Reminiscences: The real lives of Irish Travellers
Summer of 2012 and I’m travelling in Ireland.
One night in a bar, and I’ve now come to learn that many of the best tales start one night in an Irish bar, I’m nursing a pint of Guinness and listening to Shannon, my old pal from London.
It’s already a curious night as Shannon, in cowboy hat and two tone brothel creepers, fifteen years resident in these parts and a long way from the weddings and Bar Mitzvahs of our youth, belts out the tunes. Something of a British Kinky Friedman if you like.
A mutual friend arrives, a community nurse, now working with Traveller people, giving primary healthcare education. The conversation takes a turn to her work, a turn to the serious. Discrimination, prejudice, hard lives, early deaths, dying traditions.
“Now would that not be something you could photograph” ……Indeed it would!
Three years later: A group of Traveller families allow me into their homes to hear their stories. Working discretely, behind drawn curtains and often at night. The community still closed and suspicious of outsiders, of settled people, of each other. Yet I’m greeted with warmth and find thoughtful, bright men and women who tell their stories with careful turn of phrase and great wit.
As is the way with communities, one person leads to another, the word passes about this settled fellow from England, the photographer, trust is given and introductions are made as I travel from Cavan Town, through Navan to Dublin and back, meeting, talking and photographing. The first settled person across the threshold of most houses I enter. Perhaps it’s my otherness, that I am an outsider, but stories are shared with ease and the flow of tea is constant.
The Cavan Traveller Women’s Health Group were my first stop. These are the voices of Kathleen, Mary, Nora, Theresa & Kimberley.
“I went to school ’til I was 12, then I went to work and then got married”
We’d want our children to get more education because we missed out. We wouldn’t want them to have what we had, you could be here today and gone tomorrow so we want the kids to have an education.
My mother and my fathers family were from the North, the border didn’t matter, though some would be afraid to go into the North. The IRA knew who the Travellers were, they’d never bother Travellers and we had nothing against them and they knew that. We did our own thing, the Travellers don’t get in with things like that. We fight amongst ourselves, strictly it stays with the Travellers, and we’re like the IRA on our own.
Years ago we were moving around but there was a big field, we pulled in for a break, got the gas bottles out and put the kettles on and me as usual, Jack tomboy, had to climb into the field. When I climbed into the field there was a big electric wire in the middle of the field. Sure didn’t I just grab onto the electric wire, with both hands Aagh! Didn’t affect me.
Mind you, in the Traveller people, if we were kids and we were playing out and our leg fell off, you wouldn’t hop home and tell your parents. We’d try and fix it rather than tell them. You’d not be able to tell them, not a hope, ‘cos you’d get a good few slaps for it. “Why were you so stupid to get your leg cut off? You’re two thirds of a Pikey.”
There’d be no hospital like, it’d be wrapped up and tied off. Nowadays if they break a nail they’ll come running but we couldn’t have done it.
Going back years we’d have had long hair, you cut it all like when you got married. You’re allowed to cut it when you get married, that’s when you become a woman, become your own boss when you get married. My great grandmother was 13 when she got married, that’s the age they were and the men 14 and 15.
See in the travelling community when you get to 30 you’re an old woman.
We were living in Dublin in Finglas camp, fields, a kip, a bank of muck, everyone had their own section, ours was the cleanest corner in the whole place. My mother, she was very spotless like, so if that cup there was empty, she’d be like “What’s that there for? Should be washed and put back up there. Has to be done”.
We all had our own things to do, we didn’t sit down and wait for the next thing to do, we just got on and did it.
We tried school, I went to school but didn’t like it.
Do you know when we were younger we never got no schooling or anything. I was put at the back of the classroom anyway, but we used to go into town begging and if it was only a fiver we’d begged, when we got home that would go into food for us.
When I look back, yes they might be harder times but they actually wasn’t. They were happy times, we were all happy for what we got. There was only bread on the table and jam. You appreciate that. Now you can make a turkey dinner every day and what, you don’t need it
I don’t miss begging but if it came to not having no money, if I had an embarrassment in my pocket, then I could turn around and say right, my children need food and I’d take to the street or to the houses, knock on doors and ask for tea bags or sugar or a few clothes.
My cousins, we used to laugh at them, 10 girls and their father he’d never call them. My father used to call us by our names but her father he’d just give one big whistle and they’d all come running, dogs an all would come running, the whole 10 of them would come back, and 10 dogs.
At first I couldn’t believe it. They’d run back, every one of them, we’d be in stitches laughing at them. We couldn’t understand this because we were brought up that whistling is for calling dogs, so my fathers dogs would be running back and my father’s brother’s children would be running back, the whole lot, ten girls and the dogs all back together.
We were a very close family, we didn’t need outside family, we didn’t need to see our cousins or strangers, anyone. We built our own Barbie house, get our dolls and played together. We’d sit down at the table together and chat we didn’t need anyone else.
“They weren’t hard times, children never got sick, even to this day I never get sick”
Reminiscences: The real lives of Irish Travellers exhibition opened in October 2016 at the Cavan Arts Centre, Cavan Town. The exhibition is touring Ireland throughout 2017, currently showing at the County Library, Cootehill.
Details of the London opening in summer 2017 to follow.
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