(While I’d originally intended to publish this on 8th March, for International Women’s Day, various events intervened. Still, it’s never a bad day to celebrate the work of women, as they bend the arc of history towards justice.)
Several recent news stories have caused me to reflect on women in my life who have been working, in different ways, for social justice.
Over the last several weeks, news has spread globally about the finding of the remains of infants and children (with age estimates ranging 35 weeks gestational age to three years old) in what appears to be a septic tank on the grounds of a former ‘mother and babies’ home in Tuam. While the location and method of burial – an unofficial, unmarked cemetery, perhaps a mass grave – has attracted particular attention, this development draws attention (again) to broader questions, which have surfaced repeatedly over the last several decades. It draws attention to the way we treated women, particularly those who got pregnant outside of marriage – something that has been dealt with episodically in Irish current affairs, but each time tucked back into the recesses of public space. One particular piece, in The Guardian, drew attention to the treatment of children of mixed race – something that made them less likely to be adopted by American Catholic families seeking ‘authentic’ Irish Catholic children. My aunt published a wonderful collection documenting the experiences of mixed-race children who grew up in Ireland, largely over a slightly later period, My Eyes Only Look Out. It’s an important piece of journalism that gives a space for these people to tell their own stories.
Another piece of social justice news – this a bit more cheerful – was the recognition, by the Irish government, of the Travelling Community as an ethnic group. It has been a key goal of Traveller activists for quite some time, as part of a broader campaign seeking to defend their human rights. My mother’s PhD thesis, completed in 2014, focused on parental involvement in Traveller Preschools, and identified the manner in which these schools were viewed as ‘protected enclaves’ by parents, places where young Travellers could start their educations, grounded in their own communities. A big part of what stands out for me in the work is the pride parents have in their identity as Travellers, and how this ties into their experiences of, and relationships to, education. It’s another example of story-telling, of giving space for voice. As Nick Couldry argues, “the offer of effective voice is crucial to the legitimacy of modern democracies.” It is important that people get to give voice to their own experiences, and for such narratives to be woven into the reflective and analytical pieces that can integrate them into policy, into cultural form, into history.
Here’s some of what the parents my mother spoke with had to say about being Travellers:
Parents said they were proud to be members of the Traveller community. Even in the face of discrimination and marginalisation, they were proud of their identity. They had a strong sense of being the bearers of a long and rich tradition. They had survived adversity and they saw themselves as a distinct group with cultural norms which they held in high regard. This pride was expressed by Sally (parent, Cuanmara) when she said: “I’m proud of who I am and would never change that for anything in the world … But I’m happy.” Lucy (parent, Lisnashee) also expressed pride in being a Traveller: “I feel very proud, it doesn’t bother me who I am to be honest … I am who I am.”
Although they spoke with pride in their Traveller identity, many qualified their feeling of pride with a fatalism which indicated that, whether or not it was convenient, they were Travellers and this could not be changed. Deirdre (parent and childcare worker, Liosbeag) was emphatic in saying, “you are what you are and that’s it … you are born what you are and you die what you are,” while Sara (parent, Castletown) declared: “Everyone is happy with their own culture and we can’t change it no matter what we are.” Similarly, Lisa (parent, Seanbaile) stated: “You are what you are. I like my children to know they are Travellers, ‘cause you cannot make yourself something you are not”, while Tara (parent, Avonard) said in relation to her children that “if they found out they are Travellers, what can they really do about it, like”.
Some of the fatalism seemed to be linked to an awareness of the negative view of Travellers often held by settled people. When talking about their identity as Travellers some did introduce the notion of shame, to deny that they themselves felt any shame. Tom (parent, Seanbaile) said: “I’ve never been ashamed, like, of who I am or what I am” and Deirdre (parent and childcare worker, Liosbeag), when referring to the possibility that her son might follow the traditional trade of his father and grandfather, said: “It’s not that I’d be ashamed of that”.
Some respondents reflected on their continued identity as a community, even as some of the traditional trappings of Traveller life – nomadism, living in tent or wagon, for example – are dropped:
Many Travellers nowadays live side-by-side with settled people in standard housing, especially in towns and cities. To the outside observer there might appear to be few differences between Travellers and the settled community. Although large numbers of Travellers have outwardly assumed aspects of the settled population’s way of life, they regard themselves as a distinct community. As Sara (parent, Castletown) put it: “You are in a house like a settled person, your kids go to school like a settled person’s … [but] both communities are different.” The difference is one’s identity and sense of belonging to a distinct culture. Tara (parent, Avonard) described how an awareness of the difference between Travellers and the settled community first occurred to her:
I was eight or nine before I even copped on that I was one … I knew that they were all my people. I knew still I wouldn’t let anyone say anything about them; but you know from an early age, are you a buffer [Traveller term for ‘settled people’] or are you a Traveller.
Traveller culture differs from that of the settled community, and is reflected in a distinctive approach to family relations, in the practice of nomadism, in the Cant language, and in the practice of traditional Traveller trades.
Sara (parent, Castletown) described how support from family manifests itself:
It’s the family, like, if you come from the Travelling community and the support when you’re sick or sore. All your family has all that support. They come to you and they comfort you and at least you know that you can turn back to them. Traveller families are very very close to each other when it comes to weddings or comes to deaths or respect or all that kind of way.
Tríona (teacher, Lisnashee) gave an example of where local Travellers had rallied round to bring home for burial a member of their community who had been living abroad and who had died in poor circumstances:
They’d a big funeral there last month. Six thousand they paid for the headstone …They were so happy to bury her, to bring her home and to bury her. I mean, she was an alcoholic but they didn’t deny her. They brought her home.
Indeed, this support from the Traveller community can sometimes give rise to tension and misunderstandings by others, as referred to by John (parent, Cnocard):
Family is the centre and for the burial everyone would chip in for the tombstone and [settled] people say – ‘Ah, Travellers are rotten with money’ and all this. They never see the poor side.
Travellers are expected to provide support to the extended family when needed and they put family loyalty above all else (Bewley 1974, Gmelch 1975, O’Hanlon 2010). As Mac Aonghusa (1993, p.102) put it, “families depend on each other for support in times of trouble and enjoy each other’s company in family celebrations”.