In the 1992 film Into the West, two motherless Traveller boys, Tayto and Oisín, live in a grim tower block in Ballymun with their father, a former Traveller ‘King’.
When the boys’ grandfather, a traditional Traveller who regales the spell-bound children with Irish folklore, is followed home one night by a beautiful white horse called Tír na nÓg (‘Land of Eternal Youth’ in Irish), the boys dream of becoming cowboys.
They escape their poverty-stricken north Dublin council estate and ride off into the west of Ireland, where they discover that Tír na nÓg is far more than just a horse.
It’s a beautiful and heart-rending story which marries the ancient traditions of the Travelling people with the dreary realities of modern-day poverty in a local authority tower-block.
It’s clear from the very first scenes of this film that the boys’ family lives outside the norms of settled culture.
Yet 30 years after it began, Travellers have still not won their campaign to be recognised as an ethnic minority rather than as merely a problematic sub-culture of the greater Irish settled community — which is how many perceive them.
Speaking in the Dáil earlier this week, the minister of state with responsibility for new communities, culture, and equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, declared that Travellers were a distinct ethnic group and deserved recognition in that regard.
He was speaking on a Sinn Féin private members motion seeking more rights for Travellers.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, an ethnic minority is “a group of people from a particular culture or of a particular race living in a country where the main group is of a different culture or race”. The Institute of Race Relations in the UK defines it as “a group of people whose members identify with each other through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, common culture (which can include a religion) and or an ideology which stresses a common ancestry”.
For Pavee Point, the Traveller support group, ethnicity is about a shared history, a common cultural tradition, common geographical origin, descent from common ancestors, a common language, common religion, a distinct group within larger society.
Travellers have the characteristics of an ethnic minority, argues Caoimhe McCabe, of Pavee Point.
They have their own language, Cant, or Gammon, which McCabe acknowledges is “not used as much as it was”, — in fact, she compares it to the way the settled community use Irish.
“People still use it; in fact Pavee is a Cant word meaning travellers,” says McCabe. “Cant has a whole vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, and there are teachers of Cant who promote the cultural side of it.”
In terms of lifestyle, most Travellers still marry within the community, says McCabe, and these blood networks are very strong — although this is as much for economic reasons as it is about the family tree, she explains.
Travellers are also known for being deeply religious and for marrying their daughters off as young as 16 or 17, again usually within the Traveller community.
“There are very strong divisions between male and female and you rarely see Traveller girls mixing with settled boys,” says one experienced community worker who has spent years engaging with the Travelling community.
Artist Leanne McDonagh, 25, believes ethnicity refers to an “inherited status” — and says she has inherited such a status from past generations.
“As an Irish Traveller, I am part of a socially defined group of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral and social experiences,” she says. “We also have a shared history, set of traditions and a language, which unfortunately is a dying one.
“Hence you would imagine that the country of my birth would acknowledge my ethnicity but this is not the case. Instead they have aimed at assimilation and have referred to Travellers as a problem within Irish society, repeatedly failing to acknowledge or value our way of life.”
However, the traditionally nomadic, colourful aspect of the Traveller lifestyle is waning.
The majority of Travellers are now settled, says Pavee Point’s co-director Martin Collins, who points to the existence of 2002 legislation which criminalises nomadism, but adds that a “small number” still travel during the summer months.
The colourful oral story-telling tradition is also dying out while the number of Travelling children attending primary school — traditionally many didn’t attend — has risen to nearly 70% in 2011 according to the Central Statistics Office, although attendance at second- and third-level is still very low.
Travellers are eligible for the same welfare benefits as settled people — unemployment amongst Travellers stands at more than 84%, according to the Central Statistics Office.
In some cases, they even receive better support than the settled community — take the special government employment initiatives under which , according to one experienced voluntary worker, Travellers are recognised as a special group, and get more help from job coaches than their peers in the general population.
The Travelling community has its problems — the infant mortality rate in the Traveller community is nearly four times as high as it in settled families, according to a 2011 study.
Domestic violence is a significant issue for Traveller women, according to a UCD report in 2010 — the researchers said that while there was no evidence to suggest it was more or less prevalent than in the settled community, the general legal and support mechanisms available to settled women were not as effective for Traveller women.
This was because of “structural and cultural factors in the systems themselves and in the Traveller community”.
“Travellers often feel they are hard-done by society but they don’t all want a handout — the women have been great grafters,” says another source who has spent decades working closely with Travellers.
“They’ve gone out and got educated and are often leaders in their communities, but there’s a lot of violence towards women in the Traveller community because the women are progressing themselves and taking on responsibility and the men feel a bit side-lined.
“Violence in the community is quite huge towards women; there’s resentment against women and they’re being physically and mentally abused.
“It’s all kept invisible, the women don’t talk about it, they don’t discuss it, mostly because of fear of reprisal,” says this source, adding however, that this abuse of women is often the basis of family feuds.
“I’d often hear about a fight over a female — one guy would be a brother standing up for his sister who is being beaten by the husband,” says the source.
Given that so many of them are settled in local authority housing, receive social welfare, send their children to primary school at least, and don’t speak much Cant, what benefits would an ethnic minority designation hold for Travellers?
“Just because a Traveller goes to school it doesn’t mean he or she is any less a Traveller — and just because Cant is not used day-to-day doesn’t mean the people are not Travellers,” argues McCabe.
If the State recognised Traveller ethnicity, it would put to bed the notion that Travellers need to be ‘normalised’, something which would help the community’s self-esteem,” says Martin Collins.
Besides that, having the right to travel would also have implications for the availability of proper facilities — improved halting sites, and more and better transient sites.
It could also result in the Traveller culture finally being validated, or at least acknowledged, in the Irish education system, he says.
But some would argue that Travellers have already been given enough.
The depth of the opposition by local residents to proposals to settle Traveller families temporarily in their area following the Carrickmines fire in which 10 lives were lost shocked many — but surprised few.
The demonstrations graphically illustrated the fear of, and hostility towards, Travellers felt by the settled community, many of whom believe Travellers are intimately linked to the waves of criminality and violence rolling across Ireland today.
“People are afraid of them,” says one voluntary worker who engaged with Travellers for four decades.
“More and more, this sub-culture of criminality is coming to the fore in Travellers, particularly young men.
“They see nothing wrong with it; some Travellers see it as a way of getting back at a society which they believe has neglected them.
“There’s a chip on the shoulder, there’s a feeling of being put down by the settled community and this is their way of getting back at them.
“Some Travellers I’d know as very decent, generous people but there are others I wouldn’t stay in the same room with because they’re so volatile, angry and violent.
“I think the law can be a bit soft. When they need to be arrested and taught a lesson, there are all these arguments against handing down a tough sentence — the poverty, the lack of education, the hard life — made by the Traveller’s solicitor and they may get a suspended or a shorter sentence. They know the system and they play it.”
Some people fear that giving Travellers a cultural status would increase what is believed to be a sense of impunity regarding the law.
However, Collins describes as “outlandish and outrageous” claims that officially recognising Travellers’ ethnicity officially would increase any sense of impunity to the law.
“I’ve had my house broken into, my car and three push bikes taken by members of the settled community and I am not tarring the whole community with the brush of criminality,” he says.
“I accept that we have criminals and I accept that people who commit crime must be held to account, but a concern I have is that too often the media paint the entire community as thugs and con artists.”