A short history
Travellers traditionally made a living moving from place to place by trading crafts and animals, along with other creative and manual jobs.
Travellers are known to have had a central role in the development of traditional Irish music, particularly fiddle playing and uileann piping. For generations, Travellers brought songs and stories from town to town and developed unique styles of singing, storytelling and playing musical instruments.
Today there are 31,000 Travellers in Ireland (making up 0.7% of the national population). 15,000 Irish Travellers also live in Britain and an additional 10,000 Travellers of Irish descent live in the US.
Culture is never fixed and but constantly changes and evolves over time, mixing old traditions with new ideas.
Traveller culture is also constantly changing and adapting. Some changes are linked to the changes that happen in all cultures over time. Other changes were forced on the community, for example changes in the law have effectively criminalised Traveller nomadism; other laws have negatively affected market trading and horse ownership. This has mean that long standing Traveller traditions have become very difficult. This has had a serious impact on the community.
Despite this, Travellers still see ourselves as Travellers and show pride in Traveller identity, culture and heritage.
Key parts of Traveller culture today include shared nomadic history and cultural understandings, shared use of language, strong values built around extended families. Horse ownership is a strong tradition and symbol of Traveller culture.
Campaign for Cultural recognition
On the first of March 2017, after a long campaign by Traveller activists and allies, Travellers were recognised by the Irish government as a distinct ethnic group with a unique and valuable heritage, language, culture and identity.
Although ethnic recognition might be seen as mainly symbolic, it marks an end to the historic denial of Traveller culture and has set in motion other positive developments.
Traveller language, known as Cant or Gammon was included in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage listings in 2019, along with the Traveller craft of tin-smithing. This means that the government agrees to protect, promote and celebrate these elements of Traveller culture, on a par with wider Irish cultural practices.
Another positive has been national work to include Traveller culture and history into the official school curriculum for the first time.
Exclusion of Travellers
Travellers as a community and as individuals experience a high level of prejudice and exclusion in Ireland
Many families are forced to live in overcrowded homes and extremely poor living conditions, including Traveller sites without access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water or electricity.
This leads to ongoing health problems for the Traveller community. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010 found that Traveller men live on average 15 years less than their settled peers and Traveller women live on average 11 years less than their settled peers. The suicide rate for Travellers is 7 times higher than the national average and accounts for 11% of all Traveller deaths.
Discrimination and exclusion are a lifelong experiences for Travellers. Anti Traveller discrimination has been called the last acceptable form of racism in Ireland.
Challenging the Myths
- Travellers are not settled people pushed off their lands during famine times. All research points to Traveller roots being much older, as an indigenous ethnic group.
- A person cannot become a Traveller; they have to be born into the Traveller community
- Travellers who live in houses are still Travellers (there is no such thing as a settled Traveller).