Hair is a powerful symbol of individuality and one which is intrinsically linked to identity, ethnicity, culture and gender. The way in which we treat our hair can tell as much about where we come from as our language or accent.
In almost all societies hair is a strong form of self-expression. Hairstyles and rituals surrounding hair care convey powerful messages about a person’s beliefs, lifestyle and commitments.
Exploring hair rituals and practises in minority cultures is particularly compelling because hair often communicates an unspoken expression of identity.
Irish Travellers are an ethnic minority group who have been part of Irish society for centuries. Travellers share traditions, cultural values, language and customs that make them a distinct group. Within Irish travelling culture nomadism as a way of life distinguishes them from the settled population.
The exact origins of the Irish Travellers are difficult to pinpoint because of a lack of written history. In February 2017 a genetic study was carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, University College Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. It found that Travellers are of Irish ancestral origin, but became separated from the general population around the mid-1600s. The DNA comparisons conducted in the course of this research found that while Irish Travellers originated in Ireland, they are genetically different from ‘settled’ Irish people.
In March 2017 Irish Travellers were recognised by the Irish state for the first time as an ethnic minority, making them Ireland's only ethnic minority. Gaining this status was the result of years of activism.
Throughout Irish history, however, Traveller culture and identity – far from being a subject of interest and celebration - has been at the root of Traveller experiences of stereotyping, discrimination and racial prejudice.
There are many aspects of minority cultures that render them recognisable and distinct. I believe that one of the distinguishing characteristics for girls and women in the Irish Traveller community is their hair.
Exploring hair with traveller women offers an opportunity to celebrate this aspect of the Traveller culture. Hair is an intensively private matter but it is also a form of self-expression that is publicly visible. It can convey how we want to be seen and also determine how we are seen.
Traveller women’s hair as a subject of elaboration symbolises a unique form of creative expression and identity.
Crown originated in Co. Mayo, where I got the opportunity to explore the subject of hair with Irish Traveller women. Hair is, to me, a unique feature of Irish Traveller women and one that I have admired since I was a child.
Growing up I developed a natural curiosity and admiration for hair adornment across all cultures. I also learned traditional Irish music and as I got older I became aware of the rich tradition of music and song in the Traveller culture. They had a strong culture of touring entertainers, from busking musicians to carnival people. Travellers brought songs and stories from town to town and developed their own unique styles of singing, storytelling, and playing musical instruments.
Traveller women have a unique aesthetic expression. How they express themselves and their sense of identity through their hair is a source of intrigue.
Why this long luxurious flow in all its glory – plaits, rolls, ribbons, top knots and curls? What have the women to say about their hair, it’s physical appearance, it’s traditions, it’s rituals, and what it means to them?
I got in touch with Traveller girls and women to talk to them about hair. We have had many conversations and, hopefully, there will be many more in the future.
I worked with photographer Orla Sloyan, to photograph the women with a special emphasis placed on their hair during the photography sessions.
On this site you can see and read what Traveller women and girls have expressed, both visually and in their own words, about their hair.
This is only the beginning – there is much more to be explored.
I want to thank Creative Ireland, Mayo Arts Office, Mayo Traveller Support Group, TACU Family Resource Centre, Linenhall Arts Centre, The National Folklore Collection UCD and The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park.
I am especially grateful to the Traveller women and girls who have shared their stories and memories and who have given me access to their experiences and perspectives. I hope that the representations here do justice to their generosity and insights.
Breda Mayock 2020
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