Irish Travellers, Ireland's Minority Culture

Irish Travellers are Ireland's largest minority, who struggle to find a place in society while maintaining their distinct culture.

Irish Travellers are the largest minority in Ireland. There are about 25,000 Irish Travellers in Ireland and 1,300 in Northern Ireland. They are a little understood nomadic community, who have many difficulties to overcome if they are to survive as a culture and gain acceptance in Irish society. Among the challenges facing them are poverty and racism.

Irish Travellers are a distinct ethnic group which has existed for centuries. Often they are mistakenly considered part of the nomadic Romani, an ethnic group which originated in the region of India and is now widespread throughout Europe. The Irish Travellers are indigenous to Ireland. The two cultures are not related. While both are nomadic, the Irish Travellers are Roman Catholic and speak a language that is theirs alone. They have their own culture, customs, traditions, and language. They are noted for their musical and story telling abilities.

In times past, they traveled by horse drawn wagon in caravans, making camp along the way. Tinsmithing, horse trading and peddling were the major sources of income in those days. Tinsmiths were so prevalent among Irish Travellers that the terms Tinker and Irish Traveller were used interchangeably. Today, Tinker is one of many derogatory terms for Irish Traveller.

Horses and wagons have given way to mobile homes pulled by motor vehicles. They continue their life on the road, but there are fewer places to stop and fewer places where they are welcome. Today, Irish Travellers mainly work in recycling. Changing needs of society and progress have eliminated the jobs that could support a culture on wheels.

Irish Travellers are poor, undereducated, and on the receiving end of discrimination. Their life expectancy is lower than average while their infant mortality rate is higher than average. As is the case with the Romani, the Irish Travellers are seen by many as a group of immoral, ignorant, criminals and con artists. People distrust their nomadic culture and their language, Shelta. Many think it's a secret language specifically developed as a tool to help the Irish Travellers trick innocent people. However, it is an old language, which has evolved with time and circumstances. Once heavily infused with Irish Gaelic, it is now infused with English.

The Irish Government and many private organizations are attempting to eradicate the racism suffered by the Travellers and to address their problems. In the past thirty years, laws have been passed in an attempt to stop the racism and alleviate the problems of poverty as well as a lack of health care and education. Results have been mixed. Early on, the government attempted to help the Irish Travellers by trying to assimilate them into Irish society. Eventually, the government realized that the they didn't want help at the cost of giving up their culture. Civil rights has become the focus. Anti-hate laws as well as laws prohibiting discrimination against Irish Travellers in employment and education have been passed over the course of the last several years. The Irish Travellers have organized to lobby for their rights. On a broader scale, they have joined Romani groups to call attention to the problems of all the nomadic cultures throughout Europe.

Stemming the tide of racism is a difficult task. Helping the Irish Travellers overcome poverty while maintaining their cultural identity will require dedication by the Irish Travellers, the governments involved and society. Progress is being made as awareness is heightened, but there is a long way to go before Irish Travellers are a productive and accepted part of Irish Society.

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