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Opinion: 'I had to ask myself - at what point did I accept the othering of Traveller children?'

When she collaborated with Traveller women on a project about hair and Traveller culture, Breda Mayock came to a number of realisations about Ireland and prejudice.

Breda Mayock

I AM AWARE that throughout Irish history Travellers have lived on the margins of mainstream Irish society. It’s true that Traveller culture and identity, far from being a subject of interest and celebration, has been the focus of stereotyping, discrimination and racial prejudice.

I am an artist and had the good fortune of meeting with a number of Traveller women and girls in Mayo through our work on the Crown – Hair in Traveller Culture project. Our conversations and my further research made me more acutely aware of the accepted norms around this systematic discrimination.

We have some difficult questions to ask ourselves as a society and the answers need to bring us to a place where we recognise and stand up for the rights of the Irish Traveller community.

I struck up my collaboration with Traveller women and girls in Mayo in 2019. Our conversations about hair, expression and identity led to Crown – Hair in Traveller Culture. 

IMG_E6143 Photographs from Crown - Hair in Traveller Culture

Irish Travellers or Mincéirí are an indigenous ethnic minority group in Ireland. There are positive and beautiful messages to be communicated, particularly when a group such as them have been so maligned, so generalised and discriminated against for so long. 

The focus in Crown was on Traveller women’s relationship with hair. Writer and Traveller activist Rosaleen McDonagh has expressed her personal experiences of hair and identity throughout her life, and she explains more here:

The hair is personal and political, with the added dimension of how it’s worn in both the public and private spheres. For many Travellers our hair brings self-love and pride. It’s considered our most precious item. It is our crowning glory.

Over the months the participants and I talked, explored, and exchanged stories. We engaged photographer Orla Sloyan, setting up photo shoots with a special emphasis on capturing the unique aesthetic expression through hair. We made two short films about the exhibitions and the participants, with the filmmaker Mia Mullarkey - you can watch them here.

Throughout 2020 my conversations with the women of Mayo Traveller Support Group often departed from the topic of hair and into other experiences of life. Some of the more striking of these related to their school-going stories, with so many describing experiences of name-calling, bullying and segregation. 

The stories resonated with me strongly. I found myself asking, as a parent of school-going children: At what point did I accept the othering of Traveller children? At what point, as an educated settled person with a deep love and care for my own children, did I accept that other children in their school should be treated differently? When did I decide that this was okay?

Does the answer lie in privilege, and in the acceptance of a deep-rooted racism that exists in the society in which I was reared? 

I learned more when the women of Mayo Traveller Support Group and I decided to talk through personal experiences of the educational system as navigated by Travellers.

We talk on the phone individually and as a group via Zoom. During our most recent Zoom meet up, one of the women disclosed that her teenage daughter had recently received a comment from her teacher: “Sure you’ll be leaving when you’re sixteen anyway, off to be married.”

This was said to a 15-year-old girl in 2021, even though this girl fully intends to do her Leaving Cert. Comments such as these have a damaging and insidious impact, and are unacceptable.


Another woman told me that her sons were very good at football and were part of the team at school but, as they got older in secondary school, they felt the discrimination more and more, and eventually dropped out of the team. She said: “It was a terrible pity, they were so good at it and it was so good for them and kept them from hanging around.”

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And one mother remembered a group of girls whispering, laughing and looking over at her in school. She said that she felt like an outsider; she had no one to talk to and was isolated. She didn’t speak to anyone about this, because, over time, it had become something ‘normal’ or ‘everyday’. She feels that this is why she left school.

Our conversations continue. We want to uncover and address these inequalities, these breaches of Traveller human rights. We want to find a way of expressing these experiences.

This is a period of research, and a time of building relationships through constant conversation and exploration. It is an opportunity to build on our collaboration, to ultimately document it on film.

We are all full of ideas. And these conversations with the Traveller women I know nurture and inspire me. I am grateful to them; after all they have very little reason to trust settled people – one only needs to look at some of the statistics.

Traveller women on average die 11 years younger than settled women, and on average Traveller men die 15 years younger than settled men; 11% of all Traveller deaths are by suicide; and only 1% of Travellers make it to third level education.

The more I learn, the more I realise that we need to re-educate ourselves and our children about Traveller culture and about the equal rights of all people in Irish society to an education and to a positive and an enriching educational experience.

Breda Mayock is the Mayo recipient of the inaugural PLATFORM 31 nationwide artist development bursary developed by the 31 Local Authority Arts Offices, in collaboration with the Arts Council.

Crown – Hair in Traveller Culture exhibitions run presently in The National Museum of Ireland, Country Life in Mayo and in Tangled, Municipal Gallery at dlr Lexicon, Dun Laoghaire. 

About the author:

Breda Mayock

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