Irish Travellers: Dispelling The Media Myths

June 26, 2012
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Living a nomadic lifestyle is difficult in the best of circumstances, but for the Irish Travellers it is made even more so because of the prejudices they face. Photo Credit: Elisabeth Blanchet

There is perhaps no more vilified group of people than Irish Travellers, and the closely related Romani Gypsies. In fact, the two are often lumped together and simply called Gypsies. Since the creation of the so-called reality show, "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" and repeated negative reports on cable news- commentary programs, the public is left with an image of those who dress their daughters provocatively to catch a husband as young as possible and don't educate them because they expect them to have children and keep a house. The truth is much more complex, and far less scandalous.

With an estimated 300,000, the majority of Irish Travellers live in the U.K., with an estimated 300,000 people, as well as the U.S. as well, but the exact size of the population is unknown because the communities are wary of outsiders asking questions. Although the U.S. does not recognize them as such, the Irish and Romani Gypsies are closely associated and recognized ethnic groups in the U.K.
Irish Travellers are a nomadic people, and often terrorized because of it. Many prefer to live in "caravans," or what we in the U.S. call travel trailers. Their cleanliness rituals prevent them from having bathroom facilities in their trailers, so they use separate bathroom facilities. They seldom have pets in their homes as well, and some live in permanent housing for Travellers, or in what they call "day houses." They use the bathroom, kitchen, and living facilities in the house during the day, but sleep in their trailer at night.

Irish Travellers are almost exclusively strict Roman Catholics. They often regard their daughter's first communion as not only an important religious rite of passage, but as a sort of "dress rehearsal" for their weddings. Though Traveller girls do marry young, this is largely where the myth of "child brides" comes from, and Catholic girls wear white dresses and veils for their first communions that resemble traditional wedding attire.

altOne of the most enduring images of Irish Travellers is that of young girls scantily dressed and dancing provocatively. In truth, this does happen at parties and gatherings, and some even dress this way on a more regular basis, but it is often misunderstood by outsiders. Because of their strict faith, and the restrictions on their social activities, these are the main events where teenage boys and girls meet so the parents can make the matches. The Travellers strictly forbid sexual contact before marriage, and they don't date in the traditional sense, but rather go out in groups, with the girls chaperoned by an older male relative.

Irish Travellers often do not attend past middle school because of their nomadic way of life, and many schools in the U.K. refuse to educate the children, especially girls, because they believe there is no reason to educate a girl who is just going to marry young, have children, and otherwise do nothing with her life. This is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of the discrimination experienced by Irish Travellers and many have gone on to contribute great things to society.

One of the myths about Irish Travellers is that they are thieves, lazy, or they don't pay their taxes. In truth, Travellers do work very hard as tinsmiths, giving them their traditional nickname "Tinkers," or manual labor such as construction. Many of them still engage in horse breeding some of the finest horses in the U.K. and trading. Like any community of people, there are always those who engage in illegal activities, but this is not a way of life for Travellers.

The myth that Travellers are thieves likely comes from the fact that their worldly wealth is tangible and usually highly visible. While an outsider would see someone with a garish trailer cluttered with knickknacks, they see valuable items to trade for other things that they might need to survive. The barter system is still alive and functioning well in this community.

altIn recent years, they continue to face increasing persecution from the government, including several high profile cases of Travellers evicted from the land they own because they don't have permits to build their settlement because about the government denies about 90 percent of Travellers permit applications.

In addition, much like the "whites only" signs seen in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, often a variety of businesses refuse service to Travellers ranging from clothing stores to pubs. To this day, the U.K. still has signs that say "No Gypsies or Travellers."

Because of their lifestyle, Irish Travellers face a number of challenges but to deal with discrimination simply because they choose to live a nomadic life is unacceptable since other ethnic minorities don't tolerate this type of treatment.