This page last revised 23 June 1999
The following clippings from regional Irish newspapers begin in 1923, soon after the founding of the state, and continue to the present day in chronological order. The premise informing the selection is that Travellers are caught in a dynamic of colonialism misunderstood by the majority they live amongst, and disadvantaged by their difference. Their situation is comparable, in many instances, to that of gypsies throughout Europe and the indigenous minorities of many ex-colonies. It is no coincidence that attitudes toward Travellers, as evidenced by some of the following clippings, hardened in the decades following the founding of the Irish State in the 1920s. The early years of the republic were difficult economically, and a nationalist ideology of a homogenous, mono-cultural, unquestioningly Catholic united state was perpetuated as a consolation for the loss of privileges enjoyed as part of the Empire. The transfer from colonial to post-colonial status problematised the place of this minority population, and internal tensions surfaced in the absence of a colonial presence to demonise. I have concentrated on papers covering the general West of Ireland / Connacht area (Galway, Mayo and Roscommon), and in particular, articles dealing with Galway, since this is my hometown, and a traditional Traveller stronghold. Most clippings are from the longstanding Connacht Tribune.
In a report on a Galway Urban Council meeting entitled Nomads in Galway: Citizens fear an epidemic (Connacht Tribiune 10 Mar. 1923: 5), the old colonial fear of being contaminated by the Other (in fact, a fear of secretly being or becoming the Other) is detectable:
Mr J.P. OBrien wrote on behalf of a number of citizens stating that unless the council took steps to have the gypsies who are camping removed, there was a danger of epidemic breaking out. He pointed out that it was illegal for these people to camp within the urban area. They could camp a quarter of a mile outside the urban area, and then only for a couple of days.
The strategy of distancing is implicit in the use of the words gypsy and nomad, which connote that these people are somehow foreign, and most explosively, in the use of gypsy, that they are actually British. (Within the British Isles, gypsies are from Wales and England only.) The word gypsy is a dispossessing of their Irishness, and it is easier to be cruel to what is constructed as being outside the self in a new state where the ideology of nationalism is uppermost. The pollutant must be contained, kept at the margins - linguistic and literal distancing. They carry the pollution of all; they are what Kristeva would define as the abject.
A similar distance is achieved by utilising the legalistic term vagrant in the heading of a Connacht Tribune article on a traveller influx into Galway entitled The Vagrant Train (18 April 1925: 5). Reductive legal and international euphemisms such as vagrant, nomad and gypsy deny Travellers their heritage within Irish history. There is a worry expressed in the article that the visible Other will reflect badly on the real Irish:
In the coming months we are expecting a large influx of tourists, and if these vagrants are around to receive them, you may expect, to the injury of our town, caricature articles will be published in British and American newspapers descriptive of beggar life in Galway.
|Graffitti on wall of a school attended by many Travellers. 'Mink' is a derogatory word for Traveller.|
Travellers are often referred to in the media of the early years of the Irish Republic as a problem requiring control by ideological state apparatuses. They truly are, as the heading of an article on squatting Travellers describes, in a No Mans Land (7 Nov. 1931: 7) in a place outside the new, post-colonial definition of Irish citizen. The nationalist ideology of a homogeneous, united state perpetuated as the consolation for the loss of Empire privileges explains the concern expressed in the article that Travellers not be seen or reported on by the English. Within this system of values, Travellers, with their alternative lifestyle, customs and language were somehow not quite citizens and were unsettlingly, visibly different. They were an eyesore, to echo a woman quoted in a report on a municipal authorities conference:
[The authorities called for a] commission to consider the itinerant problem Alderman Miss M.A. Ashe said that the itinerants were becoming an eyesore and the Gardai were doing nothing to control the itinerants Mrs C. Byrne (Dublin) said that the members of Dublin Corporation felt that these were citizens of a kind and that there should be some place available for them The Corporation went so far as to offer them houses but one itinerant refusing, said: I would not be among them people (CT 19 Sep. 1959: 9).
Note the outrage and incomprehension that the Travellers do not welcome the offer of housing. Travellers were beginning, for the first time, to be perceived as a kind of fallen settled people, rather than as in previous centuries, a distinct group who chose not to live in houses. If Travellers had suffered from prejudice in the past, then at least their right to live a lifestyle of their own choosing had not been questioned.
In an article entitled Itinerants Fled After Farmers Attack, the near lynching of Traveller women and children on Christmas Day, while the men were at church, is described in inverted commas as if an attack on Travellers is somehow less real or less serious. The incident betrays the deep animosity felt by those who valued the ownership and permanent occupation of land highly toward those who eschew such values, and gives lie to the image of the homogenous society:
A camp of itinerants was abandoned following an attack on the camp by a group of local farmers dogs said to be from the camp molested eighteen sheep and local farmers banded together to scatter the camp on Christmas Day Their weapons included hurleys, clubs and one shotgun. Only one shot was fired, but this was sufficient to reduce the number of dogs by one. Tinkers fled in chaos in all directions, leaving much of their belongings behind them A farmer from the district told our reporters that repeated requests had been made to Gardai to shift the tinkers without success. They were therefore obliged to take the law into their own hands They beat [Patrick Sherlock] on the hips and legs Mrs Sherlock, his mother, said that only for the women pleading for mercy for Patrick, the [farmers] would have killed him( CT 2 Jan. 1960: 7).
The justifications betray the attitude that Travellers lives have the value of farm animals.
The settled communitys obsession with boundaries, masked as a concern with the letter of the law, is really a desire to render Travellers invisible. A 23 May 1964 Connacht Tribune report, Itinerants evade Law by short head, refers to Traveller families whose camping just inside the Galway Borough boundary is objected to (9). When Travellers remain on the boundary the settled communitys sense of self, sense of the mapped limits of the civic (and therefore, physical) body is threatened. The settled become aware of the precarious and artificially enforced nature of the boundary between polluted and pure, subversive and ordered, Self and constructed Other, and that threatened infringement spells danger for the Travellers involved. After objections from residents there is a sense of outrage that the itinerants moved just outside the parish and the Borough area, which means in effect that the Gardai or the Corporation cannot prosecute them. Nonetheless, soon after, the camps are cleared by forcibly hauling off Traveller caravans, and the residents do also by threatening the Travellers to clear out within the hour or they would be cleared out. The itinerants cleared within the hour (CT 13 June 1964: 12). The problematising of Traveller mobility by the settled community makes that very mobility a persecution; Travellers are forced to move on when the settled chose to move them, not when they themselves wish to. Their nomadic lifestyle places them outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, hence, difference is perceived as criminality. Roscommon County Council describes settling Travellers into fixed locations as the rehabilitation of itinerants (CT 2 Oct. 1965: 11).
Travellers are presented as unindividuated objects; objects of hatred, or in the case of this article, objects of pity: On a side-road near Barna, Co.Galway, a three-month old baby is sleeping on damp straw at the back of a smoke-filled tent his parents build a fire in it, in order to keep themselves and their five children warm(CT 12 May 1967: 3). This attitude perceives any alternative to settled life as intrinsically unworkable. However, it is the strictures of the institutions which benefit the settled which make Traveller life difficult, as the article unwittingly goes on to explain:
Their cousins live up the road the father would like [his] seven little boys to go to school. This they cant because the Law (in the form of the Sanitary Inspector) will not allow them to park for more than a few days in any one place If they delay longer than they should, they get fined If they cannot pay the fine the husband is sent to gaol.
The phrase rehabilitation of itinerants, which originated in the 1963 government-sponsored Report of the Commission on Itinerancy, and is also mentioned in the 1965 article above, appears to have become the common discourse of solution to the problem by 1968, as it appears as the title of the following letter to the Connacht Tribune printed that year:Itinerants are a social problem If it is handled properly we do not have to feel shy or ashamed of letting the tourists see how we face the problem and show that we do not, as it were, make a leper colony and guide sight-seers elsewhere (18 Oct. 1968: 9). Again, the post-colonial obsession with how superior races perceive the visible Other is present. There is less concern with how Travellers are treated, than how foreigners (i.e. the English) observe us treating them - the neurotic post-colonial awareness of the gaze of the male former-coloniser state.
|These are traveller-owned horses which wander near the traveller site (campsite) next to the M50 at Finglas, Dublin 11. The campsite is visible in the background. Horses are a vital part of Traveller life to this day.|
Even when Travellers were willing to settle, in line with official policy of the post- 1963 Report on the Commission on Itinerancy era, they were often prevented from doing so:
An appeal was made for people in a Corporation housing estate to drop their objections to a woman moving into a house in their area She had been over ten years on the Corporation housing list and was squatting with her six children in a condemned house residents of the area objected and during the weekend watch was kept on the house This was Mrs. Fureys second time running into such trouble [Residents] promised possible bloodshed if she arrived (CT 4 Sept. 1970: 1).
The vague, apolitical term trouble is used as a way of defusing the conflict (as it still is today in reference to the Northern Ireland conflict for the same reasons), but more accurate terms such as prejudice, racial hatred and intimidation are avoided. The dominant majority fear becoming what they have repressed within themselves / their own culture by too close contact with the Other. Travellers are white, Irish, Catholic, and in this instance, at the same economic level as potential neighbours in the governmentfunded housing. The residents fear the boundary between Same and Other will collapse. Such paranoia means that travellers are often shunted from area to area. A 30 Sept. 1977 report in the Connacht Tribune described how in the Galway town of Gort residents had recently forcibly removed an itinerant couples caravan. By the time the article was published, people living in the area to which the vehicle had been moved were also reported to be objecting (1). A bishop, referring to a month-long protest at a 43-house estate on which Travellers were allocated three houses, is quoted as having deplored the broadcasting of an item on BBC at 7a.m. on Thursday which stated that police in the Republic were being called in to raise the siege of a tinker family by local residents The bishop would have preferred to suppress the unsavoury truth revealed later in the article that a picket had kept out food and visitors to the house (CT 4 Nov. 1977: 16). An indication of bias in high places is contained in a Connacht Sentinel report that the Mayor of Galway was accused of anti-itinerant bias and of once encouraging picket lines in Bohermore [which aimed] to prevent itinerant families from moving into houses which had been allocated in those (Galway) estates The Mayor said it was time to stop bending over backwards to help itinerants(30 Sept. 1986: 3)
The common colonist anxiety that the oppressed will rise up unexpectedly and take their revenge is occasionally expressed. The following letter, referring to the attack of a Traveller campsite by settled men armed with sticks and torches, was published in the Galway Advertiser:
How must a small child in that situation feel Will it generate a long, cold determination to take revenge on the settled people Do we want them to linger on, generation after generation, still on the margin of society I suppose that a complete solution is very far away, i.e. integration into settled communities (31 Dec. 1986: 28).
Integration is suggested as a means of defusing the desire for revenge. Integration is here correctly recognised as a method of destroying Traveller difference (and was official policy from 1963 until the 1980s).
The Traveller lifestyle is not accommodated by state structures health and education services are organised to benefit only those residing permanently at the same address. Travellers have been asked to mould themselves to fit rigid state systems, and all the while have been discouraged from following traditional Traveller trades and nomadism. The consequences are as follows:
Less than two percent of the west of Irelands 4,000 travellers are aged over 65 years traveller men live on average 10 years less than settled men while traveller women live 12 years less than their settled peers. Travellers generally have a low uptake of preventative health services They have high stillbirth, perinatal and infant mortality rates, more than twice those experienced by settled people (Galway Advertiser 14 May 1998: 31).
Decades of well-meaning but ultimately useless policies, alongside outbursts of ethnic hatred from local government officials, have created Traveller resistance to state systems and those operating within them. In June 1973, Fintan Coogan, West Galway TD (Parliamentary Representative) proposed that an electric fence be used to keep Travellers out of public shelters in Galway citys central square at night. In March 1974, a Mayo Urban Council member suggested that Travellers should be sterilised and then banished to the Aran Islands. Consider the following recent article from the Galway Advertiser:
A Western Health Board member who called for Travellers to be tagged like livestock to monitor their movements is to be disciplined by his party for his racist and inflammatory comments. Fine Gael Councillor John Flanagan (Mayo) a member of a Traveller committee for 17 years told this months meeting of the WHB that some tracing mechanism, such as the microchips used to tag animals, should be used to keep tabs on Travellers as they move from county to county. This would prevent them abusing the system, he said. There is no knowing what number of them are in the country Our livestock are traceable. Every known animal is traceable whether a pedigree animal or a flapper. We should know at any time where they [Travellers] are They should not have the privilege of lying in the sun like a pedigree dog, stretching themselves fellow Mayo councillor and WHB member Padraic Cosgrove shares some of Flanagans concerns. The settled community is bending over backwards to accommodate Travellers but they do not want to be housed, he told the same WHB meeting.(14 May 1998: 1).
Here again, as in the Jan. 2, 1960 article, the idea of Travellers being akin to farm animals is expressed, and the old wilful incomprehension that Travellers do not wish to emulate the living pattern of the majority. There is a sinister re-use of the Galway Mayors phrase bending over backwards, as reported in the Connacht Sentinel in 1986, in reference to helping Travellers. Councillor Flanagan was cleared of an incitement to racial hatred charge in April 1999 arising from the above statement.
Read the Galway Advertiser online.
Read the Connacht Tribune online.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Mary Burke. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
Top of This Page
[QUB Home Page][Prometheus Home Page][The Imperial Archive]