by Niall Coleman, Features Editor
“Have you been shot?” “Do you love Guinness?” “Potato! Potato! Potato!”
I haven’t been shot – not yet, at least. I am not a huge fan of stout. I actually don’t like potatoes in any shape or form; I find them bland and uninteresting, just like the troops of feckless holiday-goers that put these questions to me when I’m trying to enjoy a holiday abroad. Yes, I’m from Belfast. No, I’m not in the IRA. Aye, I probably do drink too much and aye, I do say “aye” too much. But that doesn’t mean I’m the perfect embodiment of an Irish stereotype that these fools have seen on TV. Perhaps if these people took a break from The Only Way is Essex and read a newspaper, or a book, they would realise that not everyone in this island talks like a leprechaun, or consults a priest before getting a new haircut. If you are one of these people, I implore you: learn something. Go on Wikipedia, or even Youtube – nice and easy. Learn that generalising people is the trademark feature of an idiot. One last demand – never say “Potato!” to me again.
I could complain all day, because I’m quite good at complaining, even about things that I really like. But this is a legitimate issue – generalising is racism’s short, fat, ugly cousin, and it happens all the time. Even the most determined tree-huggers and ‘left-wing’ students are guilty of it, whether we like to admit it or not. That’s because we all do it – and it’s mostly because of the tripe that we are spoon fed by Hollywood film producers and TV Stations. We’ve all seen Snatch, with their representations of “pikeys” – Irish Travellers – grubby, dirt-encrusted scoundrels with devious tricks up their sleeves with an endless supply of stray dogs, living in campsites reminiscent of a post-famine Ireland. Brad Pitt’s movie-star looks do little to alleviate this stinking representation of the Irish Traveller. Channel Four’s highly successful “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is no better – children pranced around in skimpy, sexually suggestive clothing, known as bridesmaid dresses. More punches are exchanged than congratulations, and courtship is shown to go no further than dragging a girl by the hair into the darkness – a tradition known in the Irish Traveller community as “grabbing” – a ‘cultural norm’ to this minority group which would see most people turning their noses in disgust, or even phoning the police. Yes, after watching these things on the television, we are left an awfully negative perception of this community. But whose fault is that?
That’s when it occurred to me. How must it feel to be a member of this community, in a society which increasingly demands normality? Do they embrace this image of the savage, or do they recoil in humiliation? Would an Irish Traveller be admitted to a nightclub with the same ease as a Hollister-clad middle-class student, or do our preconceived ideas about make their lives a little bit harder? Are these people subjected to the same ridiculous type of questioning and assumptions as I do any time I leave the country?
These questions are of course rhetorical. ‘Tinkers’, ‘Gypos’, ‘Pikeys’ are terms thrown around so carelessly, and would not meet the same level as disgust as words such as ‘n*gger’, or ‘p*ki’. I find this quite strange. Surely, discrimination of any kind should be challenged equally? If a gay couple were refused to be baked a cake, there would be uproar. If an African male was refused entry to a bar in Dublin based on who he was, there would be uproar. So why is equality a different question altogether for the travelling community? It is commonplace is Dublin city centre for ‘tinkers’ to be refused entry to bars, and patrons are often asked to leave. This is because the unfortunate fact remains: traveller discrimination has become an acceptable form of discrimination in this island, North and South.
The travelling community has been a prominent participant in the story and history of this country for centuries. Early historical accounts stretching back as far as the 12th century find references to a nomadic people who travelled within Ireland – and these accounts didn’t refer to violent feuds, or habitual drinking. Conclusions of a report published in 2011 by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland concluded that this is a community which is ostracised in this island – a harmful practice on a group which “need the intercultural solidarity of their neighbours in the settled community”. They are after-all a truly tiny minority, who make up a miniscule 0.5% of this country’s population. It is no surprise that the survey warns of the effects of discrimination upon this group: “They are too small a minority to survive in a meaningful manner without ongoing and supportive personal contact with their fellow citizens in the settled community”. This tightly-knit population of 40,000 travellers are indigenous to Ireland. If I wanted to sound like Nigel Farage, I’d say they have more of a right to be here than 95.5 percent of people. Regardless, the shared history, language and customs of these people is distinctive and underrepresented, and it is for this reason that we must support and protect these people, and their culture – no matter what you read about them in the newspaper, or what Channel Four showed you last year.
Capitalism has changed, industry has changed. This change has seen an overwhelming pressure on this minority to break away from their identities in the name of conforming, and becoming part of a modern economy. Traditional culture is being abandoned in favour of iPhones, and shit people like Justin Beiber and Will I Am. This abandonment hits groups like Irish travellers the hardest – trades traditionally held by the travelling community have been lost in a world where eBay and Poundworld reigns supreme. Travellers do not fit into the narrative proposed by our politicians – their nomadic culture has nothing to contribute to a capitalist system. It is perhaps for this reason that we have seen a conceited effort to sling mud at this tiny group, both at an institutional and ground level – supported by an ill-informed and prejudiced media culture.
With such a toxic public treatment of travellers, discrimination in the form of policy is inevitable. By-laws have deemed roadside sites as illegal halting sites, which often feature high, foreboding walls, poor facilities, and nearly always a close proximity to waste ground and dumping sites. Unlike legal tenants, travellers are not subjected to the same due process for eviction, which often leads to this minority being physically forced from the ground they occupy, without any shred of sympathy or provision of alternative accommodation. This discrimination has severe consequence within the community, and the demographics of this group mirror Third World proportions: when compared with “normal” people, the life expectancy of men is 10 years less, and women’s is 12 years left, on average. Infant deaths are over twice as common, sudden infant death is over four times as likely and children of the travelling community are three times more likely to be hospitalised in the first year of their like. These problems are worsened in a world where the media refuses to reflect their true difficulties and struggle to survive. I find one example apt for what I’m trying to say here, and that is a short example from an excerpt from an article from one Mary Ellen Synon, reporting for the Sunday Independent. Traveller life, according to Synon, is “a life of appetite ungoverned by intellect…It is a life worse than the life of beasts, for beasts at least are guided by wholesome instinct. Traveller life is without the ennobling intellect of man or the steadying instinct of animals. This tinker ‘culture’ is without achievement, discipline, reason or intellectual ambition. It is a morass. And one of the surprising things about it is that not every individual bred in this swamp turns out bad. Some individuals among the tinkers find the will not to become evil”. That was published in 1996, which isn’t that long ago really. Even if we do consider that this was published nearly two decades ago, the fact of the matter is this: public perception have not changed all that much. More recently, a priest has refused to officiate weddings of any member of the travelling community after a shooting at a wedding in Newtownbutler, in which the uncle of the bride was killed. Here, we see even the clergy dipping their toes in the warm water of prejudice. He is supported in his decision, described by a group representing travellers as “morally wrong”, by none other than the UUP’s Tom Elliott, who is not one to back away from a bit of discrimination. In an interview with the Irish News, Elliott says “I don’t approve of it. I think they get married far too young”. If it wasn’t good enough of him to share his opinion on Traveller culture, he furthers his remarks in favour of the reactionary Fr King: “”I would certainly support his right to take that decision, I have no difficulty in that whatsoever. He has a right to determine that and I would support that freedom.”
In this country’s path towards achieving equality for all groups, it can be difficult to see the plight of the Traveller behind all the smoke of parading debates and furore over the Irish language. In a society where we fight for the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender people, where we fight for equality for people of all religion and creed, and people of all racial minorities, we must not forget the travelling community as a vulnerable and unprotected people. When I think of the travelling community, suddenly that guy with the silly questions in a Magaluf bar doesn’t annoy me so much.