International Traveller and Roma Day is celebrated every year on April 8th. This date marks the opening day of the first World Roma Congress in 1971 in Orpington, England. Nearly fifty years later, this day is still celebrated by Traveller and Roma communities throughout the world.
Travellers are Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority and have been an integral part of the country’s cultural diversity for hundreds of years. As of 2016, there were almost 31,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland, representing 0.7% of the general population. The Travelling community is united by a shared history, culture and identity and a common language known as Shelta, Cant or Gammon. Irish Travellers are a traditionally nomadic group and nomadism is still practised by many but not all members of the community today. Other distinctive features of the Traveller way of life include strong ties to extended family and the keeping of horses. The Traveller community is also marked by a rich storytelling and musical tradition. Several Irish musicians, such as Christy Moore, have recognised the debt owed to Travellers for preserving the country’s musical heritage.
In recent decades there has been an increasing number of strong, community-led organisations advocating for Traveller rights. Groups such as Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Movement and Minceirs Whiden have fought to bring an end to discrimination and achieve full equality between the Travelling and Settled community. Some hard-won achievements include the state’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity in 2017 and the 2018 Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill. This is not to mention the huge personal triumphs of many members of the Travelling community, such as that of Sindy Joyce, who in 2019 became the first Irish Traveller to graduate with a PhD. However, despite the many collective and personal milestones achieved by this community, Irish society continues to be a place of discrimination and inequality for Travellers.
There is a long history of chronic racism against the Travelling community in Ireland. Travellers constitute the largest single category of discrimination reported to the responsible agencies. This discrimination often takes the form of refusal of entry to restaurants, pubs and shops. A case settled in the Circuit Civil Court in December 2019 dealt with a popular Dublin Pub which had refused entry to a Traveller family going for lunch. The court held that the pub had a “clear policy” of excluding Travellers and Justice O’Connor commented that the case was “reminiscent of a dark period of Irish history.” However, for the vast majority of Irish Travellers, discrimination is not a matter of history. Research cited by the Human Rights and Equality Commission indicates that 90% of Travellers have experienced discrimination at some point in their lifetime and that 77% had experienced discrimination in the previous year.
This discrimination is often normalised and even encouraged by members of the settled population. In research carried out with the general public in 2017, 27% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘it is acceptable for Travellers to be refused entry to hotels, pubs and shops.’ Anti-Traveller sentiments among the Irish public today have been traced back to the historic marginalisation and oppression of nomadic peoples. This intolerance was further exacerbated by the Irish states attempts to coercively assimilate the Traveller population, a process which began in the early 1960’s. Today, racism towards Travellers is constantly reproduced in public discourse, online and by politicians in election campaigns. The 2019 UN CERD report expressed concerns about the increasing rise of hate speech against Travellers as a political tool, and the inadequacy of Irish legislation to prevent this. The prevalence of racism in Irish society is profoundly damaging to the wellbeing of Travellers, both on a communal and individual level.
The effects of Anti-Traveller discrimination can be seen in almost all aspects of our society. Travellers face severe inequality in education and employment. In 2016, 55% of Travellers had only primary level education and just over 1% of travellers had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Representatives of the Traveller community have often spoken about how Travellers are pushed out rather than dropping out of education. Issues such as bullying, discrimination and a lack of respect for Traveller culture within the schooling system contribute to low educational attainment within the community. These barriers to education, alongside widespread discrimination in the labour market, have contributed to the extremely high unemployment rate of 80% within the Travelling community.
Accommodation is another area in which the Traveller community is disadvantaged. There is a severe lack of culturally appropriate accommodation that facilitates a nomadic lifestyle and allows for extended families to live together on the basis of their shared identity. Furthermore, due to the state’s policy of assimilation, legal structures have been put in place which make nomadism extremely difficult. As well as this severe interference with cultural expression, Travellers often face substandard living conditions in their accommodation. One third of the Travelling community live without access to basic sanitation facilities, water and electricity, and 60% live without internet access. These conditions have serious knock-on effects for the health, education and employment opportunities of Travellers.
Perhaps one of the most acute challenges facing the Travelling community today is health inequality. In 2010, infant mortality rates among Travellers were 3.6 times the national average. Traveller women had a life expectancy eleven years lower than that of women in the general public; for Traveller men this gap was fifteen years. The consequences of inequality are also acutely seen in the mental health epidemic facing the Travelling community. Suicide rates among Travellers are six times the national average, accounting for one in ten deaths. Bridgie Casey, a Traveller woman who has lost twelve members of her extended family to suicide, described the severity of this issue at the opening of the first Minceirs Whiden office in Limerick in 2017. In her words, “We’ve a pain on our shoulder from carrying coffins.” Many, including Casey, have spoken out about how racism against Travellers has been the primary factor fuelling this crisis. Poor living conditions, discrimination in healthcare and a lack of culturally sensitive services have also been cited as likely causes of the general health disadvantages among Travellers. Troublingly, there is evidence to suggest that health inequalities between Travellers and the general public have been growing over the last few decades.
Despite the huge barriers left to overcome, Irish Travellers continue to fight for equality through community-led activism. World Roma and Traveller day is an opportunity to recognise the work of Traveller activist’s past and present and appreciate the diversity which the Travelling community has brought to Ireland for centuries. However, this day also serves as a reminder of the extent to which Ireland has failed its’ indigenous ethnic minority and how far we have to come before equality can be achieved.
Photo by Pavee Point
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