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Over 6 months after Traveller ethnicity was recognised - what has changed?

Tinsmithing, education, and pride in who you are: the impact of one of the most momentous achievements for Traveller activists.

Kelsey Casey, aged 6 from Southhill, Limerick looks out from a decorated wagon window during a protest march.
Kelsey Casey, aged 6 from Southhill, Limerick looks out from a decorated wagon window during a protest march.
Image: Mark Stedman via RollingNews.ie

IN MARCH OF this year, Taoiseach Enda Kenny heralded the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity in Ireland to a Dáil gallery packed with members of that community.

From that moment, the ethnicity of Travellers in Ireland is genetically and culturally recognised as distinctive from the rest of Ireland after recommendations from the UN and years of campaigning.

The campaign for this recognition came into being because people considered the State’s treatment of the Travelling community as discriminatory – the outcomes of which span across areas including housing, education, healthcare and employment.

The campaign was also launched despite a backlash of hate towards the Travelling community, where accusations of violence and criminality against some have tainted the entire population.

The former campaign won out in the Dáil chamber on that day in March last year. And while groups like Pavee Point say that ethnicity wasn’t going to change things like health problems, unemployment and education issues in their community, it lays the foundation for growth.

But has there been growth? Has anything changed since ethnicity was recognised over six months ago? TheJournal.ie investigates.

Tinsmithing

As part of the State’s inclusion strategy, it promised that increased funding would be “invested … to promote knowledge of, and pride in, Traveller culture and heritage”. And there has been some activity on this.

Soon after Traveller ethnicity was recognised, a tinsmithing workshop group was set up by tinsmith James Collins in Collins Barracks (a nice fit).

Speirs150617Museum001 James Collins watches over a student at the Traveller tinsmithing classes in Collins Barracks. Source: Derek Speirs

Two hours a week, once a week for 10 weeks, a handful of students gathered to be taught a tradition of the Travelling community, purely out of pride in their craft.

Years ago, it was a skill that was passed down from parent to child: ”Each person had a connection – a grandfather or great-grandfather,” Patrick Reilly of Pavee Point says, adding that one of the students said he was taking it up after his father died.

He says that since ethnicity has been established “there’s a buzz around Travellers” and there’s been an interest in crafts that form part of the culture.

“The lads would be ringing me on a Wednesday or Thursday because Friday couldn’t come quick enough,” he said.

At the beginning, five men took part in the workshop every Friday, but one man got a job, and another got a place at another workshop, so that left them with three.

Speirs150617Museum057 James Collins teaches the trade at Collins Barracks in June this year. Source: Derek Speirs

“And in hindsight, five was way too many because we didn’t have enough tools.”

The Travellers’ tinsmithing trade was born out of practicality: they’d travel around selling their creations or swapping them for other goods.

At the workshop, participants were taught to make Tommy cans, a type of flask; a Billy can, a bigger-shaped round canister for sugar and tea; a coal shuttle and custom made buckets for various uses.

The lads were asking afterwards: ‘Can we do another 10 weeks?’

Reilly says they’d love to get the funding to either extend the tinsmith workshop, or else add another workshop like wagon-making.

10/12/2009 Travellers Community Protests A Travellers protest march to Dáil in 2009.

There’s also a market for more ornamental tin creations, too.

Last month, Michael D Higgins was presented with a pin made by James Collins to honour the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

“Wearing this pin is a way of expressing support for the inclusion of Irish Travellers in Irish society,” said Martin Collins, a co-director in Pavee Point.

The wheel represents the uniqueness of Traveller identity and culture, and the harp asserts our Irishness and the role we have played and will continue to play in Irish society.

Travellers Pin The pin presented to Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins. Source: Derek Speirs

Parenting

Although a lot of Travellers seem to think that ethnicity won’t change anything, Michael, a former youth worker who lives in Coolock, says that ethnicity will hopefully instill a sense of pride in young people about their Traveller heritage.

He says that during his time as a youth worker, some men didn’t want to say where they were from to hide the fact that they were Travellers.

“When asked where they were from, they’d say Meath or Offaly because they knew if they said Dublin, you’d know from their accent that they were Travellers,” he said.

But there’s hope that ethnicity will change that. Shortly after ethnicity was recognised, Michael’s eight-year-old daughter and her class were given a class on what it meant.

“[Her] teacher actually did a small little session about three or four days after Traveller ethnicity was announced explaining what it was – that teacher didn’t have to do that,” Michael said.

He said that during the session the teacher asked the children if they knew the difference between Travellers and other communities.

“Sophie stood up and said ‘I’m a Traveller’. It’d make you proud because we always told her about who she was. We never hid it from her,” Michael said.

After the session at school, Sophie came home and started asking him questions about what ethnicity meant. He says that he hopes that ethnicity will continue to have a positive impact on young people to learn about and be proud of their culture.

“They are who they are, so hopefully they can learn more about themselves.”

Education 

Martin Collins of Pavee Point group has said that the recognition of ethnicity has been the result of over 30 years of campaigning.

“This has been a really important year for Travellers. We were recognised as a minority ethnic group on 1 March this year, which was a historic day for the community, and an emotional day.”

But ethnicity is by no means the end-game.

People aren’t waking up saying ‘Oh I feel great since ethnicity, myself-esteem is through the roof’. It’s not though the roof for Travellers in general, those who are involved in the struggle day-to-day.

But it’s a spark to bring about real change across other areas, he says.

“We had the publication of the National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy this year, a couple of months after ethnicity, and it mentions access to education, healthcare, racism, and unemployment.”

He says that this dual approach of “huge symbolic value” of ethnicity and a well-thought out, practical policy to bring about positive change could impact the “self-esteem, confidence and morale” of the Traveller community.

We need to put to bed that racist ideology that our community are a backward people.

Of all the areas that need to see change, and while acknowledging that all those factors impact on each other, Collins feels that education is the thing that needs to be focused on the most.

“Education is key – good quality, inclusive education that enables you to exercise your right to education, that develops you as a person, that gives you the skills to campaign and to lobby on others’ behalf… Education is an enabler in all those areas.”

As it happens, Minister for Education Richard Bruton recently announced a scheme that aims to increase the number of minority groups attending third-level education, which includes members of the Travelling community.

So we asked the department how it means to bring more Travellers into third-level education through the National Access Scheme. Here’s its answer:

The plan contains targets to increase participation rates by each of the groups, specifically there is a target to increase the numbers of Travellers in higher education from 35 to 80. The targets are due to be reviewed as part of the mid-term review of the plan, to commence before the end of 2017.

“Some of the priority actions in the National Access Plan include:

  • Addressing the issue of non-progression in higher education
  • Developing a system for Recognition of Prior Learning
  • Developing measures to promote participation in initial teacher education by target students
  • Developing measures to engage directly with communities where participation in higher education is low
  • Developing a data plan to measure progress.”

A spokesperson for the department also said that funding of €2.4 million was made available to Teacher Education Centres in April 2017 to increase all minority groups, which included Travellers.

An additional €8.5 million was announced in the last Budget to increase minorities’ participation – but nothing specific to help Travellers gain access to third-level education.

Collins says that if he’s honest, he’s “disappointed” with their interaction with the Department of Education: “It’s been really difficult and quite challenging – even up to this day.

“In 2006, they published the Traveller Education Strategy, but it’s not been implemented.

They closed 40 resource teacher positions, which helped with students’ progress at mainstream schools. At the stroke of a pen, it was wiped out. They also dismantled the Traveller Advisory Committee.

“Now there are more Travellers dropping out of school. The supports are no longer there.”

He says that the government needs a new strategy for Travellers’ education as the 2006 one is too old, and it needs to implement the strategy from this year, that the Travelling community helped to put together.

“Travellers want to be barristers, teachers, gardas, doctors, architects. There is that ambition in the community, but unfortunately the opportunity is missing.

“It’s demoralising, these people want to become architects and gardas, but the opportunities are too far away for them. There’s a mismatch for the growing ambition in the community and how the State responds to that.”

Read: ‘He walks with his head down. No more’ – Taoiseach recognises Traveller ethnicity in the Dáil

Read: ‘A borradh táileasc for the mincéir’: Taoiseach speaks Cant as he recognises Traveller ethnicity

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