Nan Joyce, trailblazer for Traveller rights, dies aged 78

Tributes paid to woman who was first from her community to stand in a general election

Traveller activist Nan Joyce, pictured in 1982. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/THE IRISH TIMES

Traveller activist Nan Joyce, pictured in 1982. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/THE IRISH TIMES

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Nan Joyce, a trailblazer for Traveller rights who campaigned for equality for decades, has died in Belfast aged 78.

Born in 1940 in Tipperary, Joyce (née O’Donoghue) was the second eldest in a family of 11 children and was brought up travelling the roads of Ireland with her family. She married when she was 16 and had 10 children who grew up between Tallaght, Finglas, Coolock and Belfast.

In 1982 Joyce co-founded the Committee for the Rights of Travellers and became the first member of the Traveller Community to stand for election in the history of the State. She ran as a candidate in the November 1982 general election in the Dublin South-West constituency and polled 581 votes. It was reported at the time that she was unable to actually vote in the election as she was not on the register.

Like most other members of the Traveller community, she was not on the register and thus not entitled to a vote because of her life on the road.

In 1988 Joyce’s autobiography, Traveller, was published by Gill and Macmillan. Her writing was later included in the women writers’ volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

In 2010, Joyce was awarded a lifetime achievement award by then-president Mary McAleese for her campaigning work for the Traveller community over the previous three decades.

Actor and writer John Connors posted a tribute to his grand aunt on Facebook in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “She was one of the first major Traveller activists,” he wrote. “She helped Travellers up and down the country’s to access basic needs and services and rallied for equality for decades. She famously received a standing ovation in Brussels in front of a number of Nobel prize winners. The woman was a force of nature. Luka Bloom wrote an incredible song about Nan and another heroic woman, Rosa Parks.

“Nan is gone now but she’ll never be forgotten and I hope her fighting Irish Traveller spirit lives on in the new generation.”

Joyce’s nephew Bernard Joyce posted on Facebook that his aunt would be remembered for “rising above the hatred, prejudice with integrity and respect for human rights”.

Traveller rights activist Eileen Flynn tweeted about the “amazing, inspiration (sic) woman” who as a leader “led the way for many traveller women and men”. “A true legend that will never be forgotten,” she wrote. “Nan Joyce political activist a history maker in our community and beyond.”

Mark Donohoe form Belfast also posted a tribute to his aunt Joyce on Twitter. “With great sadness, my aunt Nan Joyce has passed away peacefully in Dublin this evening. She had worked tirelessly for human rights for decades in Ireland, north and south. I’ve always been proud of her and the work she has done for our people. Chuid eile i síocháin Rest In Peace.”

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