province.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Nan Joyce later moved back to live with members of her family in north Dublin near Clonshaugh. In 2010, she was presented by President Mary McAleese with a Lifetime Achievement Award at Áras an Uachtaráin for her work promoting Travellers’ rights.

Nan Joyce was born in Clogheen, Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, in 1940, the second eldest of 10 children of a Traveller couple, John and Nan O’Donoghue (nee McCann), and grew up travelling the roads of Ireland, North and South, but living during childhood mostly in and around Belfast.

Joyce is survived by her children, Anne, Kathleen, Christine, Mary, Julia, Tommy, John, Elizabeth, Patrick, Richard and Elaine; her sisters, Chrissy and Lily, and her brothers, Peter, Richie, Paddy, Michael and Willie. Her husband, and her sisters Kathleen and Sarah (Sally), predeceased her.