The most common question I get asked when I’m invited to speak about the issues faced by Travellers is: why are the statistics so bad when it comes to the social determinant of the Traveller community in Ireland?
In other words, why we die so much younger than others, why suicide rates are so much higher, why our health outcomes so much poorer.
To answer this question, we must look to the early days of the creation of the Irish Free State. Just last month, we had another stark reminder of how important it is to seek our answers by investigating our history and past treatment of the most vulnerable in our society.
A report leaked to the Sunday Independent and part-published on 23 February, outlined the ethnic profiling and eugenic rating of mixed-race children and the treatment of Traveller children in mother and baby homes.
From the moment the Irish state was founded on 6 December 1922, it set its sights squarely on the project of creating a mono-cultural identity. It did this over the coming decades through the state apparatus and in absolute partnership with the Irish Catholic Church. In this partnership, we see the creation of an attempt to remove from history, any group or people that did not sit in with the new states ideals of what it decided was the true Irish or valued Irish.
We are now more aware of the treatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries and of the mass incarceration of the working class in industrial schools. The same level of investigation has not been given to the treatment of others, though.
Without a full reckoning with how the Irish state has been built around a monocultural idea of “true Irishness” – ideas etched into laws, that ignore and inflict violence upon those who do not match this imaginary vision of a nation – it will be impossible to build a just and safe country for all minorities into the future.
And at the heart of that reckoning, and learning, must sit the treatment of Traveller Irish.
So much evidence shows how the early Irish state started a process of othering.
As anthropologist Jane Helleiner has highlighted, we have the statements made by local councillors from the Galway Urban District Council on 8 June 1922, six months after the official Free State was founded, when a general order went out to remove “gypsies” and “tinkers” from the local area.
Even as the Irish settled majority was descending into civil war. Even at this early stage of state formation, there was a clear statement of intent, to remove Travellers from the physical environment – a pattern repeated across the new Irish State. This was the process of othering of the Traveller Irish.
I would argue, in fact, that we Traveller Irish have every right to lay claim to the phrase “the first others” in the Irish context. This is the start of nation and state formation. From this initial stage we see the Free State begin its onward trajectory towards all-out state exclusion of Traveller Irish.
The seeds of the future cultural denial and cultural erosion. The Free State set in motion its process of nationalism, and to do this it must remove those with which it perceived as a threat to its project: the Traveller Irish.
The process of “othering” is very simple. You create a sense of “them”. They are not us. Therefore, they are not entitled to the same recognition, the same investment, the same resources, the same rights. We do not value your culture or identity. You create a demarcation of us and them, those who are in a position of power, and those who are in a position of less power.
This creates, and maintains, social distance. The dominant group defines the group. It creates a position over them. It places them in an inferior role. It continues to reinforce this othering process by creating negative stereotypes. That they are morally and intellectually inferior to the dominant group, say.
Once this process is underway, it becomes easier to create a mind-set that permeates throughout those who are deemed valuable. In the Irish state, this is the majority white Catholic settled, sedentary population. The othering process starts with the language of dehumanising the group. We see this very early in the formation of the Irish Free State.
Again we see the local councils issuing edicts that all the “gypsies” and “travellers” and “tinkers” must be moved on from their locality. Note, to be moved on, there was no attempt to engage with the Traveller community in these areas, to try to work in a collaborative way.
Next comes the stoking fear: they must be removed for health reasons. In the Connacht Tribune on 10 March 1923, one report talks of a group of private homeowners lobbing the Galway council to move these gypsies on, because they may cause an epidemic. Once this othering has started it snowballs.
It becomes the dominant narrative, and it was to continue on through the following decades, with the state introducing legislation that would have a direct effect on the Irish Traveller community.
Within three years of the new state, section 20 of the Local Government Act 1925 gave local authorities the power to declare that those who resided in a van, or tent structure that was used for living in, could either be removed as a nuisance or on health grounds. Again, we see the language of othering and fear mongering in the actual legislation that was introduced.
While this legislation does not specifically name Travellers in it, when this legislation was being updated in the 1947, a minister said in the Dáil that the 1925 regulations had in fact been framed primarily to apply to those “itinerants” who are in the habit of dwelling temporarily on road margins. This is the typical dehumanising process of othering.
The dominant population creating the narrative of health as the reason for the removal of these others. In 1941, the Galway Urban District Council (GUDC) called on the Department of Agriculture to exclude Travellers from the city, on the grounds that their horses were spreading foot and mouth. Now, they were seen as a danger to animals.
And at a national level, a debate that took place in the Dáil in 1941 in relation to the allegation of the spread of foot and mouth, a TD called on the government to introduce emergency powers of internment. We can and should view this in the context of what was happening in Nazi Germany – and the persecution of gypsies and Roma communities.
The anti-Traveller rhetoric continued throughout the 40s and into the 50s. In 1957, with the new Fianna Fáil government coming back to the Dáil with a majority, various TDs from urban constituencies increased the pressure and anti-Traveller rhetoric on the government, both from the opposition benches and within the government to deal with the Traveller “problem”.
We must take note again of the type of language used, the description of a “problem” is a pertinent theme.
All Out Attack
It was at this point that the state decided to go all out in terms of a national policy of assimilation and absorption. In June 1960, the Commission on Itinerancy was established. It was headed up by Charles J Haughey, who was Minister of Justice.
In his opening statement to the members of the commission, he stated: “there could be no ‘final solution’ until itinerant families were absorbed into the general community”. What we are now witnessing at this stage, is the process of othering becoming state policy.
The commission was made up of the various state bodies and also those who were in positions of power: garda, chief medical officers, a judge of the high court who chaired the commission, but also memoranda were submitted by various organizations, the Irish National Teachers’ Organization (INTO), the Irish Medical Association and the National Farmers’ Association.
There were no Traveller representatives on the commission. The very people that this commission was set up to investigate were excluded from it.
It’s important to point out that this was a collective endeavor. The other obvious fact of the commission was that its primary intent and goal was the complete assimilation and absorption of the Traveller community into the majority-settled, sedentary population.
This was the first policy document commissioned by the Irish state and it outlines from the opening pages, that it was not going to engage in a policy of supporting and enhancing the Traveller community or the protection of its identity. The content of the report was not about the problems faced by Travellers, but the problems caused by Travellers.
The report also states from the outset that the Traveller community does not constitute an ethnic group. This decision was taken by the commission themselves, without offering any research in this area, for or against.
What is important about this report is that over the following decades this report was the go-to document for future policies. It can and should be seen as a living document, when we are now seeing the very grave consequences and issues that Travellers face in their daily lives.
We must be cognisant of this extremely racist state report. This should be compulsory reading in all our educational institutions. This is one of the greatest wrongs done by a post-war western state. I don’t say that to be melodramatic, I say it, because no one in this country has not been tainted by it.
Through the years, the laws demonising Travellers, and impacting on their right to exist have been extensive. From the School Attendance Act and Street Trading Act of 1926, down through the Unemployment Act of 1938, and others such as the Trespass Legislation Act of 2002.
These laws, and more, might be called legislative cleansing. All had a social effect on living conditions. Almost a hundred years of state oppression, written up in law. Over my 20 years involved in the Traveller movement, I have met a lot of individuals from extremely diverse professions, and when I mention this document, people often respond with: “What?”
This is not about blaming the individual but calling out the system. Yes, the state will point to the change in language and in the various follow-on reports that have been produced and the acknowledgement of Traveller ethnicity in 2017. But this report laid the foundation stone to the extreme anti-Traveller rhetoric that we are used to in our everyday conversations and on our air waves, as well as across social media.
The system is inherently anti-Traveller must be challenged by all of us, and we also must challenge ourselves. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s writes in White Fragility that when asked by white people what to do about racism, she responds with a question: “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?”
“How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us, when people of colour have been telling us for years, if we take that question seriously and map out all the ways we have come to not know what to do, we will have our guide before us,” she continues.
“For example, if my answer is that I was not educated about racism, I know that I will have to get educated. If my answer is I don’t know people of colour, I will need to build relationships. If it is because there are no people of colour in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment. Addressing racism is not without effort,” writes DiAngelo.
Try complimenting the “white” with “settled” or with “sedentary”.
It is beyond time for us all to be self-critical, to question what we have been told, to ask what is it I can do, to make my state a safer and inclusive place for minorities.