Irish Travellers

- Blog | Adrian Marsh

The Irish Travellers are an ethnic community of around 30,000 that have a long presence in Ireland, recorded in historical documents from the 12th century. There are some indications that Irish Travellers as a distinct population within the wider Irish population may have much older origins and possibly represent nomadic communities that were present in  the pre-Viking period of Ireland’s history. In the intervening centuries, other populations have become part of the Irish Traveller community, including Morisco (Spanish Moors) in the aftermath of the destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588) when many vessels were wrecked on the western coast of Ireland.

They have remained distinct from the surrounding population and maintained an independent, commercially nomadic lifestyle until very recently, when government policies have effectively forced very many Irish Travellers to settle. Migration has meant that there are significant communities of Irish Travellers in England, Wales and some parts of Scotland (not to be confused with Scottish Gypsy-Travellers – see a BBC documentary about this community here and in the United States of America, Canada and Australia. Families also migrate seasonally for work; numbers that arrive in Sweden each summer, for example.

In some ways there are a number of traditional values in the Irish Traveller community that are also found in common with Romani communities, such as the value placed upon family and extended kinship networks, economic and social organisation around peripatetic (commercially nomadic) handicraft production, selling carpets and rugs, tarmac laying, roofing and agricultural occupations. In terms of language, there are some five documented varieties or dialects of ‘Gammon’, (often called ‘Cant’ or ‘Shelta’) the Irish Traveller language.

Until very recently (2006), Irish Traveller educational provision was segregated from the mainstream and early childhood education and care were offered in entirely different settings. Primary education for Irish Traveller children often meant separate, temporary classrooms where children of all ages were place in the same small space, usually colouring pictures in books. There was little in the way of a curriculum for teaching Irish Traveller children literacy, numeracy and science. Positive changes in the legislation surrounding education for Irish Travellers means that this has now changed (though there are still one or two schools in parts of the Irish Republic that maintain separate educational provision) and pre-schools are inclusive of Irish Travellers, Roma and differing minority ethnic groups in the education system.

There are few Irish Travellers working in the early years in the Republic and the launch of the Traveller and Romani Early Years Network in Dublin is intended to promote both ‘best practise’ in working with Traveller communities and Irish Traveller practitioners in early childhood education and care. There are some excellent practitioners working in primary health care from the Irish Traveller community and the at launch of the T-REYN and it was a great privilege to meet them there and, on a personal note, I felt very proud of the Irish Traveller heritage in my own background – from County Longford in the middle of Ireland. As a ‘diddikoi’ from English Gypsy-Irish Traveller background, I have both to be proud of.

The use of the generic term ‘Roma’ in many policies, strategies and ‘action’ plans across the European Commission and other EU institutions obscures the diversity of both Romani communities, such as the western Romanichals, Manouche, Sinti, Gitano and of eastern communities such as the Romanlar, the Domari, the Lom, the Mugats, the Luli, but also of non-Romani Travellers such as the Irish Travellers and the Yenische (from central and southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and north Italy), further marginalising and homogenising all groups as one – ‘the Roma’. The diversity in populations across Europe needs to be recognised, as the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach has failed to address the challenges faced by Roma, Gypsies and Travellers and only discriminates more…