Travellers are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, possibly descended from the Romany people, though their origins are somewhat debated. Today, they are found mostly in Ireland, but also live in the United Kingdom and United States. They are also subject to relentless racism in Ireland and around the world.
The exact origins of the Travellers are unknown, but it is believed that they are descended from Irish people who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell’s military actions in Ireland in the 1650s or by the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. They remained itinerant, choosing to avoid educational and political systems for centuries in exchange for a life on the road, until vagrancy laws made it illegal to live a nomadic lifestyle; even so, many Irish Travellers still live in sedentary caravans. Most are Irish Catholic, and typically marry young and prioritize family and loyalty, though there are of course exceptions to these generalizations. Today, there are about 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, and in 2017 they finally attained recognition as an ethnic group from the Irish government. There are also about 10,000 Travellers in the United States.
Many people outside Ireland first encountered Travellers through the reality TV show, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” a show that portrays Irish Travellers as uncouth, uncivilized, and almost inhuman. When I was studying in Ireland, I was shocked to find that everyone I asked, including other American foreign exchange students, expressed an implicit belief in the fundamental “filth” or “trashiness,” words that they believed characterized all Travellers.
While abroad, I took a class at the National University of Ireland in Galway taught by a Traveller woman—a poised, beautiful, intelligent professor who has spent her life working tirelessly for Traveller rights. In the class, I was shocked to hear Irish students use ethnic slurs to describe Travellers right in front of her face.
It is usually difficult for people who are not from Ireland to identify Travellers, but during my time there, I came to realize that the native Irish are able to pick them out with ease based on specific characteristics, such as fashion choices, mannerisms and dialects. All differences are small—Travellers are white, a characteristic that certainly endows them with levels of privilege of their own—but most settled Irish people not only are able to notice Travellers, but make a special effort to reject and demonize them.
In Ireland, Travellers are often ostracized, rejected since childhood on the basis of their identities. My professor told us that her own daughter was not invited to class birthday parties by settler children simply because she was a Traveller. This early rejection is a precursor of a far larger machine in which systems orchestrated around privilege and the practice of discrimination prevent Travellers from attaining certain access to healthcare, housing rights, and educational opportunities, which compromises their mental and physical health, making it nearly impossible for them to rise out of poverty.
Racism against Travellers is remarkably commonplace and socially acceptable in Ireland. Many Irish people believe that Travellers are all criminals, dangerous social outcasts that cause trouble and stick to themselves.
However, these beliefs immediately create hierarchies that disadvantages those not already privileged, further locking them out of the possibility of accessing healthcare and the tools to improve their own vitality and growth.
Fear is one of the great accomplices of the privileged, and many defend their racist actions on the basis of a fear of Travellers, labeling them as dangerous criminals. However, it is likely that this fear has much deeper roots, roots that stretch back to old wounds stemming from discrimination against the Irish back in the days of English colonization. Fascinatingly, negative stereotypes initially deployed against the Irish by the British—such as the degenerative, false stereotype of the drunk and raucous Irish criminal—seem to have transferred over to the way settled Irish people view Travellers.
This will only end when the cycle is broken and systems are created that allow Travellers and minority groups to have voices and rights that do not hinge on compromisation of their identities and culture. After all, Travellers are no longer allowed to be legally nomadic—so most live in stationary caravans, or some are able to purchase houses. They have been forced to become part of settled society by law. The least settled society can do is give them a chance.
To learn more about Travellers and the struggle for Traveller rights, visit https://itmtrav.ie.
EDEN GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.