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The images of Irish Travellers that Mathias Oppersdorff had brought back across the Atlantic to his darkroom seemed to him powerful and important. Something told him that a record should be kept of the lives of these proud Travelling Tinker people, their horses and their homes in tents and wagons.

In ‘69 he had photographed some of the 40 horse-drawn covered wagons in a field at the great Traveller meeting place at Puck Fair. In that same year there were 170 such wagons at the horse fair at Balinasloe. When he returned in ‘73 almost every horse-drawn wagon had disappeared from Puck Fair, and there were now only 40 at Balinasloe. Today there are virtually none at either fair, very few any more on the roads of Ireland. Even the future of Balinasloe Fair itself now lies in the balance.

By chance Oppersdorff had been present at one of those times when the destiny of a people alters, when standards and customs are on the cusp, the slow and customary handing on of lifestyle from mother to daughter and from grandfather to grandson aborted; when the lives lived by the children of most of these people would in very many significant ways be different from those lived by their parents.

... A handsome man in a suit, with white shirt unbuttoned at the neck and wearing a trilby hat, squats with his three year old son on his knee. Beside him, his wife Julia, with a challenging and almost voluptuous glance to her eyes. They look every inch the typical handsome Irish couple.

They are. But they are also Travelling people. Behind them is their home, a rounded bow-topped tent, not tall enough to stand up in, self-built from hazel branches and tarpaulin. Filled with fresh straw, it is their bedroom, their sitting room in wet weather, and their children’s birthplace. Beside and behind them the Irish road stretches away and away.

... Twenty five years later, in 1994, the same couple stand in a council house in the town of Ennis. Its ceiling seems very high after the tent and it should feel cosy after the rigours of living practically in the open air. But, it seems to me in looking at this picture, somewhere, somehow, there has been a loss in confidence and identity.

It is not only that this man and woman are older. There is the feeling that they have lost more than just the wide open spaces of the roads of Ireland. This house on an urban council estate does not seem entirely appropriate for them. Some of the furniture in the room they stand in is still draped in dust sheets as if their lives now lived in a house were only partial, not entirely consummated as yet, or in earnest.

These pictures by Mathias Oppersdorft, one from 1969 and the other from 1994, capture part of the extraordinary change which, in the course of one generation, has overcome the Irish Travelling People.

The circumstances of many Irish folk have changed during this last quarter century. In the 1960s Ireland was still a relatively poor country and in the strong grip of the Catholic church. Present day Ireland has a far greater degree of prosperity and hedonism.

There must be few Irish people whose lives have not been touched by this time of change, and many have travelled far. None has travelled further than the Irish Travellers. Their journey, however, has not been entirely in the same direction as that of the rest of the population. Nor was it an easy journey.

Arriving in Ireland in 1969, Mathias Oppersdorff had actually been on his way somewhere else.

He became intrigued by the vivid austerity and dignity and resilience of these Traveller folk who, often immensely poor, were living a life close to the earth, a life that centred round tin smithing, begging, all types of seasonal farm work, the flat-topped wagon, and above all the horse.

The lives of these thousands of Irish people (they constitute about one half percent of the Irish population) intrigued Mathias partly because they were so different from his own - on his father’s side he is descended from titled nobility in Europe, and on his mother’s from the original Mayflower settlers - but also because, a bit of a wanderer himself, he found it intriguing that the values held dear by the Travelling people seemed so very different to those aspired to by the rest of Ireland - the house dwelling population that the Travellers referred to collectively, and not necessarily with disrespect, as ‘Countrymen’ or ‘Buffers’.

A much greater prosperity was on its way for the people of Ireland, but little of it at that time trickled down to the Travellers. There was, for example, the plastic revolution. Utensils that traditionally had been made from tin were now replaced by plastic. Constructing, repairing and recycling tin vessels and goods of all sorts had been a staple of the Traveller economy for centuries.

There was the ‘throwaway revolution’. People were beginning to throw broken things away and buy new ones, rather than wait for a Traveller to pass by who could repair them.

A less credulous and more cynical generation of house-dwellers had less time for fortune telling, for centuries a way of life for many female Travellers.

Slowly but surely the horse was being replaced by the internal combustion engine, and as a result of this there was now getting to be less call for the horse dealing and horse breaking that for so long had been so important a part of the Travellers’ lifestyle.

The increasing mechanisation of farms meant there was now much less call for the seasonal work (the harvesting of apples, swedes, potatoes, or whatever) that the Travellers, the ideal mobile workforce, had been so well equipped to provide, and farmers were far less willing for the Travellers to pull in for a month or two in a quiet corner of a field, if they were not working for them.

A proliferation of street signs (‘No Entry’) to be read, and forms (vehicle registration documents) to be filled in, made life increasingly complicated for the Travellers, the majority of whom could not read or write.

They couldn’t decipher even messages intended specifically for them, such as ‘No Camping’, ‘No Itinerants’ or ‘No Temporary Dwellings’.

With more motor traffic, the roads and winding lanes of Ireland were becoming more dangerous. The Travellers’ caravans, travelling at 2 or 3 miles an hour, were in once sense accidents waiting to happen, with devastating and sometimes fatal results to people and horses. Being non literate, the Travellers could not fill in the forms to get themselves insured and from their underprivileged position were hardly ever able to claim recompense through the courts. They were not even able to make a note of the number of cars or lorries that ran over or into them, or their horses.

And so, while the rest of Ireland, the house-dwelling people, became more affluent, the Travellers were losing most of their ways of making a living.

This, among other things, had a devastating effect on the morale of the men.

Trailers drawn by motors or lorries were on the increase, and they had been around long enough to be on sale second hand very reasonably. Travellers took advantage of this and moved into these trailers, selling or burning their old horse-drawn homes.

Throughout an Ireland that was becoming increasingly materialistic and conformist, the traditional Traveller stopping places by the roads or on the commons were being blocked or ditched.

The dole, that method by which a nation can share out some of its prosperity to its poorest people, was, by the late sixties, for the house-dwelling population, helping to bridge the gap between rich and poor. But it was in those days very hard to obtain for those who did not have a fixed address and so, tragically, was not available to one group who had great need of it, the Travellers, still living by the roadside.

Poverty of an extreme form was increasingly becoming the lot of the Travelling people of Ireland.

It had already been perceived by the house-dwelling population, but initially only in terms of how it affected them; many travellers, starving in the countryside, were coming to the cities and begging.

A government committee had been briefed to find a solution to the Traveller ‘problem’. Their report, when it was published, exceeded their brief. They found, they said, a population for whom, in many cases, there was no visible means of support.

Their view of Travellers was that they were ‘failed’ settled people. Their proposed solution was to ignore the nomadic tradition of the Travellers and to ‘assimilate’ them into flats and houses as soon as possible. Bricks and mortar and concrete accommodation was made available to many Travellers and their contracts often stipulated that wagons or trailers must not be parked outside, or even that they must be destroyed before the Travellers moved in. Many exceptional barrel-topped wagons, exquisitely carved and decorated, were destroyed at that time, and many Travellers made the move into houses with great difficulty, finding themselves hankering for the road.

Logic finally triumphed over the misguided view of the Travellers as merely failed house dwellers - they had lost their houses and land, it was widely believed, at the time of the Irish famine in the 1840s, or through eviction. However, if they were merely house dwellers forced from their homes by disaster, how was it that they had not got themselves back into bricks and mortar at the earliest moment at which this became possible? And how was it - of which more in a moment - that every one of those Travelling people living on the road had the same private language - Shelta?

Much has changed in the official view of Travellers since those times, and they are no longer perceived just as house dwellers who’ve got apart from their houses, Buffers fallen on hardship.

Travellers worldwide are one of those ethnic groups who have a strong and easily recognised culture but no country that they can actually call their own.

The equivalent of the Irish Travellers in the rest of Europe, numbering a million in the European Union countries, are the Romany Gypsies, coming originally from the area now known as Pakistan and speaking the Romani language.

The Irish Travellers, though they have many things in common with the Gypsies, are of different ethnic descent, and their traditional language, which many still believe must be kept secret from Buffers, is Shelta, also known as Cant or Gammon.

In the 1880s the writer Charles Leland told of coming across an Irish Traveller in England who mentioned this language and claimed it was far older than Romani.

A surge of academic interest followed, especially when it was discovered that this secret language contains some words which are extinct Irish, previously known only in old manuscripts, and therefore ‘borrowed’ from Irish in those far off times when people were still using them.

Some Shelta words are disguised Irish words and the same disguised words were used by priests in ancient manuscripts.

This and other semantic evidence suggests that the Shelta language is of great antiquity, and that it evolved before the twelfth century.

And so one romantic view of the origins of the Travellers is that they may be the descendants of some very ancient inhabitants of Ireland, who perhaps were living here before the Celts and all the other settlers and invaders; the descendants of a wandering prehistoric race who have never lost their nomadic ways.

Michael McDonagh, born in a tent but now living in a house, one of the increasing number of Travellers who have received an education and become part of the professional classes, says; ‘A Traveller doesn’t cease being a Traveller when he moves into a house.

‘The Traveller’s attitude to moving around is part of a wider mindset that permeates every aspect of our lives.

‘I remember when I first moved into a house, my grandfather looked at me and said, ‘Michael, that’s all very well for the winter, but how will you feel when the spring comes in and you’ll see the bumblebee buzzing at your window?’

‘A terrifying experience for many Travellers who have moved into a house is when they begin to face the reality that they are expected by the authorities to remain in this one, permanent, place for the rest of their lives.’

Besides the Shelta language and nomadism, further testimony to the resilience and indestructibility of the Traveller lifestyle and ethnic identity is provided by the existence of two important groups of Irish Travellers in other parts of the world.

There are those thousands who for decades have been living in neighbouring Britain without losing their identity. And - an even more striking example - those thousands who came to the United States of America in the 1840s and 50s. They have maintained their distinct culture through some six to nine generations (Traveller generations are short because they marry young).

Dr Jared Harper of the University of Georgia gave, in 1971, a rough estimate of a total 5,000 Irish Travellers living in several permanent and semi-permanent communities in the USA. These people are still using a vocabulary of which much is immediately recognisable by Irish Travellers.

There are the Mississippi Irish Travellers who live in and around Memphis, Tennessee; the Northern Travellers in Fort Worth, Texas; and the Georgia Travellers in Murphy Village, South Carolina.

The latter live in a few hundred mobile homes propped up on cement blocks. Some have now built themselves houses. They came here as horse and mule dealers and the men and most families still travel in the summer working as painters of barns or sellers of linoleum.

Their love of the ‘flash’ is similar to that of their Ireland dwelling cousins. In Murphy Village it manifests for the men in snappy suits of gold or orchid colour and many variations on the Country and Western look.

The females, even as young as 10, may, on social occasions, be wearing coiffeured hair, and party dresses, heavy with shimmering sequins. Often they get their clothes custom made with no shortage of spangles and tassels.

Their ideal mobile home for newly weds will be lavish and colourful with bright carpets, fancy chandeliers, plastic flowers, china, huge brightly painted figurines. Even the door knobs to the washroom might have bright red acrylic fur on them.

Shared fundamental values for all Irish Travellers, including these, the American cousins, are self employment, occupational flexibility, a very high degree of importance given to family relationships, nomadism as a value in itself, strict segregation of pure and impure, versatility and adaptability in supplying market demands of the non Traveller community without losing their identity. There is biological self perpetuation - Travellers almost always marry other Travellers.

It is intriguing that, given the opportunity to start afresh in the New World and lose their Traveller status, these Irish Travellers did not do so. The USA has long been accepted as the most efficient melting pot in the world. Usually, it is said, it takes only one generation to make an American. Yet these people have kept themselves distinct for much more than a century.

About the time when Mathias was first photographing the lives of the Irish Travellers in the late 1960s, a record was being written of this same world, which forms a perfect complement to his pictures.

Johnny (‘Pops’)Connors, its author, is an Irish Traveller. He wrote his autobiography in a series of cheap exercise books with a biro pen. He wrote it in a prison cell in a British prison in Birmingham.

At that time few Travellers could read or write, although many had great skill in storytelling and singing. The written records of Traveller and Gypsy culture were almost entirely by non-Gypsies.

As education has slowly become available to Travellers they are beginning to write their own records. ‘Seven Weeks of Childhood’, the creation of one of the earliest Travellers to write, will, I think, come to be increasingly prized for its freshness; it shines and sparkles like a meadow under the morning dew.

One of his sisters had died and Johnny was sent by his mother to the nearby nunnery to borrow a crucifix. Johnny made a hit with the nuns by asking them, when he first went in, ‘how the devil are you?’, upon which they all crossed themselves. He astonished the nuns by his ability to tell where they came from by their accents.

Johnny owes his ability to write to the seven weeks of education he got in a nunnery and this is the seven weeks referred to in the title, which thus commemorates, among other things, the circumstances which made possible the book.

Seven weeks of schooling with the Nun gave him the rudiments of reading and writing. His lessons were brought to an end when he and his family were once again evicted.

The title has another poignant meaning. Traveller children, some would say, have not traditionally had a childhood in the way that non Travellers experience it. There was no room for toys in a barrel-topped wagon. Traveller children, from a very early age, begin to earn their own living. In the large Traveller families the elder children are expected to look after the younger. Marriage often takes place at a very young age, not so long after puberty.

The traditional Traveller child would not expect to go to school. So, in all these ways, the Traveller’s experience of childhood would be different to that of many house dwelling children.

What Johnny experienced at the Nunnery was seven weeks of the nurturing more typical of a house dweller’s childhood.

Intensely proud of his own culture though he is, there is nonetheless, I think, in the title a poignant awareness of some of the things a child brought up on the road may have missed.

‘Just before World War Two my father and mother were camped at a roadside camp at Locklington, County Dublin, Eire.’

Johnny’s story begins in 1939. He was one of eighteen children and his father maintained them by making tinware such as ‘buckets, kettles, pots, pans, beakers, mugs, plates, tin baths, etc.’

They were difficult times for Travellers, and Johnny remembers how the police or councils would force them to move sometimes as much as five times in a month.

Even in those austere times, the roads were getting more crowded and one of Johnny’s earliest memories is being run over by a priest in a Baby Austin car. None of the children appears to have had boots at this time, and with the five pound note that the minister gave by way of compensation, Johnny bought boots for all his brothers and sisters, with the exception of Mary.

Neighbouring Britain was at war and Ireland was neutral. The Connors used their horse-drawn wagon to smuggle across the border with the English part of Ireland. Some of Johnny’s earliest memories concern these exciting trips.

A bleak period in the story begins in 1946 when Johnny is nine and his father is run over in Dublin by a bus.

This accident brought the Connors family to their knees for his father could no longer earn money and two of the horses, their livelihood, were dead.

Through page after page of powerful story-telling, Johnny describes the terrible winter that followed this event.

A second bleak section chronicles a time when, now a married man, Johnny has moved to the Birmingham area in England. Many Irish Travellers made this move in the sixties; an increasingly affluent Britain offered a number of employment opportunities, especially in the lucrative recycling of scrap.

Many towns were unwilling to provide space where the Travellers might park their trailers and used a number of methods to drive them out. Children got killed in the hurly burly of eviction.

At least one Birmingham councillor publicly urged extermination as a ‘solution’ to the ‘Traveller problem’. Johnny Connors himself was sent to gaol on what he has always claimed was a trumped up charge.

The violence escalated and Johnny’s prose, different to anywhere else in his book, becomes disjointed and incandescent as he launches into a powerful invective against one town in particular - Walsall - which brought great indignity to the Travellers.

At this time in the 60s, Johnny was one of a group of Irish Travellers and Romani Gypsies who, in the Gypsy Council, were attempting to forge an organisation in Britain capable of standing up against the increasing ruthlessness of local authorities towards their Traveller and Gypsy communities.

During part of this time I was editing a newspaper for the Gypsy Council called ‘Romano Drom’. My grandmother, who made a deep impression on me as a boy, had been a member of the Gypsy Lore Society and travelled on the road herself, as some wealthy people were doing at that time, in her own custom built wagon. Something of her fascination for the Travellers had rubbed off on me so that I was at this time working with the Gypsy Council.

It was then that I met Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors and he told me of the autobiography he had written. It is a stroke of luck that ‘Seven Weeks of Childhood’ exists at all since prisoners were in theory not allowed to bring out with them anything they had written in prison.

Besides the amazing song ‘Gum Sha Lack’, which appears as part of his story, Johnny has composed other poems and songs. Amongst these, in memory of three children who died during an eviction, is an elegy in the highly ornamented mode of the traditional Irish lament. To listen to him singing it, in a voice almost inarticulate with grief, is to feel time slip away and to hear a thousand other voices joining from the past, all those multitudes who have mourned the loss of loved ones in that country which has experienced so much in the way of sorrow and has, despite this, never lost its dignity and spirit.

... When squad cars of those licensed thugs

Came to tow our trailers away,

Three children, three little girls,

Asleep in bed they lay.

May God have mercy on their souls

They died in Walsall that day.

So what has changed since those times now a quarter century past?

With Mathias I take an extended journey through present day Ireland, meeting many Travellers, which also draws in huge numbers of house dwellers and farmers. The Travellers are no longer in their horse-drawn covered wagons but in modern trailers, some very ornate with a wealth of cut glass and chrome fascia, some more mundane.

Long flights of steps lead down on to the central area and down these stream great surges of coloured - black and white - Traveller horses. It’s a wild place and there’s one fight between two rival Traveller families that becomes so violent that police move in to break it up, or so the newspapers say, but the press loves to sensationalise Traveller stories and it’s hard to discover what actually happened.

In a quiet lane a mile or so out of town the McInerney family are camped. Grazing the bog land nearby are a handful of good looking horses. There are two handsome horse-drawn covered wagons, a couple of tents, the smoke wreathing up from an open fire round which sit ten or twelve Travellers of all ages. They must be among the last still to be travelling like this in the age-old way and the heart gives a lurch at the romantic familiarity of the image.

The McInerneys are the exception. A large proportion of the Traveller population live in modern trailer caravans. Despite extensive blocking of so many of the traditional Traveller roadside camping places, hundreds of these families are living illegally by the road or on abandoned bits of land. These people still have nowhere where they can legally park their homes.

The interiors of their trailers are usually, although not always, impeccably tidy while the surroundings tend to be chaotic. In Johnny Doran’s caravan we spend a musical afternoon, he performing to us on harmonica, gazing at us with watery eyes and shaking his head as his pink lips coax from the harmonica soulful ditties, and myself playing some English and Scottish numbers on squeezebox.

There are now quite a large number of official sites provided for Travellers to park their trailer homes on - although, as yet, not nearly enough. They are often neat and orderly, but some can be intimidating to a non Traveller, with their large numbers of trailers parked cheek by jowl, swarms of dogs and children, motors being dismantled and welded, long trailing lines of washing.

Many Travellers now live in council housing. Houses may be flanked by a trailer or two and often the inevitable horse grazing nearby. In the towns whole streets may be occupied by Travellers.

Besides Johnny Doran, we visited two other Traveller musicians. I remember The Pecker Dunn, an accomplished singer and guitar player, now settled in a small house deep in the country in County Clare with his wife and children, a handsome man with the rugged face of a Greek Dionysus, he was born, he tells us, in a tent in County Kerry. ‘My mother, when she was 17, travelled many nights with a horse and cart down to Rosslare to pick up a load of fish and then travelled inland to sell them. My happiest days were when I was on the roads myself with a wagon and horse but there were lots of hard times when I didn’t even have a bad pony.

‘I’ve a feeling my two boys will want to get back on the road when they grow up. The day is coming when house dwellers will be really excited to discover they have a Traveller grandmother. People are realising that there have always been Travellers on the road, ever since Ireland was Ireland.’

Sean Maher, one of those rare Travellers who never married, is a familiar figure on the streets of Dublin where he is a busker. He is elfin in appearance with a slender ballet dancer’s body, spectacles, a long white beard - a leprechaun.

Himself the author of a published autobiography ‘The Road to God Knows Where’, Sean speaks of the hazards of the old days. Once, he remembers, Travellers let a mare and foal into a farmer’s field to graze. The farmer let the bull in. Mother and foal were both dead in the morning.

There were other problems. When they were camped by the road at night, house dwellers returning from the pub would sometimes untether their horses and drive them miles down the road, where they’d have to go to search for them in the morning.

‘It’s in the blood,’ says Sean, ‘people move into houses but they keep coming back. Two of my aunts married into America and England. They were there for 50 years but in the end they came back to find their roots.’

He tells of the funeral of the great piper Felix Doran in England and how scores of Irish Travellers went over for it on the ferry. Their party on the boat was so lively that the ferry company refused to bring them back and they were stranded in Holyhead until a priest arranged to go over and travel back with them.

Sean’s friend Gerry, with his wife Maggie and their children, have just moved into a council house. He says, ‘You have to adjust your mindset because the space in a house is so much bigger than a trailer.’ They’re trying to keep their identity secret from their non Traveller neighbours. The house is more comfortable than the caravan, says Gerry, but he looks back sometimes with nostalgia to the time he was camped on the moors. ‘I had peace of mind when I was camped up there in the bog.’

Two people who met at Balinasloe Fair more than seventy years ago were Biddy Ward and her husband John Mongan. We spend an afternoon in a pub with Biddy, now aged 88. She sings for us the old song ‘It was Tom O’Neal’.

My Mother is a widow

And she’s of a low degree ...

Biddy’s thirteen children were all born in a tent beside the Irish road. She wears her blonde hair in plaits and as she talks her great grand-daughter Diana is combing it for her.

‘In those days, besides tin-smithing, we did chimney sweeping, cutting corn and turf from the bog,’ she tells us. ‘It’s better times now, but lonesomer.’

Now settled in a house with children and grand-children, she adds, ‘Living in bow-topped caravans and tents was a lousy time. We were more often wet than dry, and many times had no money. Since the Travellers were put off the road I keep the old ways. I ask God to keep me in the right ways.’

A few miles away on a smart brick housing estate in Tuam lives Biddy’s grand-daughter, Ellen Mongan, and a glance at the difference between these two women shows where the future may lie for the Irish Travellers. Ellen, in her early thirties, clearly belongs to the professional classes. She’s a teacher and she’s the first ever Traveller to have been elected to public office and sits on Tuam Town Commission. Despite this, she is still through and through a Traveller, and is chairperson of the Federation of Teachers of Travellers.

Ellen says; ‘Committees were formed in the 60s by the so-called do-gooders. They were made up of settled people, and then the Travellers were taken on, but they were token Travellers. They were puppets whose strings were pulled by the non Travellers. These token Travellers felt inferior because they didn’t understand the long words people were using.

‘Now many of the committees concerned with getting a better deal for Travellers are 90% Traveller and you’ve got people coming in who are very articulate and vocal and able to stand up for themselves.’

Sitting behind a desk in the well-appointed Traveller resource centre, she tells us; ‘Travellers have many qualities that might be envied by the settled community. We have retained the strong allegiance to the extended family that is being, to quite a large degree, eroded in the rest of Ireland. There are a lot of homes for the aged in Ireland but you’ll hardly ever find a Traveller in them. We still look after our own. ‘Travellers are fascinated by their relatives and love to see photos of them. We love to live in large family groups. We were videoing my grandmother, Biddy, last weekend and there were children all round her. If it were an old person in a Buffer home, they’d have put the kids out because, you know, Buffers feel you have to keep quiet around an old person.

‘Travellers don’t feel that. We believe contact with children keeps the old person alive. Our grandmothers love new babies. Each time my aunt had a new baby, it gave Biddy a new lease of life.

‘Another part of this is that Travellers don’t worry about savings or whether they can afford to get married, or what lies in the future. To a Traveller, the future is the freedom of the road and rearing a family and so forth. A settled person thinks about investing money for the future. For a Traveller, the children are their future.

‘For example, my grandmother’s wedding in 1922. For her dowry she was given a small stove for cooking and a bedding sack. And she and her husband were given half a crown by the priest and went out and got drunk. My own mother’s wedding was much the same, in 1957. My father cut the willow branches to make the new tent the day before the wedding and his father had given him a piece of canvas. They went from the church immediately after the wedding and built their tent. Then my father went to the pub with the rest of the men and my mother went out into the country to get the makings of their first supper as man and wife together.’

Ellen speaks of some of the mistakes made by non Traveller well-wishers in aspiring to redefine the Traveller relationship to a changing Ireland.

Among the mistakes she lists the policy of public health nurses in the seventies who visited Traveller camps and told mothers that breast-feeding babies was not a good idea. A demonstration would be given and large consignments of baby food delivered free to women who could not read the instructions on the packages.

The Travellers did not have access to running water and did not have the facilities for sterilising the bottles. As a result of that there was a massive increase in gastro-enteritis in babies, babies being brought in to the doctors with vomiting and diarrhoea week after week, and babies going to hospital. Nor was this the only unfortunate consequence of this well-meaning policy. Through breast-feeding, Traveller women gave themselves a break of two years between their babies because it is a natural form of contraception. All of a sudden the Traveller women experienced a boom in babies which they could not really cope with.

Amongst the successful examples of Travellers and non Travellers working together, Ellen mentions the Tallaght bypass campaign in the early 80s.

A bypass was to be built over land where many Traveller trailers were parked and the local council told the Travellers they must move. The Travellers were willing to go. The trouble was that, in this area, all the traditional parking places had been blocked. The council said, ‘That’s your misfortune, you’ve got to go.’

‘There was one Traveller woman by the name of Rosalee McDonagh and she stood up against the council and said, ‘I and my family are not going unless you tell me some place that we can go to.’ The matter became a national issue and a campaign was formed round it and there was a great deal of media coverage. It went to court and the High Court in Dublin ruled that the county council must find Rosalee somewhere else to go.

‘So, that was a victory because since that court judgement no county council can move you on unless they provide you with alternative accommodation.

‘The sad thing is that the councils forget that it was they who took from us the traditional camping sites, we didn’t give them up, they took them from us. Having lost such a huge proportion of the traditional sites puts all Traveller families at a huge disadvantage.’

The road over which Irish Travellers have had perforce to travel over the past 25 years has been, both literally and metaphorically, a very hard one. One positive development is that the government of the Irish Republic does now appear to be genuinely committed to creating a situation in which the Travellers feel more welcome as members of Irish society.

The vast majority of Traveller children now go to school and thus are learning the crucial skills of reading and writing.

There are well-equipped Traveller centres in many towns where they may upgrade their skills in metalwork, carpentry, cooking, computer operation, dressmaking.

There is a declared aim that by the year 2,000 there will no longer be the necessity for hundreds of families to park their trailer homes illegally by the road or in any unused vacant space they can find, with the subsequent danger, or inevitability, of eviction. The aim is to have by then provided enough legal parking spaces, or bricks and mortar homes for those who would prefer them.

A welcome feature of all this is the availability of large sums of money from the European Union, to be spent on bettering the lot of the Irish Travellers.

There remains much to be done. A degree of animosity still often exists between Travellers and their house dwelling neighbours. There are physical attacks on Travellers, and Travellers moving on to new housing estates have been hounded out. There is much ignorance about Travellers in the settled population. The Traveller rate of infant mortality is still far higher than that for the non Travellers, ill health more common and life expectancy far shorter.

At one period the fact of being a Gypsy carried the death penalty in Ireland, just as it did in Hitler’s Germany. So there still is a degree of fear among some Travellers towards the outside world.

The Irish President, Mary Robinson, said recently; ‘When we talk about the Travelling community, it’s not just a question of whether they would prefer serviced halting sites. It’s that they want their culture recognised, they want to be full citizens of this country. I think that the most important things are that there’s real space for their own self-development and self-expression, that we have space for them and that we value them.

And so the trend is for the Travellers to move closer into the Irish establishment rather than stand outside it. But however much closer they nudge towards the mainstream of Irish society, those who have got to know them believe that there will always remain something unique and mysterious about the Travelling people, a set of customs, beliefs, traditions, lifestyle, which are ‘other’ to those of the settled population.

To every school leaver who ever has wondered if there is any other alternative to the options of unemployment or the nine to five job and the mortgage, they provide a different philosophy.

‘... Forget all that, it’s not important. Meet me on the road, brother, join me out there on the green verges of the winding roads of Ireland.’


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