Dr. Sindy Joyce took over the ICCL twitter account on Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) Day on 29 November 2018 as part of the Front Line Defenders #WHRDtakeover. Here we compile her tweets from that day together.
Mincéirs (Irish Travellers) are a traditionally nomadic ethnic minority indigenous to Ireland, distinct from the majority Irish population. Throughout history, varied terminology was used to describe us such as ‘Tinker/Tynkr’, ‘Itinerant’, and ‘Gypsy’. Mincéir is our true name in our own language i.e. Cant/Gammon, Traveller is a term put onto us because of our nomadic identity. The first mention of us is in the 5th century where we are called ‘whitesmiths’ because of our association with tin-smithing. However, our history is largely unrecorded, partly due to our oral tradition and state historical neglect.
Although the vast majority are no longer nomadic, it is still a vital part of identity and culture. Liégeois (1994, p.79) noted:
“whereas a sedentary person retains a sedentary mind-set even when travelling, Gypsies and Travellers, even when not travelling remain nomadic. Even when they stop they are still Travelling People”.
Globally, clashes of culture between nomadic and sedentary populations have a long history (McVeigh 2007 and 2012). As property-less people nomadic groups including Mincéirs had no right to be included within the political or moral structures of European societies. Nomads were and are othered and viewed with suspicion. In most societies today nomadic peoples face extreme discrimination. According to Khazanov (1994), since the dawn of mankind there has been a violent confrontation between two lifestyles: the settled and the nomadic way of life. The battle between Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the herder, is often viewed as an illustration of this violent clash.
The clash between settled and nomadic populations is often at the root of violent conflicts, and time and again at the heart of such confrontation is the issue of the sharing of lands between nomadic and sedentary peoples. In Ireland, anti-nomadic legalisation was introduced by the British during the 1500’s, which penalised and criminalised our nomadic lives and represented us as rogues and criminals, ‘reflecting the bias of the sedentary population’.
1522: King Edward passed an “Acte for Tynkers and Pedlars” which stated
“no person or persons called tynker, pedlar or pety chapman shall wander or go from one towne to another or from place to place out of the towne, parish or village”.
Theories coming from the Enlightenment, European philosophy and social sciences contributed to the domination of nomadic societies which justified the marginalization of nomadic groups including Mincéirs. Fianna Fail’s victory 1932 and the 1930s economic war effected the social status and the living standards of the Irish urban working-class and Mincéirs. The School Attendance Act (1926), Street Trading Act (1926), Housing Act (1931), Road Traffic Act (1933), Litter byelaws (1938), Unemployment Act (1938), all had a social effect on living conditions. Since Mincéirs practically never stayed in an area for long periods of time (nomadic), the School Attendance Act, although we were not forced to accept the Act, had considerable consequences on education in the long run. The Street Trading Act made it difficult for those who relied on trading in markets for employment, as a licence was needed to trade. These factors, along with the growth in the manufacturing market and a decline in labour within the agriculture sector, made it necessary for some Mincéirs to move from rural into urban areas. For some this was perhaps the beginning of settlement as Travellers began to reside in urban areas for sustained periods of time.
Almost immediately after the establishment of the new ‘Irish Free State’ government officials concentrated on State building. Since the land was needed by the State to build upon, more and more of our traditional camping grounds were disrupted by the local gàrda and council. As early as the1930s, conflicts of land usage became the main dispute between us and the sedentary population.
Previous to the new ‘Irish Free State’, Irish people were portrayed as nomads, beggars, ignorant, uneducated, backward, superstitious, drunk and violent people, a discourse which was entirely transferred onto us. Our nomadism was a constant reminder of the past and there was no room for us in a new Ireland, the dominant populace were embarrassed with their past and wanted to show case a new national image that moves away from the old stereotypical image. For that element of the past to be eliminated it was imperative to rid Ireland of nomadism and settlement became a vital operation. As State building and nationalism continued to expand we began to feel the burden of society’s attitude towards us and our nomadic existence. Public housing was at the top of the agenda in social policies and a total of 48,875 public houses were constructed between 1933 and 1943.
Nomadism was frowned upon and attitudes to us got worse. By 1961 numerous local authorities had received many tenancy applications by Mincéirs (before forced settlement) and many families were taken off the list on the basis that the council was not prepared to house families of the ‘itinerant’ class.
Through the inter-war years and for some time after, the trades of Mincéirs were fundamental aspects of the Irish rural economy. Travelling around the countryside with tents and wagons while providing such essential crafts as tin-smithing, horse dealing, chimney-cleaning, selling domestic ware (hawking), carpentry, and seasonal agricultural labour, Mincéirs were a vital part in the rural economy. Rural depopulation increased mobility on the part of the rural community, while the advent of plastic, increased mechanisation, urbanisation, and government policy ensured that our way of life changed profoundly. The economic and social relationship between us and the sedentary population also rapidly declined. In the face of such dramatic changes, we were forced to migrate into more urbanized areas where we were not quite as welcome as we had once been in rural Ireland in previous decades. Perhaps the most significant and immediate impact on us related to the issue of accommodation, and the attendant introduction of many laws and restrictions on camping and mobility as outlined in the 1963 report.
Racism and discrimination in urban areas was rife and most of the sedentary population did not want to live alongside us, there were many protests against us moving into cities and towns, thus the government of Ireland decided to intervene in what they termed the “Traveller Problem”. In the 1960s, American businessmen began to take an interest in Ireland as a location for the commercial expansion of factories and the last thing the Irish government wanted was for them to observe the many camps dotting the countryside upon their arrival here as it would provide an ‘old’ image of Ireland. Authorities soon came up with “a solution”and in 1963 one of the most significant and racist reports ever produced in relation to Ireland’s indigenous community was published.
It was the first Irish government report in relation to us and its commission had no Mincéir representative or had no contact with the community. On the 1st of July, 1960, the inaugural meeting of the commission was held in the Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin. Mr Chares J. Haughey addressed the members of the commission where he stated that
“there could be no ‘final solution’ until itinerant families were absorbed into the general community”.
Many recommendations were published with the report including “to register the whole community, to prohibit tent dwellings where the police could enforce fines and/or prison sentences, to induce them to settle by offering unemployment assistance to those who settle for at least 12 months”. The whole aim of the report was “rehabilitation” and the hope for eventual “absorption” into the sedentary population. Restrictions on our economic activities resulted in many of us living in poverty with no State assistance and, according to government, this poverty was equated to nomadism.
The 1963 Report of the Commission on Itineracy was produced to “enquire into the problems arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers” (p.110). Framing us as a ‘problem’ from the beginning, it codified the State’s ideological opposition to nomadism in a manner which had not previously existed. The majority of the Irish public accepted the report with ignorance and as beneficial for Travellers. For example, a reader’s letter to The Evening Press in 1964 entitled ‘Homes for Itinerants’ read:
“The people of the countryside is to be congratulated on the constructive way in which it has set about helping itinerants. It is only by offering homes and the opportunities of leading a normal life that there is any chance of the itinerants becoming normal members of society”.
So we were not seen as ‘normal members of society’.
Not only were we experiencing the effects of the 1963 report from local authorities who attempted to force us into settlement but, also the ordinary people of Ireland had decided to turn their back on us. As the late 60s and early 70s approached several acts and regulations were produced to assist in the commission’s aim of ‘settlement’, ‘assimilation’ and eventual ‘absorption’. And to aid this aim the operation of caravan sites was introduced in 1968 where Halting sites were introduced, these were only meant to act as temporary to ease to the community into settlement however some families that moved onto these sites never moved off again and some are still in operation today. The first halting site to be built was Labre Park, ironically called after Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, saint for the homeless, beggars and the mentally ill. The government stated that the “provision of these sites should only be the first step of stabilization and absorption”.
At the core of anti-Traveller racism is the assumption that nomadism is not a valid way of life. The State response has been to outlaw it and measures taken have been to “assimilate/absorb” us to stop us from being who we are, the dominant powers viewed as ‘less than’ or ‘inferior’ than the majority population, they viewed us as people that were somehow ‘failed settled people’ or ‘broken’ in that we needed to be ‘fixed’ and ‘aided’ in becoming ‘settled’ which can easily be defined as cultural and ethnic genocide.
Since our identity was viewed as ‘inferior’, the next stage is denial of that identity and the assimilation of us. Assimilation is an institutional response to ethnicity denial, which leads to the issues we see today. From this what is often referred to as “Failure in delivery” of services and resources, is in fact, a successful policy of identity denial and anti-Traveller racism. Research has shown that we are the most discriminated and marginalized people in Ireland. The Millward Brown IMS study 2004 (for the KNOW racism campaign) found the majority population to have negative attitudes towards us with 72% of the population agreeing that they were not willing to accept us among them, 13% agreed that we should have less rights and 23% agreed that our life and culture should be abolished. Farrel and Watt (2001) say “if groups do experience racism in Ireland, it was somehow their own fault arising either from some form of deficiency on their part and/or the failure of such groups, in particular the Traveller community, to allow themselves to be subsumed into Irish society”. As Fanning (2002) puts it,
“the rights of Travellers are called into question within a one-sided communitarianism (linking of rights to responsibilities) which suggests that the dominant community is entitled to exclude Travellers until they demonstrate compliance with the standards and cultural norms of the dominant settled community”.
Doctor Sindy Joyce is a Human Rights Defender (HRD). She has a B.A in English and History and a Masters in Sociology. She was the module coordinator and lecturer in ‘Travellers, Rights and Nomadism’ and ‘Travellers, Ethnicity and Rights’ in University College Dublin with the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice. Her research interests include both direct and indirect forms of racism, ethnicity/identity, social/political constructions of Irish Travellers and the production of space related inequalities. Sindy won the 2014 Traveller Pride Award for Education. Her PhD title was Mincéirs Siúladh: An ethnographic study of young Travellers’ experiences of racism in urban space. Her research addresses the original and important question of how anti-Traveller racism shapes young people’s use of and movement through public space. Sindy was co-supervised by Dr. Amanda Haynes and Dr. Martin Power of the Department of Sociology, University of Limerick. Sindy was successful in winning the prestigious Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme with a top score of 95.5%. Sindy’s publications include:
2013: Seminar Review of “Imogen Tyler: Revolting subjects: eviction and occupation in neoliberal Britain”, Socheolas: Limerick student of sociology, 5(1), Available: http://www3.ul.ie/sociology/socheolas/vol5/1/Sindy%20Joyce.pdf
Joyce, Sindy (2015) ‘Divided Spaces: An examination of everyday racism and its impact on young Travellers’ spatial mobility’ in Cuffe, J.B. ed.,Irish Journal of Anthropology, 18(1), ISSN:1393-8592
Joyce, S.et al (2017) ‘Anti-Traveller and anti-Roma Hate Crime in Ireland’, in Haynes, A., Schweppe, J., and Taylor, S. eds. Critical Perspectives on Hate Crime: An Irish Perspective, London: Palgrave Macmillan.