There were 30,987 Irish Travellers recorded in the 2016 Census, with the vast majority identifying themselves as Roman Catholic. Although they are present throughout the island, about half live in or near the main cities of Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork. Only a minority of Travellers pursue their traditional crafts and services and retain economic independence in an urban economy.
There are two main theories as to the origin of the Travellers. The first considers them descendants of itinerant metal workers and tradespeople from pre-Celtic times; the second that they are descendants of people driven to the roads during times of economic and political turbulence from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The latter is rejected by the Travellers and NGOs supporting them. It also appears to be discredited by records of Irish Travellers in England in the twelfth century and laws passed against them there in the fifteenth century.
Other theories of Traveller origins are that they were Druidic poets or dispossessed Irish nobility from the early Middle Ages. Travellers are often grouped together Roma/Gypsies, but their origins, culture, language and religion are different. They were present in Ireland before the Roma. They have a strong tradition of Roman Catholicism, which is part of the culture, not an adjunct to an earlier religion as with the Roma. The vocabulary of the Traveller language, Shelta (also known as Sheldru, Gammon or the Cant), is based on Irish with the syntax based on English. It contains some elements of Romany. But it is a ‘cant’, or codified language, developed as a secret means of communication for the community. Celtic and Romany experts assert that Shelta has existed since the thirteenth century.
In 1834, before the Great Famine of 1845–9, there were more than 2 million people on the roads of Ireland, among whom Travellers formed a distinct and recognizable group. Travellers migrated to the United States in the early nineteenth century. Mass emigration to England and Scotland was noted from 1880.
The traditional occupations of the Travellers were metal working, craftwork, scrap metal dealing, antique and bric-a-brac dealing, horse and other trading, entertaining and seasonal agricultural labour. Nomadic Travellers made a good living in the 1950s and early 1960s, although their way of life was physically harsh, according to the findings of the 1963 report of the First Government Commission on Itinerancy. Settled Travellers were less able to make a living, the report found. The Commission treated nomadism as a problem to be resolved through enforced settlement and assimilation of Travellers into mainstream society. Itinerant Settlement Committees were set up in every local authority in 1969. Local authorities closed traditional Traveller sites and set up ‘halting sites’, to which Travellers were directed while they waited for permanent social housing. The sites were often inadequately provided with services, but Travellers were blamed for supposedly wanting to live in unsanitary conditions. Special education, housing and welfare programmes were provided for Travellers, without taking their culture into account. Their own efforts at improving their lot were suppressed. Most notably, the first Traveller primary school in Dublin was bulldozed by the Dublin Corporation in 1964. The settlement programme largely failed to improve conditions for Travellers and destroyed the independence of many of them. At the same time, resentment from local communities and violent attacks on Travellers increased.
The 1983 report of the Travelling People Review Body rejected the policy of settlement and assimilation. Although the Review Body acknowledged that prejudice and harassment towards Travellers were problems, it stated that, ‘There is no evidence of discrimination against Travellers in the granting of social welfare assistance and in gaining enrolment in local primary and second level schools.’ The report recognized ‘many instances of bias against Travellers in the allocation of tenancies of local authority houses,’ but said that that local authorities had to contend with ‘considerable local opposition’.
Although the report argued against any specific legislation to protect Travellers against discrimination, the 1988 Housing Act, 1991 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act and the 1993 Unfair Dismissals (Amendment) Act all make specific mention of Travellers. The government’s Task Force report on the Travelling community in 1995 set out to address Traveller issues from a human rights perspective. Membership of the Traveller community was identified as one of the nine grounds of discrimination under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. The 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act set up the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee and required local authorities to resolve Traveller housing and other issues. However, the 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act made trespass, previously a civil offence, into a criminal offence, thus criminalizing the Travellers’ traditional nomadic way of life. The High Level Group, set up within the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion in 2003 to ensure better integration of services to Travellers, did not include any member of the Traveller community.
Despite the 1991 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, various local politicians indulged in violent words and invective against Travellers at public meetings and in speaking to the media in the 1990s. The NCCRI (National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism) Racist Incidents Reporting Procedure documented incidents of racially motivated attacks, harassment and verbal abuse directed at the Traveller community. In person-to-person contact and in media, Travellers are often stereotyped as cheats and criminals, and it is assumed that they choose to live in dirty conditions.
The Housing (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act 2002 has been widely criticized as being discriminatory and having a disproportionate negative impact on the Traveller community as it criminalizes those camping across the country, which is an essential part of their culture as nomadic people. Moreover, due to changes regarding the Habitual Residence Condition, Travellers that move between the Republic of Ireland across the border to Northern Ireland and back, and the United Kingdom more broadly, have found it difficult to access social welfare, increasing their emotional distress and hardship.
In 2008, the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) decided to petition the Department of Justice for official recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority. Leaders of the ITM were of the view that recognition would help the group to secure its rights, gain recognition from Irish society, and boost Traveller self-confidence in dealing with settled communities.
According to national statistics, Travellers remain one of the most disadvantaged groups in Ireland. Basic health outcomes are still well below the national average; housing and basic services to accommodation are generally poor; illiteracy and the drop-out rate from school are high. The low level of educational qualification, a preference for self-employment, restrictions on nomadic living and discrimination by employers have left many Traveller families dependent on welfare.
After years of campaigning by Traveller groups, in 2017 the Irish government granted formal recognition to the Traveller community as a distinct ethnic group – a move hailed by campaigners as an important step towards ending the discrimination faced by the community. The same year, Ireland published its new Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (2017-2021). The original strategy submitted to the European Commission in 2012 had been severely criticized by groups working with Traveller and Roma communities for lacking clear goals or means of implementation, and failing to include the communities themselves in its development.
The financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent rollout of austerity measures in Ireland impacted particularly on the Traveller community, where acute and disproportionate cuts were implemented, including sweeping cuts to education, housing and other programmes. International human rights bodies have noted with dismay the high levels of child poverty arising from austerity, especially among Travellers, and the pressing need for investment in the community. The Irish Travellers Movement has called for the government to establish a statutory agency to oversee assistance strategies, developing a clearer evidence base on current inequalities and targeting support accordingly to address discrimination.
Travellers experience high levels of unemployment, as their traditional livelihoods such as craftsmen and horse traders are no longer valued and they are having to compete with experienced workers in the market for jobs, this being especially difficult during the recession. According to the 2016 Census, Traveller unemployment rates were as high as 80 per cent. This situation is perpetuated by significantly lower levels of educational attainment, with 57.2 per cent of male Travellers educated to primary level at most, compared to 13.6 per cent of the Irish population in general.
Health outcomes among Travellers are also extremely poor, reflected in greatly elevated levels of heart disease, respiratory illness, cancer and other causes of mortality. Indeed, 2010 data shows that the average life expectancy of Travellers trails far behind the national average, amounting to 61.7 years for men and 70.7 years for women, compared to 76.8 years and 81.6 years respectively among the general population. As of 2018, just 3 per cent of Travellers in Ireland were above the age of 65, compared to 13 per cent of the Irish population as a whole. Mental health is also an acute issue within the Traveller community. This is reflected in the fact that suicide rates among Travellers are six times higher than that of the general population, with suicides accounting for 11 per cent of all Traveller deaths.
Traveller groups have called for the strengthening of anti-discrimination legislation and policies to combat hate crimes and racist incidents against Travellers. This includes online hate speech and negative media reporting, especially in the tabloid press, that fuel further prejudice against Travellers. A 2017 survey undertaken on behalf of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission found that Travellers were nearly 10 times more likely to experience discrimination than white Irish members of the population. Travellers also report regular discrimination by police authorities, with instances of ethnic profiling and unjustified invasion of privacy. Rights groups highlight that, while Travellers are ‘over policed’ with regard to certain crimes and situations, law enforcement frequently fails to protect Traveller victims in other contexts, such as domestic violence. As a result, hate crimes, domestic violence and other crimes against Travellers often go unreported as victims are reluctant to engage authorities.
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