The Road Behind and the Road Ahead Following Ethnicity Recognition
By Dr David Jo Murphy
“May all the people of our nation live in the shelter and never in the shadow of each other” (Enda Kenny Dáil Eireann 1/3/2017).
Now that the proud day has passed and the last three decades of campaigning have borne fruit, it is time to build on the momentum generated through the official recognition of Traveller ethnicity. Now is a time to focus energy on the survival of Travellers’ unique ethnic identity, and the promotion of positive ways of living and preserving culture and traditions. In the words of Martin Collins (Pavee Point) “when Travellers are recognised as a minority ethnic group it would allow members of our community to plan for our future.” This is an important moment because the State’s consistent refusal up to this point to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority stems from decades of forced integration and hostility towards the practices and lifestyles in which Travellers themselves wished to live.
It has been a long and hard fought campaign for ethnicity recognition. This campaign really came to the fore in the 1990s with Nan Joyce’s and other people’s actions providing a brave focus point that spearheaded a movement for meaningful equality, and other political actions. Over the same period Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement provided a backbone of support that drew on the shared experience of other indigenous and ethnic minority movements throughout the world. Their success lay in their effective evidence and rights based campaigns to advance Traveller rights and culture.
Academic support also materialised in a useful way during this period. In the early 1990s Travellers took part in one of the first non-voyeuristic Irish anthropological conferences on Traveller culture. This was a much-needed shift from academics talking about Travellers, to academics listening to Travellers who are experts on their own culture such as Michael McDonagh from the Meath Traveller Workshop. Although the campaign for ethnicity recognition seems to be a modern phenomenon its origins can be traced back to older cultural identity movements in Ireland and abroad. At various times in history different people have turned internally to their cultural identity as a source of inspiration for a better future.
During the decades leading to 1916 and the foundation of the Irish State there was a massive cultural revival, this fed into the desire to no longer be governed by a foreign empire. The Gaelic cultural revival involved story-tellers and collectors descending on the farms and firesides of rural Ireland especially on the islands off the west coast. These people had a missionary zeal to collect and create a unifying sense of ‘Irishness’ that could be shared equally between the rural peasant Donegaller and the tenement dwelling Dubliner. This was not a phenomenon unique to Ireland. The Communist revolution in Russia was also sparked by similar desires to create something in the image of the people who lived on the land, as opposed to sustaining what were often foreign elites in their mansions and palaces.
This process was slightly different in Britain, and what took place there is what could be called the Kings and Queens dressing in the national ‘drag’ outfit. What I mean here is that Britain’s cherished royal family, were (are) largely of German and European ancestry so in order to ‘fit in’ and embody a sense of Britishness they began to start wearing what they ‘imagined’ were British fashions and historical ways of dressing.
This period in history (19th Century) also saw similar cultural revivals and inventions around Europe and in many countries a ‘national costume’ was developed by adapting rural peasant style clothes (with a smattering of military regalia for the ruling classes) into a formalised ‘national costume’. Many of the things that we take for granted as national identity were invented quite recently, for example Scottish tartan and kilts were invented as a form of national dress for royal visits, and the St Patrick’s Day parade was invented in America by the descendants of mostly Protestant Irish immigrants.
The ‘beady pocket’ is an item of Travellers’ traditional dress that has undergone a revival in recent years.
Just because something is not inherently ancient and is more obviously invented, does not make it a bad thing. It would be difficult nowadays to reinvent ancient ways of living and dressing, but it does not mean that we shouldn’t try. The ‘beady pocket’ is an item of Travellers’ traditional dress that has undergone a revival in recent years. It gained national attention a few years ago when it was redesigned by Ann-Rose Mongan and sold in the Kilkenny Design Centre as a high value fashion item. This was a wonderfully imaginative act that ‘revalued’ an old-fashioned object and made it relevant today. The same could also take place with other traditional Traveller crafts and I’ve seen some excellent examples of this at Traveller Pride events. For example a group of young lads from Tipperary made some fantastic flat pack build-it-yourself barrel wagons for their Christmas market and the skills of tin smiths have absolutely captivated audiences as they transform sheet metal into beautiful practical household items.
At Traveller Pride celebrations all around the country each year it is possible to see other examples of Traveller craft and culture being brought to life, shared and celebrated amongst the wider community. There is nothing preventing the craft of tin smiting undergoing a similar cultural revival. People love and appreciate craft and creativity, even more so when there is a proud and interesting tradition associated with it. There are always objects and ideas that can be repurposed for the future of a community, when it is cherished and recognised as unique and valued. This put communities in a much stronger position to reinvent, reinvigorate themselves and thrive.
Since the collapse of mainstream political parties and the dwindling numbers of people using religion as a form of identity, people are increasingly turning to ethnicity and authenticity as a resource and source of inspiration to identify with. The official recognition of ethnicity should be used to redress some of the harm caused by destructive policies of assimilation and create opportunities for Travellers of all ages to reconnect with their past in order to inspire their future.
For example, if I want to learn Irish I can attend night classes, children learn it in schools, along with an ideological version of Irish history that in the past pretended that the Irish were more uniform and homogenous than we truly were and are. Unfortunately for Travellers there are no schools teaching their children about whom they are or where they came from, there are no night classes to re-connect with aspects of Traveller culture that are disappearing.
This is the perfect moment to energise a new Traveller cultural revival
This is the perfect moment to energise a new Traveller cultural revival. Using the peer-researcher method developed in the AITHS research, Travellers could be resourced to go out among their communities to re-connect and to collect the stories, songs, rare words and ways of living that in the past were practically forbidden. It is not just the results of a cultural revival that are important, but also the process. This is a process that could bring people together and share in the knowledge that finally the State recognises and values Traveller ethnicity.
It is time to press the state and educational institutions to develop Traveller education departments. Traveller identity and culture should be a course on offer in all universities that provide courses on Irish history, language and identity. There is already a growing body of Traveller authored literature, poetry, songs and film which is well developed enough to provide insight, to challenge old assumptions and to inspire future generations. Now is the time to stand proud and develop ethnicity as a resource that can enhance life and sustain the Traveller community at the heart of the Irish cultural experience.