CROWNING GLORY - Rosaleen McDonagh, 1st Oct 2020
The global interest on how identities are shaped, formed and carried, is also part of the commodification of womens bodies and appearances. There is a focus on gendered identities which is often inculcated with a racialised and sexualised positioning of women. Hair has been curated as a form of seduction and sensuality. Long hair represents youth, vitality and supposed vibrancy. The hair industry is also part of the cog that is the machine of the racist and sexist hierarchy. Wearing hair long is a tradition of resilience and representation, that resonates with many minority ethnic women including Traveller and Roma.
The social realities of Traveller ethnicity has always brought attention to Traveller beoirs. How we look , how we dress , how we speak and our role in the community has always been under surveillance by the outside gaze. That gaze is the settled Irish gaze. Whether we’re infants , children , teenagers , mothers or grandmothers our hair has been a signifier of our ethnicity but also a talking point or a social marker. Internally within the community regardless of the changes that were forced on us our hair as beoirs has always been a source of strength and beauty. We wash it , we comb it ,we fix it ,we style it and in the same breath we love it and hate it.
In most cultures womens hair is an indication of health and wellbeing. At particular moments in a woman’s life her hair has significant relevance. During pregnancy hair gets stronger. For others they lose their hair. For some menopause thins their hair, for others it thickens Within Traveller culture hair has always been understood as a very important aspect in how beoirs present themselves. There are many rituals associated with hair and hairstyles. Traveller females have traditionally chosen to wear their hair long. My earliest memories was of my grandmother Brigid. She wore her hair in two long plaits until the day she died. The ritual of oiling her hair was passed on to her grandchildren. That ritual was a form of female bonding with your sisters and your mother. It was usually on a Saturday night or the night before an event. Your hair would be washed and oiled and then plaited. We would ballyrag and sing songs. Beoirs of all ages participated in this tradition. For many young girls the night before their communion or an older siblings wedding their hair would be wrapped in various rags to create ringlets or long curls. Traveller beoirs always carried a comb in their beady pocket. This comb was often referred to as a rack. Instead of combing your hair a Traveller beoir might say “ she needs to rack her hair”. The comb was also used as a musical instrument. If you wrapped it in paper and held it like a harmonica close to the mouth it could make certain sounds.
Regardless of the living conditions for Traveller beoirs where often there was no water or sanitation a beoir’s hair was always a priority. Occasionally a beoir might stand under a pump or a public tap at the edge of a town and rub soap into her hair. In the past when beoirs were working in the home their hair would be wrapped up in a kool. If she had a fringe or a side pieces they would be rolled into ringlets. The famous Traveller activist Nan Joyce is often pictured with this hairstyle. The hurt and pain of denigration, was in her face. That look, inevitably, calls us to view Nan’s face, and for a brief moment, understand the hate and that mockery which was dispensed towards her. This was the combination of sexism and racism. Nan was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about Traveller beoir.
Hair and the question of beoir’s hair has always created curiosity. While historical images of Traveller beoirs are scarce those that are available often present Traveller beoirs where there hair is displayed and adorned in a very creative fashion. The hair be it in plaits or buns it was always out over her rug on her shoulders. This is unusual in that other minority groups for religious or cultural reasons would cover or hide their hair.
In the past many Traveller beoirs who were experiencing gender based violence would take a scissors to their hair. This act of defiance was to let her family and the rest of the community know that her husband was treating her badly. The eighties were a pivotal decade on the pull of globalisation. This means that there was a world view that all women should aspire to a certain look. For many Traveller beoirs dying your hair or putting various colours and streaks was a new phenomena. During this period a small proportion of Traveller beoirs cut their hair into what was considered a more modern style.
In schools Traveller children over several generations had their hair checked for lice. Again the hair is used as a way of identifying Travellers. This was usually followed by the Traveller children being brought for showers. Racism has not changed very much for Traveller beoirs. Making an appointment in the hairdressers there is always the worry of being refused entry. Often Traveller beoirs and girls were turned away from a hairdresser the day or the morning before a wedding. In contemporary times there is a different version of this form of racism. It is the bullying and teasing of Traveller girls because of their long hair. Beoir’s hair styles have often been influenced by music and fashion. Travellesr beoir have always looked inwards before looking outwards and then decided on what fashion or hairstyle suits them.
As Traveller beoirs there is no doubt that there will always be an opinion about our hair. The hair is personal and political, with the added dimesion of how its worn in both the public and private spheres. Its not a question of colour, texture or length it is more about what Traveller womens hair symbolises. Hair is a certainty. For Travellers the response to the outside curiousity and gaze lies between refelction and projection. Reflection in the form ensuring tradition and culture remains fluid and tangible. Projection is about responding to the outside gaze. For many Travellers our hair brings self-love and pride. Its considered our most precious item. It is our crowning glory.