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  • Indigenous Otherness:Some Aspects of Irish Traveller Social History
  • Michael Hayes (bio)

Recent events in ireland have focused attention on the Irish Traveller community, the relationship between Travellers and the settled community, and the relationship between the state and Ireland's oldest minority group. The past few decades have seen a substantial deterioration in the relationship between the Traveller community and the "settled" community as officially represented by the local authorities.1 The reasons for this deterioration in social relations are complex. They have to do with struggles in relation to class, changes in economic relations between the Traveller and settled communities, the thorny issue of land use in an increasingly urbanized country, and the increased attempts on the part of the state to intervene in what is often defined as the Traveller "problem." It is no small irony that the arrival of immigrants in Ireland, including Roma (Gypsies) from the former Eastern Bloc, has also pushed the question of interculturalism and the multicultural nature of Irish society to the fore in a way which had never occurred previously. Recent tensions between the Traveller and settled communities do not hide [End Page 133] the fact that there has been a long history of anti-Traveller prejudice, often termed racism, in Ireland. Anti-Traveller racism is a pervasive theme in the literature on Travellers. Prejudice against Travellers is entrenched in Irish society. They have a pariah status and live in "caste-like" isolation. Mícheál MacGréil's research into Irish prejudice chronicles a substantial deterioration in attitudes toward Travellers since the early 1970s, a process in which Irish Travellers came to be treated as a lower "caste" in society.2

Many recent writers have categorized the discrimination affecting Travellers as racism.3 The bulk of the advocacy work on anti-Traveller racism has been undertaken by nonstatutory organizations and community-based activist groups. Anti-Traveller racism has been addressed by Traveller organizations such as the Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point and by antiracist bodies such as Harmony. But the issue of anti-Traveller racism has been seriously addressed only in two contexts. One context is that of explaining that a minority ethnic group such as the Travellers experience racism. The other is the detailing of the different forms of racism experienced by Travellers. This emphasis on advocacy has meant that the issue of anti-Traveller racism and why it happens today or has happened frequently in the past remains relatively undertheorized.

There are a number of reasons for this deficiency. The study of Irish Travellers has, until fairly recently, remained a relatively peripheral interest for many Irish scholars. This neglect may be explained by the fact that Irish Travellers make up a very small [End Page 134] minority in Irish society. Although estimates vary, it is thought that approximately 28,000 people living in the Irish Republic identify themselves as Travellers, with a further 1,500 living in Northern Ireland. The social history of Travellers remained undocumented under colonialism, as successive British administrations did not distinguish between Travellers and the Irish poor generally. Consequently, there are real limits to what the sources can tell us about the history of the Irish Travellers. Those historical records that do exist simply highlight the relative invisibility of Travellers as a group in Irish society, with the basic difficulty being compounded by the large mobile population travelling the Irish roads—variously termed tradesmen, beggars, healers, poets, and bacachs—prior to the twentieth century.

Another major factor explaining the invisibility of Travellers in the historical record is the perception, still common in Irish society today, that Travellers are simply a group comprising the descendants of "drop-outs" from the settled community, people who most likely were the victims of policies of colonial expulsion, such as the "clearances" associated with the Great Famine era. Versions of Traveller history incorporating this colonial-expulsion or "drop-out" theory are the conventional wisdom in Ireland today regarding the probable origin of the Travellers. Since the question of group origins is often considered a marker of cultural legitimacy, this hypothesis has far-reaching consequences for the position that Travellers occupy in modern Irish society. Travellers differ from colonized...


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