Essay

Travellers In Irish Society Sociology Essay

Furthermore, as will be explained, policy makers contributed significantly to the feelings that were aimed at the Travelling community; their recognition of them as a problem to be solved during the 1960’s sealed their fate as ‘inferior others’. Whilst there were attempts to rectify the situation during the 1980’s towards integration; there was still a failure to recognise the discrimination that was prevalent in relation to Travellers. Finally the 1990’s has seen some improvements but Travellers are still seen as inferior by the majority of society.

During the 1940’s Ireland experienced a shift from a predominantly rural society towards an urban society. This shift resulted in a displacement of the Travelling community; they were now being considered a problem for Irish society. Kuhling and Keohane (2007) argue that groups, including the travelling community have been involuntarily globalised; whilst there is need to recognise the need for improvements in society, it is equally important to respect the decision of any group to maintain their cultural identity unfortunately, ‘their cultural distinctiveness became constructed, with a highly racialised discourse of Traveller deviance and inferiority, as justification for spatial exclusion and discrimination’ (Fanning, 2002 p. 153). This strong feeling towards the Travelling community gave legitimacy to the political goal of assimilation.

Institutional discrimination in relation to the Travelling community has contributed significantly to the challenges faced by Travellers. Such discrimination can be traced back to the 1940s -1950s; Helleiner (1998) explains that anti Traveller discourse, in particular within parliamentary debates during this period, demonised Travellers blaming them for all the problems within society at the time. This was possibly a deflection technique as it resulted in diverting attention away from the real problems within the economy at the time.

The 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy used the ‘drop-out’ theory in order to deal with the issue of Travellers; this theory explains that Travellers were sedentary people forced to become nomadic due to personal problems such as alcoholism or illegitimacy (Ní Shuinéar, 2004). Furthermore the word Itinerant was used to describe Travellers, a word associated with vagrancy. For the next two decades the focus of attention was on the need to save and assimilate the ‘poor misfortunate’s’ back into the general population.

The 1980s saw a shift in policy; the government finally recognising that assimilation was not the answer; there was now a focus on integration of Travellers, however very often Travellers had to fit in with mainstream society rather than having policies specifically focused on the needs of Travellers, and unfortunately there was a failure to recognise discrimination in policies. Such recognition did appear in legislation throughout the 1990’s.

Although there has been a shift in policy, Travellers still experience individual discrimination on a daily basis. This is something I experienced it firsthand a number of years ago; I had just attended the funeral of a friend, who was a member of the Travelling community, the group I was with decided to go for a drink, however I soon realised that almost all of the public houses were closed; I asked one of the group if there was something happening in town that I was not aware of to which he replied, ‘yes a Travellers funeral’. I was aware of the negative feelings toward the Travelling community, but this made real for me the blatant discriminatory practices displayed towards the Travelling community.

Refused entry to public houses is only one area where Travellers face such discrimination; they are often turned away from restaurants, shops, and when trying to book a hotel for a wedding Travellers have to hide their identity in order to avoid being refused. The Equal Status Act in 2000 made it illegal to exclude members of the Traveller community; however an amendment to the act, due to complaints from liquor license holders meant that action taken in relation to refusal of services or goods would be tried in District Courts where there is less expertise in relation to issues of equality (Pavee Point)

Representation of the Travelling community through the media has contributed to the socially constructed view of Travellers as deviants; newspapers, and television criminalise and demonise the Travelling community, thus perpetuating the feelings of discontent and further identifying them as social deviants ( Kabachnik, 2009). Lentin and McVeigh (2006) highlighted the inability of the media in relation to the murder of John Ward in 2004, to focus attention on the brutality of the murder, choosing instead to reverse the ‘categories ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ for the media, political parties and criminal justice system alike’ (ibid, p. 129).

One of the most significant challenges facing the travelling community is the continued lack of provision within the education system. Travellers experience within the education system has been primarily negative. This is due to the lack of understanding on behalf of the educators in relation to Traveller culture. Historically, Travellers have received differential treatment in relation to education; they were overlooked in education policies until 1970. They also experienced a policy of segregation from the rest of their peers; Travellers were taught together in a separate class regardless of age or ability.

From the 1990s onwards there has been an increase in the numbers of Traveller children attending school; however there is still a significant number who choose to leave before Junior Cert level. Many felt that differences between them and the settled community contributed to a feeling of isolation. Lynch and Lodge (2004) argue that, there is a ‘culture of disrespect for difference’ (ibid, p.145). This culture is not only confined to peer culture, but stretches to the education system itself which, for quite some time has displayed a lack of recognition for difference and diversity.

The Chief Inspector Report 2001-2004 found that the achievements of Traveller children were not at the same level of their peers. It also concluded that Traveller pupils were not challenged appropriately by their teachers (Department of Education and Science, 2005); low expectations on behalf of the teaching profession impacts on the ability for Traveller children to progress at the same level as their peers and often results in disillusionment with the education system.

The Hidden curriculum in schools also provides a challenge for many Travellers; academic language, used in secondary school, makes learning more difficult. Functionalists argue that the education system has the responsibility with inculcating individuals with the values and norms necessary to function in society; therefore it is vital that the education system ensures that Traveller culture is recognised and promoted in a positive light throughout the curriculum.

Discrimination towards the Travelling community is highlighted throughout The TEACH Report; comments from employees in relation to employing Travellers indicate that the discourse surrounding Travellers remains relatively unchanged. The report also represents Travellers awareness of the prejudice; one interviewee explains;

‘if they know you’re a Traveller you haven’t a hope. They’ll tell you in a nice way there’s no vacancy. Somebody else could go down. A settled person could apply a week later and next thing you know they’re working there. You know you could have more qualifications’ (Hourigan & Campbell, 2010 p.32-33).

The report also highlights the need for Travellers to hide their identity in order to gain, and remain in employment. One interviewee explained that once her identity had been revealed in her place of work, from then on she was treated quite differently.

It is not unusual to hear of Travellers having to give up their culture in order to succeed in the workplace. Walking through college a number of years ago, I met a friend who I had not seen in years; she was a member of the Travelling community. We went for a coffee and a chat and she revealed to me that she had moved to England to further her studies following time spent studying in U.C.C. She explained how she needed to make a break from home in order to be able to secure a good job when she was finished studying. She was quite unhappy with having to deny who she was but felt there was no other alternative.

Various Acts in relation to housing pose further challenges to Travellers who wish to maintain their nomadic lifestyle, for example the Housing (miscellaneous provisions) (No. 2) 2002, criminalises trespassers who occupy public land with an ‘object’ which can include a caravan; the Act enables the Gardaí to vacate or face criminal prosecution. Travellers are also entitled to access to a halting site, however there is no obligation on behalf of the council to provide a site immediately (Crowe, O. and Kenna, Dr. P., 2009). Even when accommodation is provided, there is often hostility from local residents who refuse to accept Travellers in their locality.

Substandard housing has been highlighted as one of the main contributors to the significant inequalities between the health of Travellers and the settled community. Travellers suffer higher rates of infant mortality, shorter life expectancy, and more accidents in childhood; in fact for all health related illnesses Travellers seem to suffer disproportionately (Department of Health and Children, 2010)

In conclusion, it is difficult to discuss all the challenges faced by the Travelling community due to their minority status in such a short assignment, however what is apparent is that those who have been trusted with the responsibility of taking care of the needs of all of the individuals living in Ireland, have instead emptied all of society’s problems onto their collective shoulders. Wording used in policies and parliamentary debates have contributed to the hegemonic discrimination which has been evident towards the Travelling community and still exists today.

There have been attempts to rectify the situation, however whilst policies have been implemented to help to alleviate the problems and enable Travellers to become members of society on an equal footing to the settled community, there needs to be a complete understanding and respect of Traveller culture in order for policies to succeed. Furthermore there needs to be a focus on respecting the needs of Travellers who wish to continue their nomadic lifestyle without fear of being criminalised.

Finally, there needs to be a determined effort to represent Traveller culture in a positive light with the school curriculum, the media, and all other areas that can influence the opinion of society. The embedded discrimination exists due to lack of knowledge and misguided information.

Word count 1825

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