MINCÉIR // AN LUCHT SIÚIL // THE WALKING PEOPLE
Travellers are an indigenous minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries. They have their own lauguage called Cant or Gammon. In this lauguage, their name is Mincéir. Throughout Irish history, Travellers have lived on the margins of mainstream Irish society. This has resulted in widespread stereotyping and discrimination.
Traditionally, tin-smithing was widely practised among Travellers. They also did seasonal work for farmers, like fruit and potato picking. This way of life changed, however, as the use of machinery and plastics became commonplace. Over the past sixty years, Irish Travellers have been forced off the roads for a number of reasons, including government policies.
In 1960, Charles Haughey, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Justice, set up the Commission on Itinerancy, which published its report in 1963. This report viewed Travellers as an itinerant problem; a problem that needed to be solved through ‘rehabilitation’, ’assimilation’ and ‘integration’.
In this report there was no acknowledgement of the culture, identity, language, customs or values of the Traveller community. Unfortunately, this Commission failed to understand that the answer to supporting the rights of a minority ethnic culture in our society cannot be achieved by assimilation of this community to the point of the obliteration of its identity.
Forced assimilation is an involuntary process of cultural assimilation of ethnic minority groups which forces them to adopt the norms, values, way of life and ideology of established and generally larger community and dominant culture.
Dr. Sindy Joyce is an Irish Traveller human rights activist and academic. In January 2019, she became the first Irish Traveller to obtain a doctorate from an Irish university. She is a Lecturer in Sociology and a public speaker. She states:
‘At the core of anti-Traveller racism is the assumption that nomadism is not a valid way of life. The State response has been to outlaw it and measures taken have been to “assimilate/absorb” us to stop us from being who we are, the dominant powers viewed as ‘less than’ or ‘inferior’ than the majority population, they viewed us as people that were somehow ‘failed settled people’ or ‘broken’ in that we needed to be ‘fixed’ and ‘aided’ in becoming ‘settled’ which can easily be defined as cultural and ethnic genocide.’
- Dr Sindy Joyce, A Brief History of the Institutionalisation of Discrimination Against Irish Travellers - Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) Day 2018.
On the 1st of March 2017, after 25 years of campaigning, Irish Travellers were recognised as an ethnic minority by the Irish government. Irish Travellers are indigenous Irish people, but are a distinctive group within the general population, who are ethnically different due to their shared history, traditions, culture and language, among many other elements.
Ethnic recognition should, in theory, help Travellers to protect their culture and traditions, and provide additional supports in the areas including education, accommodation and health.
Since then, however, little has changed, although the Travelling Community has continued to campaign for improvements in the lives of Irish Travellers. Today, Traveller families travel far less and most have been moved into halting sites and houses.
It is important to understand that although the vast majority of Travellers are no longer nomadic, it still remains a vital part of their identity and culture.
‘Whereas a sedentary person retains a sedentary mind-set even when travelling, Gypsies and Travellers, even when not travelling remain nomadic. Even when they stop they are still Travelling People’
- Jean Paul Liégeois, Roma, Gypsies and Travellers 1994
Racism affects all aspects of Travellers’ lives. It can lead to bullying in schools and refusals on the part of business owners to allow Travellers to enter into shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and so on. Negative and exploitative media and social media representations also produce misinformation and lead to misunderstandings about Travellers. Young Travellers may struggle with their identity and try to conceal it in school or in further education.
The National Traveller Mental Health Network was officially launched at NUI Galway in March 2019. Some of the key facts pertaining to Traveller mental health were outlined at the launch of this Network:
• 82% of the community have been affected by suicide
• 90% of Travellers agree that mental health issues are common amongst the community
• 56% of Travellers report that poor physical and mental health restrict their normal daily activities
Vice-chair of the Network, Mags Casey, explained that the causes of mental health issues affecting Travellers are complex:
‘Clearly, the issues that affect all Travellers - such as racism and exclusion, matters relating to identity, sexuality, addiction, as well as employment, education and accommodation - have a profound impact on the community's mental health’
The rate of suicide among Traveller women is higher than their settled counterparts. The rate of male Traveller suicide is an alarming seven times higher than that of the settled male population. Factors contributing to the high suicide rate in the Traveller population include social change, the problem of drug abuse among marginalised Traveller men, accommodation issues, economic pressures, violence and the extreme levels of discrimination faced by this community. This level of suicide and self-harm among Travellers is a cause of much grief, loss and emotional pain for members of the immediate family, extended family members and the wider Traveller community.
As stated earlier, on 1st March 2017, after 25 years of campaigning, Irish Travellers won formal recognition as a distinct ethnic group within the State. On the day of the ruling, former director of the Irish Traveller Movement, Brigid Quilligan, stated:
‘We want every Traveller in Ireland to be proud of who they are and to say that we’re not a failed set of people. We have our own unique identity, and we shouldn’t take on all of the negative aspects of what people think about us. We should be able to be proud and for that to happen our State needed to acknowledge our identity and our ethnicity, and they’re doing that today.’
The fight for Traveller rights continues today.
Breda Mayock 2020
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