'The majority know nothing about the minority'


INTEGRATION: THE TRAVELLER VIEW:‘TRAVELLERS ARE an indigenous ethnic group,” the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) says. The Irish Timesinvited the ITM, a national network of more than 80 organisations and individuals representing Travellers, to respond to comments by the general public (printed below). The ITM was also asked to comment on integration between Travellers and non-Travellers. This is their repsonse:

“Travellers have been part of Irish society as a separate culture for at least 500 years but upwards of 1,000 years or more, based on genetic heritage, with a shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions that are recognisable and distinct.

“Their language, Gammon or Cant, was identified as far back as the 11th century. Nomadism distinguished them from the settled population.

“A valuable mobile labour force by the 16th-century, Travellers were well known as an occupational group. In the 1834 Poor Law Census records – when there were over two million displaced Irish people on the roads – Travellers were enumerated separately as a distinct group with their own identity.

“Traveller economy was in the past based on movement and mostly intergenerational skills of horse craft, tinsmithing, farm labouring, music, etc. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the widespread use of plastic and aluminium, coupled with modern communications, transport, trading and media industries, usurped many of Travellers’ traditional functions. Increasingly modern laws and regulations made it more difficult for many Traveller traders to practise their trades, immobilising nomadism.

“In this changing Ireland, a greater divide was created between Travellers and settled people and the perception of Travellers as a different but valuable group within Ireland was lost.

“In an ethnically diverse Ireland the challenges of integration are currently unmet, especially in the absence of any integration policy.

“Integration is based on equality, on new relationships free from racism and stereotyping, a contact of equals, a contact where difference is viewed positively and taken into account.

“With little interaction between Travellers and settled people, there is a clash of ways of life, resulting in a prevailing attitude that Travellers don’t conform to society. This is an inevitable result of a failure of integration.

“The majority know nothing about the minority. Neither minority nor majority holds much store with each other. Difference becomes a clash or a failure to conform by the minority. The experience works this way for other ethnic minorities in our society too, and is not isolated to Travellers.

“Lack of interaction and the absence of integration results in the majority seeing problems within the minority community as if they don’t exist in the majority: sexism, criminality, unemployment and living off the State.

“The majority fear the minority and difference becomes a threat rather than a source of inspiration and creativity. The majority hold myths about the minority. The minority receive positive discrimination. The majority hold stereotypes. This is characterised by a typical phrase that’s often heard made by the majority, for example ‘they are all very religious’. These stereotypes patronise and distort diversity of a community.

“The Traveller community in its evolved alienation became a community under siege. What emerges is a community holding on to what it knows, those basic cultural identities and symbols.

“In this mindset it is hard to look outward; rather, a community internalises that oppression.”

‘Once it hits 3.45pm, there’s no interaction’


IF, AS EVERYONE seems to agree, education is a vital key to integrating communities, why is it that Travellers and non-Travellers remain so poorly integrated? Tuam in north Co Galway has a population of some 1,056 Travellers, most of whom live in houses.

Neasa Cosgrove, Canon Brendan Kilcoyne, and Gearóid Leen are respectively the principals of Tuam’s Presentation College, St Jarlath’s College for boys and the Mercy Secondary School. Between them, they are responsible for the education of some 1,300 students, which has consistently included a number of Travellers for many years.

Why do they think integrated education is failing to produce better integration within the wider communities? These are some of the observations and opinions the three Tuam principals and some of their teachers made.

‘TWENTY YEARSago, Travellers didn’t go to secondary school,” Neasa Cosgrove points out. “So it might take another generation for education to start to be valued, when these girls have their own families. I see the key to integration as being that Travellers remain in education, and that they’re exposed to other people. The problem is, that once it hits 3.45pm, they’re gone, and there’s no interaction with schoolfriends beyond that time.

“They’re not allowed to go to films or concerts with schoolfriends. And when it comes to sport, and there’s training after school, they can’t go because they’re needed at home. That’s why weddings are such a big deal, because essentially girls are housebound a lot of the time.

“The girls in senior cycle often really want to stay here, but fathers in particular put pressure on them to leave, because you can’t be better educated than your match. So what often happens is that they drop out of school, and the next we hear, they’re married. Once they leave our system, it seems any integration ends.”

Since the recession, Cosgrove has noticed that some students with parents who have lost their jobs have a problem with the fact that Travellers receive free books and uniform. “I could see that exploding as a new tension.”

‘USUALLY WHENthere are cliques, they are within peer groups,” observes Canon Kilcoyne. “Second-years hanging round with second-years, for instance. I’ve noticed that the Traveller boys stick together a lot, and this means crossing age-boundaries, which is quite unusual in a school, and not something we encourage. They see themselves as a group, no matter what age they are. They’ll say, ‘but they’re my relatives, or my friends, and it’s expected we spend time with each other’.

“The boys seem to consider themselves men at 15, which puts them at variance with the rest of the school society. They have two cultures in their minds: school, and this much older Traveller culture, which is very patriarchal. They find rules irksome, and being part of the school system irksome. The boys definitely have trouble taking orders.”

‘EVERYONE HASphones now and access to the internet, so I’d wonder how social media is impacting on the relationship young Travellers have with the wider community,” comments Gearóid Leen. “There are a lot of traditions within the culture, and I wonder if social media will be a threat to those traditions.

“For instance, there is a Traveller tradition of chaperoning girls before marriage, but with social media, you can be anywhere and communicate with anyone. I think that will impact on integration a lot.”

‘WE ALL KNOWeducation is key, but it is so much harder for Travellers to do things like homework, if there isn’t support at home,” says Eimear O’Donovan, a teacher at the Presentation. “And I have to try and be consistent about disciplining students, so that’s hard too. You can’t let one student see you’re making an exception for another. I have seen terrible frustration with some of the older girls, because they know what’s ahead of them when they leave. Some are definitely frustrated with the Traveller system of early marriage.”

On the question of attitudes to sexual orientation, O’Donovan says that in Social, Personal and Health Education classes, when there is any discussion about gay people, Traveller girls “always speak out against it very much. They say it is disgusting. And they express their opinions in language that really shocks the other students.”

‘TRAVELLERS AREalways playing catch-up with education, right from junior infants, because many come from non-literate backgrounds and homes where there aren’t any books,” is the opinion of Teresa O’Dowd, a teacher at Jarlath’s.

“There is a lot of absenteeism from school, and a lot of that can be because of childminding at home. I have noticed that role models for young Travellers always seem to be only from their own community.”

‘I think people are afraid of Travellers. Do I sound bigoted?’

INTEGRATION: THE NON-TRAVELLER VIEW:IN REPORTING this series from a number of locations around Ireland, in Wexford, Cork, Limerick and Galway, the Irish Times gathered comments and opinions about the Travelling community from members of the public. A representative selection of these comments is published below.


“There’s no interaction between the two communities,” says Jean O’Neill, shopping in the English Market. “I think people are afraid of Travellers. They’re afraid they’ll be robbed. Travellers go round in gangs and push their way in front of you whenever they’re out in town. Do I sound terribly bigoted? I’m only saying what I see.”

“Travellers are very nice people. I have no problem with them. But they do seem to have a fairly bad reputation for thieving,” comments Anne McSweeney.

“How many Travellers are there in Ireland? I’d say a quarter of a million,” guesses Michael, the young man in a Guinness sweatshirt talking to his friend Anthony on Patrick Street. “I don’t think there’s any Traveller culture left, but I think they’ve been the instigators of their own downfall. I think the women try to do their best, but the men tend to be dominant. And violence is a big part of their lives.”

“I believe there is a ferocious amount of physical and mental abuse in that community. Women Travellers are treated like second-class citizens,” says Anthony.

“I’d have to struggle hard to find anyone I know with a good thing to say about them. And you know what strikes me? Why is it that there never seems to be any gay Travellers? There must be some, but we never hear about them.”


“We hear so much bandied around in the media about ‘Traveller culture’, but what does that mean in 2011?” asks a woman walking a dog along the New Ross quayside in Wexford. “To me, it has been reduced to a code of behaviour that’s more reminiscent of Saudi Arabia than Ireland. Big, tight families. Marrying young. Dominant men. Submissive women. Is that Traveller culture? If that’s all it is, to talk about ‘Traveller culture’ is like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes – it’s actually become non-existent, in my opinion.”


“I resent Travellers, to be honest with you,” says Marian Walsh. “They live off the State, and they get away with things ordinary citizens cannot. There are very few Travellers who work. There are all these fine, able-bodied Traveller men, who are living off the State and who have no self-respect. They choose to end up the same as their fathers and ancestors. There’s no progress.”

Another woman coming out of Super Valu says: “I can’t understand why girls have to give up everything – their education, opportunities, everything. Travellers say daughters are needed at home to mind children, but why can’t their children go to a creche, same as everyone’s else’s children? Life is very unfair for Traveller girls.”

“I think we are a very quick nation to judge Travellers. They have their way of life, and we have ours, and they clash,” says Pat Devaney. “We see our way as right and their way as wrong. For example – why do all the girls get married at 17? Well, here’s my opinion why: they get children’s allowance until 17, and then they start costing their parents money, so they’re pushed into marriage. I think Traveller girls have a hard life.”

“I would say that Travellers are positively discriminated against. They receive pastoral care, free books and uniforms,” says a nun who declines to give her name. “I’ll tell you my honest opinions, but I don’t want to give my name, because I work with the community. Travellers are very conscious of their rights, but it’s not as easy to get them to buy into their responsibilities. As for marrying young, I do pity the women. It seems to me neither of the sexes have moved on in the Travelling community, but women seem to be worse off.

“There is physical force used on Traveller women by their husbands, and I’ve seen women who have been victims of domestic violence.”

“Years ago when I was young, Travellers were well-respected. And now they are not. How did that happen?” asks an elderly man resting on a bench in Joyce’s shopping centre.


“The settled community are very fast to condemn and overreact to any bad behaviour from Travellers,” says Liam Courtney, in Roches Stores shopping centre. “I think there is a strong bias against Travellers by the settled community that’s very hard to crack. There’s definitely a ‘them and us’ attitude, but they don’t do themselves any favours either.”

A woman stops to offer her views, but not her name. “A lot of Travellers are very religious and have great beliefs. I suppose that’s a good thing.”

“I’m a secondary school teacher, so I won’t give my name, but I’ve taught many Traveller girls,” says a woman outside Penneys. “Even if they have potential, they never stick at education. They’re very agreeable in first year, and by second year, that all changes. By third year, they’ve gone a different way to their classmates.

“Difficult Traveller girls are difficult in a different way. They are physically and verbally abusive, and I’m sorry to say, but they are also thieving.”


“Travellers don’t conform to society or systems,” says Richard Cantillon on Cruises Street. “And we don’t like untidy people next door to us. I do think Travellers get a raw deal, though. They go to school, but at home, there is no incentive to value education. There’s a lot of bias against Travellers, and maybe overall, it’s unfair. But they do have an attitude. They’re very much in your face when you’re out. They are very forceful, and invariably in a group. They have no problem cutting across you, or barging in front of you.”

“I don’t know any Travellers, and thank God, there are none living near me. I know nothing about them, and I have absolutely no interest in finding out anything,” says a woman sitting in Arthur’s Quay shopping centre.

“Travellers have no social manners, and they have been failed by the Government,” says a man on Cruises Street. “And they’re not Travellers any more, because they don’t travel. When they travelled, they had skills, they worked and they were paid for their skills. For integration to happen, they will have to leave the exclusivity of their own group. They don’t integrate with us.

“Why is it that I don’t have any friends who are Travellers, or that I haven’t come across them at work, out socialising, or in any of the things I do? I don’t know.”

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