Missling on the Tobar
Traditional camps art project

This work is featured in the book Other Voices: Cultural Heritage & Society (launched 2022) as a national example of community led heritage work embodying the Faro Convention.

You can download the book here

Brigid Carmody Speech Other Voices launch

I am very proud to be here at the launch of “Other Stories, Culture, Heritage and Society”

I am delighted to be here today to talk about Traveller heritage and to have the Traveller heritage work of Cork Traveller Women’s Network being valued by ICOMOS and today’s book launch.

My community, the Irish Travellers are an ethnic minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries – our heritage is unique but it is also part of the heritage of Ireland and an important story worth recording and celebrating.

However Traveller heritage has been neglected, overlooked and misrepresented (like the history of many minority groups). Its still not taught in schools and it is only very recently that cultural institutions like museums are reaching out to value our heritage. This is why the community led heritage work of Traveller activists and organisations around Ireland is so important. We are carving our new ways and spaces to tell our story

I coordinate a community organisation called Cork Traveller Women’s Network. We are a grass roots network of Traveller women working for Traveller rights in Cork. And Community led heritage is part of our core work.

To understand our heritage work better, I need to explain a little about the recent history of Irish Travellers. In 1963 the government of the day launched the Commission on Itinerancy report – this report saw Travellers – not as a people with a unique culture and important nomadic way of life, but as a problem to be fixed. And the solution they set about putting into place, was to settle Travellers by ending our nomadic way of life, forcing us off the roadsides and into houses so they could civilise us. This was national government policy for 20 years and was followed by other laws that have made traditional travelling illegal for my community.
This has had a huge impact on Travellers in Ireland.

Through my work with Cork Traveller Network, I realised that there was a very important role for community organisations in recording, celebrating and protecting our heritage.

We want this story and work to be there for our younger Travellers so they can understand their roots and be proud of them

We want to showcase our talents and traditional crafts

We want to share our story with people from outside the community so they will understand us and who we are.

Back in 2005, Cork city was awarded the European Capital of Culture, Cork Traveller Women’s Network was awarded funding for our first big heritage project – building a traditional barreltop wagon – we worked with older and younger Travellers to create the wagon – which now sits in Cork Public Museum today – but as well as building the wagon we saw the power of community heritage projects to record oral history, revive traditional crafts, value the skills with in the community, tell our story and create pride in our identity.

The barreltop wagon is a symbol of pride for Travellers – its connected to our nomadic roots – from a time when our community was free to travel. Wagons were also a traditional craft and many of them were very eye catching. To have a well painted was a source of pride for a Traveller.

So the photo you see here on display has barreltops – does anyone recognise where this photo was taken?
Very close to here, on the Coal Quays.
The photo was taken over 90 years ago in August 1931 on a Saturday afternoon. We don’t know who the people in the photograph are, but we do know thanks to the Irish Examiner for taking this photo, that Travellers visited the Coal Quay market and stayed for the afternoon selling their wares and moved on again that day.

This photo was taken at a time when Travellers were nomadic, so moving around would have been the way of life. The people in the photo could have been going some place to trade, to visit and meet family or to a horse fair – they might have even been coming back from Puck Fair.

What also stands out, is that when this photo was printed in the Irish Examiner, it was shown on a page full of summer activities in Cork that week, alongside photos of boats in the harbour, people playing tennis, people having summer fun – normal nice summer things.

Can you imagine what would happen if a group of Travellers turned up unannounced at the Saturday market in caravans and started trading today?
Would we be photographed for the paper as part of something nice and unusual that happened or We would be moved on instantly?

The other interesting thing we found out about this photo is that the newspaper caption that was with it says “Gypses camping on the coal quays”. While it is possible that English gypsies visited the coal quays in 1931 – its much more likely that the people in this photo were Travellers.

Again this is why its important that our community is involved in telling our heritage story. This photo tells so much – but we need to be part of telling the story too

But back to the book launch. When I was interviewed by Work House Union back in 2019, it was about our Missling on the Tobar art and heritage project
We have brought it here for you to see with the leaflet that accompanies it.

The leaflet which maps 24 traditional Traveller camp sites in and around Cork was researched by Mags O’Sullivan of the Cork Traveller Women’s Network. She interviewed older Travellers from across the city – who lived that nomadic life, gathering information on the traditional sites that they camped. A camp was a safe place to park your wagon and rest your animals, to meet with other families and places that families would come back to every year. These places are part of the history and heritage of Travellers and part of the story of Cork. We were delighted to be able to design and print the leaflet with support from the Cork city council Local Heritage fund

This work is important as it is not being recorded any place else and it will be lost if it’s not recorded.

So from the leaflet came the Soil Art project. We had heard about something similar by a Traveller & Gypsy group in England called LeedsGATE – where they were also looking at old stopping places, mapping them and honouring them. The project in leeds had taken it a step further and collected soil from their camp sites to preserve it and I knew instantly that this would be an important thing for us to do in Cork.

The reason why we thought this is so important is because, out of the 24 campsites on the leaflet, which were Traveller run spaces, from a time when our community were free to travel, there are now only 5 extremely overcrowded council run halting sites in Cork today.

Most of our camping sites have been built on for other purposes, turned into shopping centres and roundabouts and most people who pass them by today have no idea of the history, that generations of Travellers lived there and lived a very good life, of family, of work, of traditions, of children being born on this land and people dying there, of camp fires, cooking, stories and songs.

The traditional camp sites are gone, but not because Travellers didn’t want this life or no longer used them. This change was imposed by the government. The settlement agenda of the Irish government forced Travellers into halting sites and off the road and this is part of our community’s history.

Gathering soil from our camping places was about reclaiming some of that land back for our community – even in a symbolic way. It is about being able to hold onto a piece of our land that was occupied by our community for so long

If we cant put Travellers back on this land, we want to gather some pieces of it, to preserve them to keep our story alive and that is what the Missling on the Tobar soil art project is about

And we are delighted to have this story featured in the book alongside other valuable heritage projects

Bridget Carmody, 2022