Meeting hears call to reject assimilation of Travellers' culture


Ireland needs to work towards an intercultural, rather than multicultural, society; such a society would effectively reject policies of assimilation, a Citizen Traveller discussion heard in Galway last week.

The idea was proposed by Ms Stasia Crickley of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and the National Consultative Committee on Interculturalism and Anti-Racism (NCCIR), during the "round-table" discussion hosted by the Galway Travellers' Support Group (GTSG) in the SAS Radisson Hotel. The key to respecting Traveller culture is to acknowledge the Travelling community as a minority ethnic group, she said.

Policies adopted by other European countries towards different cultures should generally be avoided, as most had not worked, she said. An "inter-cultural" society accepted that people were different, and moved away from the idea of assimilation. "Multiculturalism" had a connotation of power or domination, she explained.

Cultural action must be for the collective good, and it was also important that a distinction should be made between cultural "rights" and cultural "norms", Ms Crickley said in her contribution. Noting that she was speaking on International Women's Day, she said that cultural rights had often been hijacked by men in the past, to the disadvantage of women in their society. The rights of "minorities" within the minorities - women and children - must be respected, she said.

The theme of the discussion was a celebration of Traveller identity, and was accompanied by an exhibition put together by the GTSG, and the screening of a prizewinning video documentary, Travellers' Tale. Among the participants from the organisation were Julia Sweeney and Kathleen O'Neill, who both stressed the value of training, and the importance of a unified approach to overcome discrimination.

Mr Thomas McCann of the Irish Traveller Movement said culture was a "space we communicate through". "We interpret and respond to what is going on around us through this filter, and very few people are aware of that," he said. "You can take on expressions of another culture, but for most of us our experience is what we were born into. To appreciate another culture, you have to look at your own," he added.

It was time that universities and other third-level institutions put Travellers' culture on the agenda, Ms Mary O'Malley, a researcher, suggested. In other countries, aspects of Romany culture carried a certain prestige because they had been the subject of academic research, whereas there has been little or no work done on Travellers' "cant" or language, she said .

She urged Travellers to become involved, and this was echoed by Mr Neil O'Doherty of the NUI Galway department of sociology and politics.

Ms Marie Mannion, heritage officer with Galway County Council, said her authority was the only local authority to run a heritage grant scheme. It is also preparing arts and heritage plans, and she appealed to Travellers to "tell us what you want".

From her own perspective, she would like to see an archive of Traveller resource material in the west.

Mr Joe O'Neill, director of services with Galway City Council, said that the Traveller community should have as much "ownership" of arts in the city as anyone else, and no one should feel excluded.

During subsequent questions, Mr O'Neill found himself defending the local authority's approach when a participant pointed out that it did not accept one aspect of Travellers' culture - nomadism.