We need to talk about Travellers. We need to talk about the way we treat them, the way we view them. The way we discriminate against them. The hatred and bigoted prejudices we hold against them. The way we exclude them from our society, pretend they aren’t there. The way we mock their culture, the way they talk, the way they look. Travellers are people too, just as human as you or I, but most people view them parasites on society. Most of my friends openly describe Travellers as violent, drunken scumbags. We need to talk about our own Apartheid system with our own inferior underclass. We need to talk about Travellers.
I never could fully understand how someone could hate a race of people. I could never understand the stories in history books of Jews or Blacks being persecuted and hated. Surely it’s obvious that you can’t generalise about a whole group of people? Surely we are all fundamentally the same? Apparently not. In all the discussions I’ve had in my life about Travellers I have always been in the minority arguing for them. I’ve always been outnumbered by those who see them as inferior as worse than “normal” people. I’m surprised that people don’t see the flaw of their generalisation. Most people accept that one black thief does not mean all black people are thieves or that one violent Pole doesn’t mean all Polish people are violent. Yet every example of a Traveller committing a crime is taken as clear proof that most of them are criminals. It is particularly strange that most people defend themselves by saying, “Not all Travellers are bad, just 70/80/90% of them.” (Everyone picks their own number, it is always extremely high.)
This prejudice is not guided by facts or experiences. Most people don’t personally know any Travellers and rely instead on the media and stories from friends. A Traveller performing a good deed isn’t a news story, but one getting in a fight is. This is why people only hear negative stories. People naturally believe the worst from Travellers so if a Traveller and a settled person got in a fight, it’s always presumed it was the Travellers fault. There is no evidence to support many claims about them such as the widespread belief that they get free houses and a fortune in handouts from the government. Yet this is commonly repeated as fact.
‘A whole tradition of European thought has considered the Irish to be a separate and inferior race, usually unregenerately barbarian, often delinquent and primitive.’ Edward Said, Culture And Imperialism
It is ironic that the very stereotypes used to describe Travellers are the very same ones that were used to describe the Irish. We, like them, were described as violent thugs who have 10 kids, live off handouts because we’re too lazy to work and spend all our money on drink. For reasons I cannot explain most people are offended that people could view the Irish this way, yet believe it’s an accurate description of Travellers. They don’t seem to realise that in both cases the same facts apply, there’s some troublemakers who give everyone else a bad name.
Some facts. Only 40% of people would accept a Traveller into their family through marriage. In fact 18% of people would deny Travellers citizenship. 80% of people said they wouldn’t even live near Travellers and 75% said they would hesitate to seek a Travellers company. 61% would deliberately exclude a Traveller from their group of friends. 41% of people said they would never employ a Traveller. 64% would avoid Travellers in a social scene. This is the level of discrimination I would expect in the backwoods of Alabama. If someone said they would deliberately avoid talking to black people or living near them, people would be rightly outraged. Yet people see no problem with having these views about Travellers.
Travellers themselves are regularly the victims of discrimination. Three quarters said they were refused service in a pub just because they were Travellers. Over half were asked to leave a hotel or had bookings cancelled on them. Half had been forced to leave shops and two-thirds had other people served before them. Two thirds of Traveller children have been bullied or racially attacked. It is disgraceful that in this day and age people would be treated so badly, not for anything they have done, but for who they are.
Some claim that Travellers bring it upon themselves. Some say they suffer from a lifestyle choice (that’s the thing people said about gays). Nobody chooses to be a Traveller, you’re born one. You cannot simply drop your culture, your history, your identity at the drop of a hat. Sure they are Travellers who cause trouble, but there are troublemakers in every community. I don’t hate Limerick people just because Limerick has a problem with knife crime. I don’t judge all Muslims based on what Al-Qaeda has done, nor do I judge all Americans based on Iraq. There are roughly 40,000 Travellers, how can you judge them all based on a handful of cases?
If you were treated like a Traveller, how would you react? If you were barred from entering shops and pubs despite having done nothing wrong? If you were avoided and excluded by your classmates? If no employer would give a chance to pay your way? If you were constantly treated with hate and suspicion? If you were never treated like a normal person with feelings and emotions? If you were viewed as worse than scum under someone’s shoe? If you were treated like an outcast, an inferior piece of scum, how would you react? Would you not lash out at the world?
The European Parliament declared that “the single most discriminated against ethnic group is the travelling people.” There are numerous cases of Travellers being verbally abused and even attacked simply for being different. This week it emerged that Minister Phil Hogan wrote to his constituents boasting of how he had prevented a Traveller family moving into his constituency. A few weeks ago, a family of Travellers in Kilkenny were burnt out of their house the day they moved in. Local communities regularly protest against any attempts by Travellers to move into the area. Halting sites are often located in the worst areas of communities, often beside rubbish dumps.
The ESRI has described the conditions Travellers live in as “intolerable. No humane and decent society, once made aware of such circumstances, could permit them to persist.” It also described them as “a uniquely disadvantaged group: impoverished, under-educated, often despised and ostracised, they live on the margins of Irish society.” A survey found that more than half lived without electricity, baths, showers or hot water. One third were without toilets.
Travellers suffer in many ways. Only 3% live to the age of 65. Female Travellers live 11 years less than women in the settled community. Traveller men live 15 years less than settled men. They have the same life expectancy as Ireland did in the 1940’s. Infant mortality is three times higher and suicide seven times higher compared to the settled community. They are plagued by high unemployment and unsanitary living conditions.
Discrimination against Travellers goes back a long time. In fact, in the UK, it even used to be illegal to be a Gypsy. In 1596, 106 people were condemned to death for being Gypsies. It wasn’t until 1743 that it was legal to be a Gypsy without facing imprisonment, deportation or execution. Eastern European Travellers (known as Roma) have also undergone centuries of discrimination and hatred culminating in over 500,000 being murdered during the Holocaust.
We ought to be ashamed of the level of hate and prejudice we show towards people we don’t even know. We have a created our own Irish Apartheid system. We look down our noses at Travellers and tell ourselves we have good reason for our senseless prejudice. We treat Travellers like second class citizens who aren’t good enough to live near us or even be friends with us. Martin Luther King once called for people to be judged not by who or what they were born but by the content of their characters. In Ireland simply being born a Traveller condemns you to an inferior life. We can no longer ignore this. We need to talk about Travellers.