Society urged to allow travellers to keep their culture


Community and State groups whose work aims to resolve traveller issues are doing nothing but damage, according to a representative of the Irish Traveller Movement.

Speaking at a two-day Meitheal Maigh Eo conference in Castlebar over the weekend, Mr Michael McDonagh said even the language used by such interest groups posed a real threat to the travelling community.

"They describe us as `a targeted group' and say they will take `action' on the traveller situation. The fact is the Government and groups such as Leader just don't know who they are dealing with."

Mr McDonagh added that there was a tradition among settled people of threatening badly behaved children that they would be given away to the "tinkers".

He said the 1960s government commission to tackle the movement of traveller people into towns and villages after the collapse of the tin industry had also engendered a very disturbing mind-set - that travellers be rehabilitated and re-assimilated into mainstream society.

"Travellers don't need to be rehabilitated or re-assimilated to a society they never belonged to in the first place. We appreciate it was all done with good intent, but nice people can be very racist people."

He added that it was extremely hurtful to be refused patronage at hotels and pubs, he added, but now the law was there to stop this practice and traveller groups readily took legal redress these days.

Although Ireland's 30,000 Irish travellers constitute nearly a half of 1 per cent of the population, it was still possible to read about travellers in Irish newspapers every day, almost all of which was negative press.

Mr McDonagh said Irish travellers would always have a unique culture and it was necessary for society to embrace this diversity as a good thing.

Mr Justin Sammon, of Meitheal Maigh Eo, said there was a total lack of understanding between the settled and traveller community and what was required was an appreciation of our differences.

Theologian Father Enda Mc Donagh reaffirmed that difference is something enriching, that we should embrace rather than reject.

"Fear is the greatest feature of public action to difference and gives rise to violence and hostile co-existence.

"This shameful hostility of ours just shows that we are insecure about our own Irish identity," he said.

A traveller, Ms Nancy Collins, explained that traveller culture depended on a labour-intensive economy, where recycling materials was a primary income base.

"Local authorities often prevent our work by limiting access to landfill sites, as do changes in the Casual Market Trading Act. Our contribution to recycling in Ireland is not recognised," she said.

She concluded that education was also the way forward for travelling people, but it was a difficult task to persuade travellers to adapt to this change.

"We welcome a conference like this that celebrates our differences. We need more of these," she said.