Libération du Week-end du 12 et 13 janvier 2013. Photos : Alexandre Guirkinger.

Libération du Week-end du 12 et 13 janvier 2013. Photos : Alexandre Guirkinger.

Cet article est une traduction non-publiée en anglais de l’article « Travellers, comme une Eire de famille », paru dans Libération du 12 et 13 janvier 2013.

Texte et traduction Maïté Darnault, photos d’Alexandre Guirkinger.

Looking like blind sentinels, two abandoned caravans oversee the Spring Lane camp entrance. Twenty-three families, including more than 90 children live here. Down the small road, barracks and tin shacks flank the mobile homes, peat-fed stoves smoking out. A strange bivouac planted on the tarmac at the bottom of a former quarry, five minutes away from the center of Cork, the second largest city in Ireland.

Spring Lane residents are Travellers, also known as « Pavees », a nomadic indigenous community estimated at about 40,000 people in the Celtic island in 2010, 500 families in Cork today. They are native gypsies, plagued with the dissolution of their ancestral culture, relegated to the extreme margins of Irish society by a state logic hostile to wanderers.

For one or two generations, Travellers have not travelled much. They must settle for the limited space, both physical and symbolic, that is left for them to eke out a living and to witness the shreds of their traditions. Horse breeding, tin craft (which originates the derogatory nickname « tinkers »), seasonal labor : these tasks shaped centuries of travelling. But mechanization and industrialization – « the arrival of plastic », some say – have gradually destroyed these daily chores. In 2010, 76% of them lived in houses. What remains is the pride of a people who dream themselves special and continue to stand against the mistrust of the settled majority. For foreigners, it is difficult to distinguish – except for a tough accent and the stigma of poverty – these blond, brown or red hair, clear eyes gypsies from the « regular » Irish people. There is a good reason for this: a genetic study showed in 2011 that Travellers are among the first inhabitants of the island, undermining the claim that they descend from peasants thrown on the roads by the sixteenth century British colonial policy of land confiscation, and during the 1840 famine.

This new discovery echoes an assertion that some Travellers support groups have been claiming for a long time : their recognition as an ethnic minority. In order to drill a hole and access the basic rights often denied to them because of a commonplace form of racism entertained by the majority population, by representatives in power and fueled by the tabloid press. In 2011, Patrick Kissane, author of a Facebook page proposing to use Traveller babies as shark bait or for testing new vaccines, received a dismissal during a trial for incitement to racial hatred. In September 2012, the Irish Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, created a scandal by being personally involved in preventing the relocation of a Traveller family in his constituency.

Knackers”: this Irish slang word – it refers to an useless old horse –– is commonly employed to describe Travellers. “It’s like using the word nigger for a black person. If, out of 10 arrests on a Saturday night, one of them involves Travellers, you can be sure it’s the one that will make the headlines in the papers”, says John O’Sullivan, a Traveller men’s health development worker with the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG) in Cork. Health and education workshops, family support and advocacy, outreach work, meetings and report writing: John’s work is varied, depending on the situations that arise. His schedule is always busy though, just as for the rest of the workers in the TVG, an organisation that was created 20 years ago. Like most other groups that support Travellers in Ireland, the TVG is mostly led and ran by Travellers themselves.

In 1992, three young women met in their caravans, with their children in their arms : John’s sister, Chrissie O’Sullivan, Helen Casey and Anne Burke. At this time, in Cork, there was no organised support structure. « In the 90s, we were considered as a sub-culture of poverty, says Anne Burke, 46. And the authorities thought that if poverty was eliminated, the problem of Travellers would be solved. »

Since the second half of the twentieth century and the accelerated decline of their traditional activities, charity groups had supported these fervent Catholics. Some priests and nuns gave a semblance of education to the children – especially illustrated catechesis – and some parishioners had their sleeves up to « teach » women how to mother their babies and how to keep their homes. « We wanted to get out of this assistantship logic. But it was not easy to break with the traditional charity. Some church people were upset, vowing not to give us a penny any more. Some Travellers, who were happy with this system, did not understand why we were rising up, fearing for their grants. »

The group of women finally got the support of the University College of Cork, whereby the Social Policy Department launched a major study about the population of Travellers living in the city. The document, titled « Making Travellers Visible » and published in 1993, became a landmark. Hundreds of families opened their camps to researchers who collected figures and enabled people to speak out a grief that had been contained for a long time. « At the age of 24, for the first time, I dared to present myself as a Traveller to some settled people », recalls Anne Burke, moved. It is also at that age that she returned to school, after she had left education in the middle of the primary cycle, for training as a community worker.

If the purpose of this research was to guide the action of the Traveller Visibility Group and submit a list of recommendations to the government, it also helped to overcome the shame felt by Travellers about an endemic problem : illiteracy. Today, it seems still difficult to curb. Oral transmission and early marriages predominate. The education system, where school books never make any reference to Travellers’ history, continues to be problematic for Travellers. « Children are vulnerable and make easy targets, and there is not enough support for them to stay on and finish school », comments John O’Sullivan. In 2010, it was recorded that only half of the entire Traveller population (of which two-thirds are under 25 years old) have completed primary level education and only 5% have completed leaving certificate exams.

At 29 years, with a third level qualification, John O’Sullivan is an exception. John recounts a sometimes difficult journey : « There were times when I was showered when I got to school in the morning, on account of being a Traveller. When I was 5 or 6 years, starting primary school, settled and Traveller children were put in different classes. Traveller kids were given colouring pages and little more to do. » John spent two years in this « segregated school », before his mother made the decision to move him to another school. At the age of 7, John was the only Traveller child in his new school. « I was generally happy in class, because I was academic. » Around the same time, John’s family left the halting site where he and his five brothers and sisters grew up, to take a house in a Traveller specific housing estate. In the back gardens, a few caravans remained.

With Knocknaheeny, Carrigrohane Straight Road and Meelagh, Spring Lane is one of the four official Traveller sites in Cork. Unanimously it is the worst. Built on council land in 1988, it was intended to temporarily house ten families of the same clan (1) : Michael and Margaret McCarthy, and their nine children. One mobile home per household, with a bathroom in a unheated hut at the back. Since then, none of the facilities have been restored. However the number of inhabitants has steadily increased : the Traveller community’s birth rate exceeds the national average, already in the top three of the European Union. Thirteen additional families share the space wedged between the rock wall and a sloping field where horses graze. A double fence separates the grassy area from the neighbor parcelling. On the houses’ side, it is quite short and painted green. On the site side, a meter away, it is an old iron portcullis. « For eighteen years I’ve lived here, they never proposed me a house, smiles Brigid McCarthy, one of the mothers of Spring Lane camp. When the children were young, I would have loved it. They always asked why we did not have a hall, stairs, and separate rooms. »

Kieran McCarthy, Brigid’s husband, is gifted with his hands. He installed a small heater in the bathroom, a water mixer and a shower hose over the tub only furnished, 24 years ago, with hot and cold separate faucets. Made of a single aluminum block and without a seat, as in some motorway service areas, toilets are the originals from 1988. Kieran McCarthy has seven children, aged from 2 to 17 years old. In winter, the three youngest do not shower every day, because of the cold. Sometimes, he manages to work as a handyman. His family lives thanks to state aid, as an overwhelming majority of Travellers. In 2010, 96% of the women and 95% of the men were unemployed.

Most Traveller families have to manage with « around 300 euros a week to live on », says TVG worker John O’Sullivan. For his own part, his job is not just a job to make ends meet. It is a way of committing himself to support his own community as well as a way of showing that he is an active citizen. « I have bought a house and I pay taxes. This way, nobody can say that I am dependent on the State. I try to be a model for younger Travellers, I hope it can show them the benefit of staying in school which in turns enables you to have a job and not be dependent on social welfare benefits. »

Up until the 1970s and the 1980s, before the expansion of the welfare state, Travellers still managed to make their living with door-to-door trading and collecting scrap. But several laws, in the early 1990s, criminalized practices hitherto tolerated : roadside camping (Roads Act, 1993), horse breeding in urban areas (Control of Horses Act, 1996). The spiral of idleness did the rest : crime, addiction to alcohol and drugs, family violence. Compounded by limited access to care and help, due to a lack of information and traditional ways, these factors spur suicide and mortality rates well above the national average : Travellers are six times more likely to commit suicide, men live fifteen years less than settled men, and women twelve years less than their counterparts. Besides the, the increase in psychiatric illnesses results from the internalization of this pressure and the loss of identity. This is a doomy path that recalls the Aborigines’ one or the one of certain Native American tribes.

Previously, although they were seen as marginal, Travellers enjoyed a valuable role in the countryside, hawking news from farm to farm, weaving trade and social links between isolated areas. It was rarely about friendship, rather ties of familiarity. Of respect anyway. In those bygone days, small horses, the Piebalds, their favorite breed, pulled barrel-shaped trailers. Travellers used to travel around a county-restricted area, over long periods of time, which was punctuated by alternating crops and overwintering. The farmers’ women had esteem for Traveller women, who too delivered their babies on the wooden table of the household. Guardians of a sought craftsmanship, men were a source of robust labor to work in the fields. Life was tough, but the nomads had their place, the roadside, and a freedom that settled people sometimes envied.

From those days of wandering some fragments of folklore have survived. The dialect, called « Shelta » by linguists, is becoming lost though. John Keenan, 64, speaks it less and less, for lack of interlocutors. « And we keep horses as pets for children. » His clan – fifty people – was relocated in 2005 by the city council in Meelagh a part of Mahon, a distant suburb of Cork. Their old camp ground was turned into a parking mall. « Let’s say they were forced to move with soft hand », says Mary Hogan, one of the community workers of Cork Traveller Women’s Network, another support organization. In the first house of Meelagh estate, transformed into a meeting place, she organizes activities for all generations. In front of it, mobile homes and three buildings surround a bitumen courtyard, echoing the cries of the kids. 

They are not shy like the foals they ride with great ease. Horses remain one of the central pillars of Traveller culture: “ The skills and knowledge about horsemanship and sulki racing are passed on from father to son, John O’Sullivan explains. In the past, when Travellers lived in caravans on the road and did not have a fixed address or a bank account, horses were a family’s asset. The horse fairs enabled Travellers to form and strengthen alliances between families: many marriages would be arranged on those occasions. To this day, horse fairs set the pace around the calendar year and determine many social and family gatherings. »

Nineteen years ago, that is how Brigid and Kieran McCarthy met, before being allowed to court in the presence of a chaperone, then getting married in church and moving to Spring Lane. In the tiny cabin that is their two big boys’ room, some childish drawings of horses are pinned above the bunks. On the shelf, there are some medals and trophies. After Paddy, 17, who had the opportunity to box in Chicago in 2010, Oliver, 14, excels on the ring. Boxing is Travellers’ favorite sport; the community has already provided several winners to the national team of Ireland, such as Francis Barrett and Kenny Egan. Last October, the young Oliver McCarthy won a gold medal at the European School Championships of Anapa, in Russia. Every day after school, he trains more than three hours at the Cork Brian Dillon boxing club. The discipline of the body is seen as a salvation : « It keeps them out of trouble, drugs, alcohol, » says his mother. Is there a chance for Oliver to participate to the 2016 Olympic Games? « With the help of God », she asserts, radiant like a Madonna.

Today, the first battle for Travellers remains the recognition of their specificities. In the maternity wards, they are asked to identify themselves, because their babies suffer from a rare lactose intolerance (a risk out of 450, against about one out of 36,000 for the settlers). As a consequence of poverty and its direct outcomes, there are proportionally more Travellers in prisons, “however we do not possess any definite figures because of the absence of ethnicity statistics in prisons”, explains John O’Sullivan with regret – John also targets and supports Traveller men when they leave the prison system.

In Northern Ireland, the 4000 Travellers living on British soil were recognized as an ethnic minority through the Good Friday Agreement, which proclaimed in 1988 the right to self-identity to end three decades of confrontation between Catholics and Protestants. In the Republic of Ireland, the debate is far from being over, including within the Traveller community. Mincéirs Whiden, a Travellers-only national council of 21 members campaigns for this evolution. John O’Sullivan was recently elected to represent the South for two years. Activists fear yet another decline in public funding due to the economic crisis. The Traveller Visibility Group and Cork Traveller Women’s Network (CWTN) are mainly funded by the Department of Health. Always confined to the margin, Travellers have overall benefited little in recent decades from the boom of the Celtic Tiger.

« We’re supposed to support the overall health, says CWTN spokeswoman Brigid Carmody. But our work has changed dramatically over the past two years. We fight more and more for daily survival issues. » She tells the standoff between the Traveller community and the center-right city council of Cork, which has still not addressed the problems with the Spring Lane site flood which tested positive to one pathogenic strain of Escherichia coli seven months ago. « Spring Lane is a matter of basic human rights, » sighs Mary Hogan, the Meelagh community worker. In this site, enough space is provided for the stables. Rehousing programs offered by local authorities rarely do. Denying the attachment Travellers have to their horses, they encourage an inappropriate cohabitation between men and animals, that is sometimes a source of serious epidemics.

A wood-painted parade sulki racing yoke, occasionally still used : old John Keenan keeps this treasure at the back of his house. He knows the former nomadic way of life well. Looking at his heavenly blue eyes, we begin to guess what was his life path and to unreel, without a word, the Traveller memory tape. The man blinks and looks at the walls that demarcate the esate. Terminus ghetto.

(1) The term « clan » means extended families whose members all have the same name, regardless of the degree of kinship. In the county of Cork, there would be a dozen clans and name representative of the Travellers community of this region.