Challenging prejudice in Ireland

Sindy Joyce began by providing the background on how things work for Irish Travellers in Ireland (more recently Roma).

Attitudes to Travellers in Ireland have been shaped by the 1963 Report of the Commission into Itineracy is one of the most racist document to describe and define us. The offensive term “itinerant” has been used for generations to perpetuate the myth that we are failed settled people. Assimilation the solution. 1922 the Irish Government emphasised Irish cultural identity, language, music, literature; unfortunately Irish culture did not embrace Minceir or Pavee culture. In the 1930 there was a project to clean the roadside camps in a bid to secure American investment; the aim was to hide or contain Travellers. In the 1940s and 50s lot of talk in government about us as failed and broken settled people. First halting sites were built from 1968, temporary, built in unsuitable places to hide and contain us. The aim was to make them uninhabitable so the families there would move into housing. In fact, many of the families of those who moved in originally, are still there.

Under the 1926 School Attendance Act parents could be imprisoned and their children removed from the family if their children did not attend school. But it was not applied to Traveller families until 1963. Then the aim was to educate children out of their community; children were taken away from families and put into industrial schools. All children were treated badly there,  but Travellers doubly so. They were beaten to “ beat the traveller out of you.” The children learned that their families were something to be ashamed of and when they left school they found themselves in limbo, trying to move away from their family, but having been abused, needing support. Educated travellers were told they didn’t have to be Travellers. As an educated Traveller am I expected to remove my Traveller face at the door and put it back at the end of the day?

In practice education doesn’t lead to employment or social acceptance. Nan Joyce, a woman activist and role model said  we are not creating change but giving a glimmer of hope of change.

Now Traveller girls are beginning to take on leadership roles within the schools, talking to younger children about the value of education. They are not embarrassed to still be in education at the age of  17-8. Involvement in academic education, human rights projects, are building our confidence to speak truth to power. Low expectations within community are recognised as the result of prejudice) and the myth of resistance to education is being broken.

Travellers tend not to learn Irish but it is required for teachers; a new scheme has been introduced for Irish Travellers, Roma and disadvantaged children to become teachers over a 4 year University course. The first Irish Traveller graduated in 2018; it is a proud moment but upsetting that she is the first.

We feel anger because of the way we have been treated but we’re accused of being angry violent people. This narrative which makes us feel shame. We’re not treated as individuals; the community is blamed for the actions of  any individual.  A friend said my work fighting for Traveller rights was undermined by another Traveller shooting his mouth off. This was an educated person who couldn’t see that the same generalisations are not made about majority communities.

There is another myth about the passivity of women. In fact women push boundaries; “Nothing about us without us” applies to women too. Our community is in crisis with  lack of employment and poor living conditions. There is no way forward apart from education.

Women and children are in the forefront of lobbying for educational change. Girls in school tell us how hard it is to explain to their teachers we’re an independent ethnicity not failed settled people. We’ve contacted four universities to do cultural awareness and anti-racist workshops for student teachers and as a result teachers are bringing that awareness into the classroom. For example, posters on their walls include Traveller children.

Austerity has had disproportionate effect on Traveller projects. The funding of many has been cut completely and the lowest cut is 85%. In 2017 Travellers were 50 times more likely to leave education early than other children with only 9% completing secondary education. 

I have just completed my PhD thesis. I had a difficult experience in University because I was not politically active, not academic. I was the only Traveller and I experienced discrimination but also support. My community support me although it was difficult for them to accept; they thought I would change and become a settled person. They are pleased I have become closer to the community; embracing it , learning about it.