The Denial Of Irish Travellers Ethnicity
“There can be no final solution to the problem created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community”
These were the words of Charles Haughey, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Justice, at the commencement of the Commission of Itinerancy in 1960. The Commission was set up to address the “problem” status of Irish Travellers in society, a group whose nomadic lifestyle was at odds with the new vision of a modern Ireland. This report contained another phrase that up until now, was the basis for allowing the State to insist upon assimilation:
“Itinerants (or Travellers as they prefer themselves to be called) do not constitute a single homogenous group, tribe or community within the nation although the settled population are inclined to regard them as such. Neither do they constitute a separate ethnic group”
The Commission had reason to suggest this — the prevailing myths of Traveller origin at the time suggested a fall from the grace of settlement: they were either peasants driven to the road by economics or famine, outsiders excommunicated for social disgrace, or the victims of colonial dispossession. This, however, betrays the Commission’s exclusion of Travellers from its ranks: the prevailing thought among Travellers was that they had always been on the road. A conveyor belt of sorts in which people settled or became nomadic — but the tradition of travelling remained consistently in use. “The Tinkerman” Pecker Dunne said “There have always been travellers in Ireland because some people have always preferred to travel, so as to make a living.”
The economy and culture of Traveller life was simply not compatible with the post-colonial Irish project. The Irish Folklore Commission set up in 1953 to generate a new national identity based on oral tradition by-and-large ignored Travellers. This was a community Ireland was eager to forget, a pre-colonial embarrassment that had no part in a 1 modern European player. Besides a “Tinker’s questionnaire” there was an institutional lack of interest in Travellers. This began to change with the studies of anthropologists like George and Sharon Bohn Gmelch in the 1970s who posited that along with the cultural differences between Travellers and settled society, their ascription of themselves as separate to “settled Ireland” distinguished them as an ethnic group. This definition of ethnicity is sourced from the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth, whose text, “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference” , helps define what constitutes an ethnic group: it’s most important aspect not being a uniformity of culture within the group, but rather a continued cultural difference.
Today we find DNA evidence from the Royal College of Surgeons and the University of Edinburgh confirming Travellers as native to Ireland and also separate to the settled community. A month after that finding, Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced in the Dáil the formal recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group in Ireland. This victory for the Traveller community is thanks to the work of Traveller support and advocacy groups like Pavee Point or the Irish Traveller Movement. To quote Pecker Dunne again, “If you go back and read the old stories you will find Travelling people mentioned all the time”. In the old stories perhaps, but Ireland has for too long refused Travellers a part in the story of its nationhood; this recognition is a step towards Travellers’ inclusion in that story.