Even though I had heard people singing Catherine Joyces praises since my first week in Ireland, it took me a long time to catch up with this busy woman. Thanks to Susan Bailey, I was able to contact Catherine through the Blanchardstown Area Partnership. We finally scheduled an interview for November 16, 1999, my last night in Ireland. An hour before the interview, Barbara Henkes, my wonderful DP, called to say she had a family emergency and couldnt shoot the interview. I drove to Mary McAuliffes house and told her I didnt need her to do the sound recording -- I needed her to conduct the interview in my place so that I could shoot. Catherine welcomed us into her home and spent over an hour with us, sharing information about the kinds of issues Irish Travellers (Ireland's white, ethnic, nomadic minority)are dealing with in the face of the Celtic Tiger. I only wish I had met this remarkable woman sooner.
CJ: My name is Catherine Joyce. I work with a Travellers support group in Blanchardstown. I am employed by the area partnership to work with Travellers in the area. This work involves developing training options and building up the capacity of Travellers to ensure Travellers participation. We are also involved in the delivery of in service training for voluntary and statutory agencies on Traveller issues.
MM: I suppose just for the sake of an ignorant American audience, could you give some really basic background information about Travellers and the major issues they face?
CJ: Okay. There are approximately 23,000 Irish Travellers in this country, and I say approximately with great caution because some Travellers who are nomadic dont get counted, and some Travellers who move into standard housing dont get counted as Travellers anymore because theyre seen as settled. So when I say Travellers Im talking about people who come from a Traveller background or who have a Traveller culture. Even though they might be sedentary or might be settled in an area, theyre still Travellers. So theres about 23,000 Irish Travellers living in Ireland, theres about 7,000 Irish Travellers living in the UK and in the North of Ireland, and then there are about 10,000 Travellers of Irish origin living in the United States of America.
The main issues affecting Travellers as I would see them would be education, accommodation, health, and racism and discrimination. The accommodation issue is very straightforward: there arent enough units of Traveller-specific accommodation for Travellers in this country. I think it was in 1985 the government task force recommended 3,000 units be provided for Traveller accommodation by the year 2,000; to date, I think its only 123 units that have been provided. When I say units of accommodation, that might take the form of a group housing scheme that has been designed specifically for Travellers, or it might mean a halting site or a transient site where Travellers can pull their trailers in and move on if they need to. And so there is the basic problem that there arent enough units of accommodation for Travellers.
Now, theres other issues around tenant participation schemes and around making sites culturally appropriate, to cater for people who deal in horses or market stuff or scrap cars. Whether or not this kind of economic activity is provided for in terms of space in the site, Travellers will still carry on the economic activity, and it just makes it better if that space is provided for in the beginning.
In terms of education I think there are a number of issues. One is that in the past Travellers have been refused entry to some schools. Where Travellers have been accepted in the schools they have been put into segregated classes. Then theres the whole area of the curriculum that is being taught in the schools to children. I mean I have two children in school at the moment, and theyre going to be brought up through the school system, and theyre going to be taught settled, white, Irish, Catholic teaching and thinking and mentality if you like through school. They are not going to hear anything about Travellers at school unless its in the school yard when somebody calls them a knacker or a tinker. They are not going to hear anything about my way of life or the nomadic lifestyle the Travellers have. And they are also not going to be taught anything in school about being anti-racist themselves and about the awareness of prejudice against other groups or minorities in this country. So obviously there needs to be a curriculum change. And I think another thing that needs to be done is some in-service training. It should be mandatory that teachers learn about other cultures and learn to be anti-racist and multi-cultural in terms of their practice of teaching.
In terms of the health issues that are affecting Travellers in this country, the infant mortality rate is three times the national average per thousand live births. Again, that can be related directly back to the accommodation situation. If you are living on a site with no toilets and no water and no electricity, it makes access to health services very very difficult. People dont want to be going to health clinics if they dont have basic amenities that are going to allow them to look after themselves and wash themselves. Also, the life expectancy age for Travellers is 55 years, the age it was for settled people in the 1940s. And again when you see the improvements of accommodation and the improvements in lifestyle and eating habits, you can see the change in terms of settled peoples life expectancy age. It has gone up. I think Travellers will as well -- as long as they get proper and appropriate accommodation.
Just in terms of the health statistics then for Traveller men and Traveller women, Traveller men have over twice the risk of dying in a given year than settled men, and for Traveller women that risk is increased threefold. The ERSI report, I think in 1986, found that the main causes of death in the Traveller community were accidents and illnesses caused by the damp conditions that Travellers were forced to live in. So the health statistics again are directly related to the accommodation situation. [for more info from the ERSI report, see http://www.connect.ie/tribli/ireland.htm]
In terms of the issues around race and discrimination, the way I see it, we are only now coming to a situation in Ireland where racism has actually been put on the table and is being seen as an issue to be debated and looked at. There was a lot of denial in this country in terms of whether Travellers were at the receiving end of racism and discrimination. I think now it is becoming more obvious and more prevalent that that is an issue that affects Travellers. In terms of discrimination, you suffer discrimination from a very early age if you are a Traveller, and it happens at a number of levels, on an individual level and an institutional level. I have a daughter whos 11 years of age now, and she came home from school one night and said there was somebody in the school yard who called her a knacker. And I am sure that it has happened to other Travellers who are quite younger than that. You go down to the shop and people follow you around because youre a Traveller. People refuse us services in a pub. You cant get a hotel for a Traveller wedding or a christening. People dont want Travellers in their town, camped in their area. People dont want Travellers going to school with their kids. And so discrimination on an individual level is very prevalent.
But I think when it becomes discrimination at an institutional level or when institutions of this state discriminate it is more damaging against Travellers. You have state agencies that refuse either to provide accommodation for Travellers or are allowed not to provide accommodation for Travellers. You have the department of education that allows discrimination at our schools that refuse service to Travellers. You have insurance companies that are allowed to either charge Travellers an excess what theyre charging settled people or else refuse Travellers cover for their car. The only other group of people in particular on the insurance list I think are people who are in certain professions, like people in the entertainment business. But the only group of people who are on it because of their ethnicity are Travellers, and so it works as a blanket discrimination against the whole Traveller community.
You also have TDs and government people in this country who will refuse to accept or acknowledge that Travellers are facing discrimination and racism. That has changed somewhat. The 1995 report of the task force, which acknowledges Travellers culture and way of life, has changed the perception that the government has had in relation to Travellers. It doesnt go far enough -- I mean it doesnt name Travellers as an ethnic minority group -- but it does at least acknowledge that Travellers have their own culture and a separate way of life, and that part of that culture is nomadism. So I think that slowly government departments will change their practice and thinking in relation to Travellers and make sure that they provide for Travellers in a culturally appropriate way. But I think its a fair bit down the road in terms of where were looking at now.
MM: And do you think, in relation to the racism and discrimination thats gone on for so long here, that people actually in their heads think that there is no such thing as discrimination or racism? Only now that there are a lot of refugees and asylum seekers coming in that they would say there is racism?
CJ: I think one of the problems in this country is that we dont have a teaching of the racism issue. Its very hard for people to admit as well that they are actually racist or part of a racist society. I honestly believe that if you are not anti-racist then you are racist by allowing the racism to happen or allowing people to suffer the affects of racism. But yes I do think that the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in this country -- and economic migrants because I think a lot people are looking for just work and they cant do that -- I think a lot of the issues that have developed around racism have only high-lighted the situation in this country that has always existed. I think one of the prevalent and one of the more striking things for me is the denial of racism, and thats whats more damaging, because I think that once people accept that racism is an issue then you just have to deal with it and say, Well look, you need to change your practice. But when people actually dont allow themselves to be identified as being racist then it is very hard to challenge that racism.
MM: And for instance the Celtic Tiger has brought a lot of these economic migrants to the country and there is a situation in certain professions where there is shortage of workers -- would Travellers still be turned down for those jobs?
CJ: Yes, I think there are number of issues around that. One is that the education that the Travellers have been receiving in this country because of segregated classes doesnt allow them to participate equally within mainstream education and mainstream employment or training opportunities. Then there is the issue of discrimination. I mean its a well known fact if you come from a poor part Dublin, if you come from a poor part of the county or the city, you are identified with that area. And it does have consequences in the way that people think of you, in terms of your employment or assumptions that youre unreliable or these people only come in for a week or two weeks. So it does have implications for people. I mean for a long time people were saying that if you came from Finglas or if you came from the Ballymun area of Dublin you neednt go looking for a job. I mean your address said it all for the employers and that was it. Likewise for a Traveller. If you have a Traveller address or if you openly say youre a Traveller, the prospects of you getting a job I would say are slim if not nil. You have to deny the fact that you are a Traveller in order to get a position, and then if you do that what are the consequences if you are found out to be a Traveller? So theres a whole area of employment that needs to be looked at, in terms of racism and discrimination, and in terms of cultural diversity.
But then theres Travellers own economic activity. Now a lot of the activity, granted, is seasonal work, maybe picking potatoes or doing markets or doing scrap cars, so maybe its not something thats continuous and thats completely reliable. Likewise with the collecting of scraps on the dumps, there is no guarantee that you will get a certain amount every week, so its not something that people could sustain themselves on. But nonetheless Travellers are fairly independent in terms of their economic activity, and weve done very very well in terms of being able to manage that activity.
MM: One of the main issues that, say, settled people will have about Travellers is that when theyre living in an area that they make it dirty or whatever -- they say this about them. Do you think its mainly because the corporation wont provide a collection service for the dump or the rubbish or whatever -- or the fact that corporations and county councils just ignore the whole problem of housing for Travellers?
CJ: Well youve hit two of the issues very much on the head. One is that there isnt enough provision of accommodation, at least permanent accommodation. The transient sites are a whole issue that needs to be looked at, but I think if everybody had a permanent base or permanent accommodation that they could come back to or that they could stay in then it would go some way to solving that issue. One of the problems is that the only sites that people see are the unofficial sites, the sites with the rubbish thrown around, the sites with the muck dug up around them. Settled people very rarely see clean halting sites that are fully serviced, that have proper electricity, toilets, water, concrete on the ground. All they see is the likes of the unofficial sites on the side of the road. And then the other side of it as well is if youre on an unofficial site the local authorities are not obliged to provide you with any services, and sometimes in fact they will actually serve you with an eviction notice. So because they dont provide those services, yes Travellers do throw rubbish around. And its not justifiable, because Travellers themselves need to keep the area that theyre living in clean, and they would if they had a permanent base, but if you havent got somewhere that youre going to be staying, and you know that the council or the local authority is going to move you at the first drop of a hat, a lot of people dont have any respect for that.
I suppose the other thing as well, if you look at the situation of Dublin, I think it was 1982 when we had the bin strike here, the rubbish was thrown all around the place, the bin men werent coming to collect it, and it was settled people to a large extent who were doing that. I think it only went on for a week. You wouldnt believe the rubbish on the streets of Dublin. It took a long time to clean it up. So I think people do have a moral responsibility to keep the area around them clean and tidy, but the other side of it is that the state or the local authority does need to provide services. If they can provide services to businesses and big companies to get rid of their waste, surely the government can provide it to families to get rid of theirs.
MM: Travellers in general, men and women, have a lot of issues to deal with with the government and with settled people, but are there specific issues that Traveller women have to deal with within their own communities and towards the other communities?
CJ: I suppose Traveller women, like a lot of settled women, are faced with sexism as well as the racism issue, and yes, Traveller men are sexist toward Traveller women; they believe that the place for the woman is in the home and minding the kids. That is slowly changing because women are now aware of opportunities in terms of personal development and in terms of getting out and getting into training themselves and providing training. Theyre starting to challenge the sexist attitudes of men and Traveller women within the Traveller community -- because sometimes the Traveller women can be as equally sexist in terms of Traveller women and the issues that affect them. I think there is a number of issues in relation to violence against women and particularly domestic violence that Travellers themselves need to challenge.
But I think the outside problems, in terms of the violence that Traveller women suffer, both physical and mental violence, from the state and settled people in this country, has a lot worse effect on the Traveller community. For instance when I talk about accommodation I talk about not having access to services like toilets and water and electricity and bins. Nine times out of ten, its the women who have to go and get that water if it has to be gotten in a churn can. Theyre the ones that have to wheel the prams over or have to drive the cars over and get the churn cans of water. Likewise its the women who has to get children out to school or meet hospital appointments; its always left to the Traveller women to do that. So any effects in terms of the accommodation issue have direct influences or effects on Traveller women. Theyre also at the receiving end of discrimination. Most of the times you will find its Traveller women who have to deal with the social welfare services; its the women who deal with the education professionals, teachers and principals in schools; its the women who deal with the health authorities in terms of childrens health. So they are at the receiving end of the blatant discrimination that Travellers are facing in this country.
And in most cases its the women who are more vocal and who are more articulate around the issues that are affecting Travellers -- because a lot of the times its the Traveller men who take care of the economy or the economic activity within the Traveller family, and the women are the people who are at the head of the family in terms of dealing with issues around children, health and home.
MM: Something you mentioned about education -- do you think one of the things that would help to get Travellers equal status and equal rights is to develop an idea that Travellers have a valid history and a valid right to be part of this society, that they developed along with the settled community, separate to it but at the same time?
CJ: One of the things that I would say straight off is that I shouldnt have to justify my existence. I mean if I only came here 2 years ago, I have a separate culture, and the way I see it is that that separate culture should be respected. Its like back in the thirties, you hear very little about the settled women who were involved in the movement of the free state of Ireland. We know for a fact that women were involved in that -- it wouldnt have happened without us. But you hear very little about it. Settled women have been written out of the history of this country. Likewise Travellers have been written out of the history of this country. So I dont feel that I should have to justify my existence and go back to history to prove Im here. I know where Ive come from. My family were Travellers, their families were Travellers, my great great grandparents were all Travellers, and my children are going to be Travellers. Even though were settled in a house I know I am a Traveller, and they know they are Travellers.
I think the whole thing around Travellers is not about being able to provide artifacts or symbols or pieces of paper that prove that your culture is here; its the whole thinking and the terminology and the way you are brought up is what makes a person separate or have a separate identity. In terms of the way I organize my immediate family and extended family, its quite different to the way settled people do it. In terms of the language that Travellers have its quite different. Its similar in some ways to the Irish language, but it is very different and its very much a Traveller language. And then in terms of the whole history of nomadism, there is a history of people having been nomadic in this country. So I would say that yes, we have to be clear about the differences, but no, we dont have to justify the differences. I think that people are here, and its like the asylum seekers, the reality is people are in this country and they need to be catered for. If theyre not included, I think that we automatically exclude people from being able to participate in society.
MM: You made a point earlier about the fact that anti-racism and multi-culturalism are not taught in schools. Do you think that children should be taught about Traveller culture and the culture of other ethnic minorities that are now coming into this country? That that would be one way to get rid of the racism at the very root.
CJ: Certainly so. I mean, I would love for my child to be able to come home from school every day and say, We learned about something different in school today. I remember when I went to school and I was in fifth class I think, and somebody came into our classroom from Zambia who didnt have a word of English. She was introduced into our classroom, and I think by sixth class she was very fluent in the English language. She came in and she did a presentation in our school. She brought in the clothes that they wear and the jewelry and the beads and some of the foods that they eat in her country, and that was something that always stuck in my head. So I think that we do need to start at a very basic level, and it needs to be not just an example of a different culture. Its not good enough to say that Christines a Traveller and that she comes from a Traveller background and well visit her site today and thats it. I think that it needs to change in terms of the whole way that we introduce people who come from different ethnic backgrounds.
I suppose a prime example for me would be when Christine was making her holy communion and there was a girl in her class who wasnt Catholic. And in order for her not to feel left out when all the other kids were making communion her parents took her on a holiday to Florida. But Christine was very clear that her religion didnt permit her to make her holy communion, and that it wasnt part of her religious background. She was very clear on that. And I think if a lot of other children were clear on that, I suppose on the postiveness of being different, then it would change attitudes and change practice in terms of how people practice racism and discrimination in this country.
MM: Do you think maybe people are more inclined to accept ethnic minorities who are coming in who are from a different land then they are to accept their own?
CJ: Well I think that it is very easy to see the difference if peoples skin color is different. Its very easy to see the difference between black people and Irish people or white people. But when you have a minority group within a country that we have to admit it is a very small country -- 31/2 million people is very small in terms of the size of this world -- when you have a group of people who claim to be different or have a different a culture it is very difficult to see that difference. And people also dont want to feel as if theyre discriminating or being racist against a group of people, but the fact that the acknowledgment is not even there, that Travellers are different and that they have a different culture, spells out racism and discrimination to me.
MM: And what about the equal status bill, do you think it would make any difference to any ethnic minorities?
CJ: I think that the equal status legislation needs to be stronger, and it needs to be accessible to people who are faced with racism and discrimination. I think it covers the areas that we can safely say are affected by discrimination and racism in this country, in terms of Travellers, in terms of ageism, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of membership of an ethnic minority group. But I think where it falls short is allowing people who are discriminating against a particular group to continue discriminating. It also falls short in terms of being able to put hefty fines or summonses on people who are actually found guilty of discrimination. I think if it is anything like the Incitement to Hatred bill its going to be completely inaccessible to people. It just needs to be a strong piece of legislation. Yes, we have to be hopeful because its the only thing we have at the moment, and I think that legislation will change practice, but I think that we need to go a long way to educating people about being anti-racist and multi-cultural or inter-cultural. I think laws will only change practice if we work side by side and try and change peoples attitudes and their prejudices and challenge them.
MM: And is your work with the partnership board part of this process?
CJ: Well, my main area of work at the partnership in Blanchardstown is around trying to develop and trying to ensure Traveller inclusion in the activities of partnership and trying to be proactive around that as opposed to responding to issues that arise. Some of the other work I am involved in includes representing the Blanchardstown Travellers support group on some of the national organizations like the Irish Traveller Movement, particularly on the accommodation working group of the Irish Traveller movement, and on the National Traveller Womens Forum. So the local level I think needs to feed into the movement of Traveller issues on the national level. [For more info about Traveller organizations, see http://www.connect.ie/tribli/agency.htm]
MM: One thing I have noticed in seeing people fighting for Travellers rights is that its a lot of times it is women spokespeople. And there is a Traveller woman who is a councilor in Galway, isnt there? Why is it that it seems to be that its the women who are more vocal?
CJ: I think to be fair to Traveller men, there have been more opportunities for Traveller women in terms personal development, community development, and the whole awareness around Traveller issues. There has been a focus on womens groups and on women and coming together and developing. Traveller men see their job as being the providers, if you like, being involved in the economic activity. And of course men dont want to be talking about personal development -- and I would say this is not unique to Traveller men. I think a lot of settled men, if you offered them a place on a personal development course, theyd say, Ive developed enough, thats all right, and particularly if women were offering it.
The whole other piece around that is that is that Traveller women have always been at the forefront of negotiating between Travellers and settled people. Very often youd find if a guard or the local authority came to the camp, it would be the woman who would go out and find out whats going on. Again its the women who deal with the education or the teachers at schools; its the women who deal with the social welfare. So I suppose theres an anger that women have built up inside as a result of being at the blatant blunt end of the discrimination that Travellers face. It has got them to a stage were theyve decided to go on a personal development course, and maybe its not a real conscious decision that they are going to be fully developed after this course, but theyve got a sense that they need to do something in terms of trying to change the situation that they are actually in. And sometimes that leads to women going on to be the spokespeople; sometimes that leads to them going on to be workers or going on to do some of the provision of services; sometimes they go on to be the health care workers; sometimes they go on to be the teachers in schools, preschool or primary school teachers.
Yes it has been women predominantly, but I think the emphasis is changing in terms of in showing that men are involved in that, because I think its like with sexism. You cant just challenge women and make sure that women know all the issues around sexism. Unless you challenge mens attitudes things are not going to change in that whole area, and so likewise with the Traveller issue.
MM: Women have been fighting for equal rights in this country for the last 30 years, since feminism was started, and a lot of working class women especially would feel alienated from the feminist movement. Do you think Traveller women ever got in a look in, or were they completely overlooked?
CJ: I remember going to a number of meetings of the National Womens Council of Ireland, where I represented the Travellers Womens Forum, and they did at one stage get involved in the Travellers issues, particularly around Castle Street, which is a supplementary welfare office and is a segregated office for Travellers only. They would have supported us a little bit around that. But yes I would say that Traveller women feel left out. One of the problems is that a lot of Travellers wouldnt be aware of some of the movements or the organizations that are working to obtain rights for people. I think in some ways when people look at Travellers or look at Traveller issues, its a very kind of microscopic view of it: theyll have a look at a particular piece of Travellers issues. It might be around the culture, and they will ask Travellers to explain the culture, or they will ask Traveller organizations to explain the difference in the culture. But very rarely do you see people saying, Racism is an issue that affects Travellers, and we want to know what we can do in terms of trying to challenge our organizations around being racist and to try and promote an anti-racist practice. So very often you will find that it is the Traveller organizations that try and introduce the issue of racism to some of the other national organizations. And when we do that we try to be as inclusive as possible.
Very often you would find that any of the movements in this country that were seen to be radical in terms of supporting rights of groups or minorities have been very lax in terms of supporting other minorities, and particularly Travellers. I mean its okay to support the rights of the refugees, but to support the rights of the Travellers is another thing. To support the rights of gay people, and then to support the rights of people with disabilities. People I suppose pick and choose in terms of who is the flavor of the day and who to be inclusive of. In the Traveller movement in this country, we have always been clear that Travellers are not the only group of people who have been suffering the effects of racism and discrimination, and we have always tried to name other groups who have been marginalized or discriminated against.
MM: Do you think seeing Travellers on television, like in the soap operas like Glenroe, and seeing Francis Barrett for instance carrying the flag in the Olympics -- there was that documentary was made about him -- and other positive images like that have made any difference to perceptions of Travellers?
CJ: Certainly. At the moment there is a campaign going on that has been organized by Citizen Traveller, which is a combination of 3 or 4 Traveller organizations that have been working nationally, and they are trying to provide information for settled people about Traveller culture and diversity, Travellers rights, and the accommodation issue. I certainly get proud whenever I hear reports on the news or on the radio of Travellers themselves talking about their issues or Travellers themselves talking about the circumstances or particular area that they are living in. I think the more people hear Travellers on the radio or see Travellers on television, the more it will contribute to changing peoples attitudes. But I think that if people only see and hear negative stuff on television and on radio then it will only create or manifest the racism and discrimination that has already existed. So yes I think that it will change but I think that likewise it can be as damaging as it can be as positive in some ways.
MM: Okay, Ill just got to the last few questions, ones that are asked to everybody. Would you have had any heroines when you were growing up, women who would have inspired you maybe to get involved in Travellers issues?
CJ: I really cant think of any particular person, but I mean certainly I remember at the time when I was starting off, one of the movements in this country was called Minceir Misli, which in Travellers language means Travellers Move or Travellers Movement, and that organization had a fair number of Traveller women involved in it. And to me that was a very new thing because normally when you see groups, its the men who take leadership. But with this particular group there was a number of Traveller women in it. They were a radical group -- they use to chain themselves to the local authority walls or to the buildings, and they would protest and picket. I suppose that particular group would have inspired me to get involved. [For more info about Minceir Misli, see http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/travrbr2.html]
MM: And what about any women in history that you would see as heroines ?
CJ: No, I suppose really the only woman I suppose that I could identify with that would have left any kind of impression was Anne Frank. The Anne Frank exhibition and her diaries, they would have kind of put a bit of inspiration into me in terms of a womans story being told.
MM: That just reminded me, do you think that there is a similarity between the Traveller experience and the Roma experience in Europe?
CJ: I think the experience is quite quite similar, in terms of discrimination, in terms of not being provided for, in terms of not being educated to the same standard as settled people in whatever country that we live in, in terms of the health statistics and so forth. As a group of nomadic people the experiences have been very very similar. But having said that that there is a lot of differences between Travellers and Roma or Gypsies or Sinti. Travellers are indigenous to Ireland, our language is very closely related to the Irish language, some of the spelling and the pronunciations are quite similar to settled Irish language. So yes, we do have a lot of similarities in terms of our experience, but would be very much a different and an indigenous group to Ireland.
There have been a lot of contacts made with the Gypsies and the Roma, particularly the Romanian Gypsies who have come here. I dont know if you know of the group who are settled up in the North somewhere, outside Cavan. There was contacts made with them because they were particularly picked on both by the media and by the state in terms of them being made an example of. So there have been links made, and certainly we would try and highlight the issues and the plight of gypsies that are coming into this country. And a lot of the times its the Gypsies who get picked on, out of all the refugees or the asylum seekers who are in this country, because they are probably more visible, they are on the streets, and some of them are begging, some of them are selling stuff, and theyre clearly easily identified I suppose as well, so it makes them an easy target to get picked up in terms of people who are arrested or discriminated against.
MM: Do you think perhaps they have taken place of some Travellers on the streets, and theyre getting the same treatment as, say, Traveller women who would have maybe begged before?
CJ: Yeah, I suppose in terms of the street begging, the issue for me around it is the whole need for Traveller women -- I mean I can sit here and safely say that I dont need to beg or whatever, but there are Traveller women, like a lot of settled women, who are in that situation. I mean its like this country -- we have the Celtic Tiger roaring every day of the week on the news and whatever else, and you look at the issue of homelessness on the street and people, both settled and Traveller, who cant actually come off the streets, who are actually living rough on the streets of this country and in the capital city as well. So there is a whole issue around the need and why people feel that they have to go on the streets begging. But to answer your question I think that the Traveller women I suppose have become less and less visible as a result of Romanian Gypsies or even Romanian refugees on the streets.
MM: Okay, one question that is asked of every woman is about your first name. Were you named for anyone particular? I know its a tradition in Traveller families to --
CJ: Yeah, obviously my grandmother was called Catherine, and then her aunt was called Catherine as well, so it goes back years. And almost all of my fathers family have a Catherine or a Cathleen in them, so we all have the same name. When our familys all together, and we were all together last week for a funeral, we were trying to name all the different names, so its Mikes Catherine, Marys Catherine, Catherines Cathleen, trying to differentiate between all of us.
MM: Speaking of names reminds me, why do you think Travellers have a specific devotion to Mary?
CJ: I dont really know. There really does seem more of a devotion to Mary or Our Blessed Lady then there is to the Lord or to Jesus. I mean I know of an awful lot of Travellers who have visited Lourdes and Fatima and places like that that would be identified as places Our Lady appeared. I honestly dont know why, but it is very prevalent. I mean a lot of Traveller women would have huge gold medals of our blessed ladys head on them and stuff like that so...
MM: You talked about institutions. What about the church, has the church ever helped Travellers or is it just another institution that discriminates against Travellers? I know Travellers have a great devotion and a great sense of religion.
CJ: Travellers are predominantly, 99% catholic. Now having said that, I wouldnt be what you call a practicing catholic. I dont go to mass every Sunday or whatever. But certainly around funerals or around beliefs or religious customs I would very be much practicing. I think that the influence that the church has had on Travellers and Travellers lives has been in some ways damaging as well as positive. I think that Travellers have a lot more respect for our religion and respect for Our Lady and have done a lot of traveling to what are seen to be holy destinations, the likes of Lourdes and Medjugorie and Knock and Fatima. Travellers have a lot of customs in relation to religion that settled people I think have lost out on, particularly around weddings and funerals. A lot of settled people would say that Travellers are over the top in terms of how they bury they dead and the memorial stones that they put up, but its more out of respect for the dead as opposed to showing off or wanting to pretend that they have more than somebody else.
But on the other hand as well when settled women were being offered or allowed to take to the pill in this country, Traveller women for fear of God and the church wouldnt take the pill. I remember at one stage my mother, Lord have mercy, shes dead now 7 years, she was in hospital for about 8 weeks or 9 weeks for rheumatic fever, and the hospital had prescribed her the pill. And when she went to the doctor, the doctor says that it was against the catholic church and against God and she shouldnt be taking it. And she didnt take it. At that stage she had seven of us and she wasnt suppose to have any more -- and then 21/2 years later I was born. So Im happy that she didnt stick to it, but nonetheless she wasnt allowed to choose for herself whether to take that or not. That decision was made for her and very much influenced by the church.
MM: Yeah, Traveller women used to have huge families, which of course would have destroyed their health in terms of physically and in trying to look after them.
CJ: Yeah, I mean years ago the average members of a Traveller family might have been 10 or 11. I think now its 6. Its still quite large when you compare it to settled people, which I think the average is about 3 kids, but it has been very dramatically reduced as people get more informed and are aware more of their options in relation to looking after their own self in terms of their health. But certainly I mean the church played a large part in that and then who got condemned for it? Traveller women for having all these kids.
MM: Melissa, do you have any more questions?
MT: Just a couple, yeah. One thing I wanted to talk to you about was the fact that Travellers in the halting sites, some of which are not serviced at all, have to pay rent.
CJ: Basically any site that has been provided by a local authority, whether it be group housing schemes or halting sites, and Im not going to speak of transient sites because we dont really have any local authority that has gone to the extent of providing a transient sites for Travellers, but basically any sites that have been provided by the local authority that have proper services and amenities on them, people do have to pay rent on them. They also have to pay electricity on them and whatever rates are payable by settled people in the more ordinary local authority standard housing. Travellers are also paying those rates and rents as well.
MM: Do you think, that perhaps there was -- at one stage -- an idea by corporations and county councils to forcibly settle Travellers and just integrate them and, you know, not take any notice of the fact that there is a nomadic culture and that yes Travellers want a base but they also want to be able to continue their own culture?
CJ: I think the perception or the thinking would be still there around the whole settlement of Travellers. Certainly in the local authority area that I live in, the thinking is that, We need to provide for Travellers and make sure that they all settle down. The notion of transient sites in this area is a very new one and one that hasnt been very warmly received in terms of providing a nomadic site or transient site for Travellers to move in and out of. But one of the things I suppose that has helped in that area is that the new Traveller Accommodation Act, which is part of the 1998 Housing Act, puts an obligation on local authorities to provide accommodation for the Travellers who have been identified as being from their area. They are obliged to set up local accommodations consultative groups, which means that they have to bring in council officials, councilors, and Travellers organizations or Travellers from that area to those consultative committees. The idea is that then they will come up with 5 year programs for the provisions of Traveller accommodation for the whole area, and that within that they would provide for a range of different types of accommodation for Travellers.
MM: And do you think most Travellers themselves would prefer the transient sites so that they can continue their way of life?
CJ: Its very difficult to say what the majority of Travellers would prefer. But one most honestly can say all Travellers in this country want a permanent base -- that could take the form of a halting site or a group housing scheme or local authority standard housing. And then with the permanent base being provided, there are some Travellers who are nomadic for a couple of months out of the year, and they would be wanting transients sites. But most all Travellers in this country need and want a permanent base from which they can move out of and come back to.
MT: One other thing I thought of was Ive done a couple of other interviews with people about racism, and other people have talked about how racism has changed over the years.
CJ: I think its very unfair to compare racism now with something ten years ago, because I dont think racism as an issue was being talked about very much ten years ago except by the groups that were suffering it or by the groups that were working with Travellers in this country. So racism for me hasnt taken a new form -- its taken a form. Its a new beginning. There is an acknowledgment that racism exists in this country. Racism has always been around, but I think were only coming to a stage in this country where settled people, employers and particularly the state, are starting to acknowledge racism as an issue that affects many groups, not just Travellers and not just black people, but that it affects many groups in this country. I think the issue of discrimination and prejudice and racism has always been prevalent; I think its something that has been enshrined in Irish culture. I mean you only have to go England or somewhere like that and Travellers will be accepted as Irish people, and then you can see the discrimination or the racism that Irish people suffer at the hands of English people. Theyre calling them Irish paddy or Are you over here looking for work? or that kind of stuff. I remember somebody saying that the only time that Travellers feel Irish is when they actually go out of Ireland -- because then they are identified as being Irish, you have an Irish passport, or youre called a Paddy in an English pub or something like that. But the racism has always existed.
I suppose one thing that would kind of confirm that for me is that back in 1930s my grandfather was shot by a farmer over a rabbit. Now its probably too long ago to talk about and get into the details of, but the farmer at that stage only got 3 months, and he got 3 months for having the firearm and not for killing dead a Traveller man. So that would very much say to me that racism and discrimination was always a part of Irish society.
I think it hasnt become more of an issue; I think its just been more acknowledged. Its been identified as being an issue and as a result of that it is being more talked about. Its more visible, I suppose. You do see the blatant discrimination where people are -- there was one particular incident where an Indian pharmacist down in Phibsboro had graffiti sprayed all over the door of his shop. Another morning he couldnt open it because the locks were filled with super glue. Thats very blatant and very physical and you can see it, but its the invisible stuff I think thats more damaging and more of a concern certainly for me I think as a Traveller.
MM: So, I suppose in a weird sort of way maybe its better that its actually out there and blatant and people can see it.
CJ: I think so, because then people can see it and then they can say, Well I would never do that, even though some people are guilty of it. It makes people stop and think, Well do I do that or am I guilty of that or agreeing with whats happened here and whats being done? I think the ads from the Employment Authority and the new ads that have been put out by the Citizen Traveller campaign will go some way to changing peoples perception of Travellers and settled peoples perceptions of other minority groups in this country. But I think the way forward needs to be legislation change with education and with information.
MM: And do you have hope for the future, for your children? Do you think their lives will be better or do you think it will take another generation or two to change?
CJ: I dont know. Travellers will always talk about the 1940s and the 1950s, even though they never had a place to stay and they were living in wagons and the health statistics show that it was a harder life, they will always say they were good days. Because Travellers were accepted in this country. They had a trade to offer and that trade was valued. But now Travellers are becoming more of a threat to settled people because in some ways theyre economically independent and they dont need to rely on settled people -- and in some ways thats damaging as well because settled people dont need to rely on Travellers and therefore dont see a use for them.
But I think Im one of these people that would be optimistic in terms of change in this country, and I think one of the more positive things about it is that Travellers are actually getting involved in steering that change and directing the change. Any change that comes about with the involvement of Travellers for me has to be a positive thing. I would hope that this society in 10 years time would be a society that we could call multi-cultural and anti-racist. I dont think we are going to change everybody, but I think that we need to change the practice and make racism the exception rather than the rule.
How long is this documentary going to be?
MT: Ultimately its only going to be an hour; right now its a mini series!
Top of Page
Irish Travellers Network
46 N Great Charles St Dublin 1
Irish Traveller Movement
Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism
Exchange House Travellers Service
"Travellers in Ireland"
contains lots of info about recent legislation concerning Travellers, health concerns, etc.
Travellers Organizations and Resources
"Racism in Ireland-Travellers Fighting Back"
contains info about history of Travellers organizations such as Minceir Misli
Máirín O Cuireain