President officially opens an exhibition entitled “Travellers Journey”

Tue 10th Jul, 2018 | 16:00
location: Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Mayo

Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Mayo

Tuesday, 10th July, 2018

Speech at “Travellers’ Journey” Exhibition

National Museum of Ireland, Turlough Park, County Mayo, 10 July 2018

Today, as we honour and mark the Travelling Community’s journey let us resolve that it will, in future, be a shared journey for all Irish citizens during which we will ensure that none are excluded, denied a voice in society or access to vital services or exposed to unfair and ill-informed prejudice or discrimination.

Ar an gcéad dul sios ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil libh as ucht and fíorchaoin fáilte a d’fhear sibh rómham féin agus roimh mo bhean chéile Saidhbhín. Táim thar a bheith buíoch do Catherine Heaney, Cathaoirleach Bhoird Ard Mhúsaem na hÉireann an cuireadh a thabhairt dom an taispeántas seo a oscailt maidir leis An Lucht Siúl agus an oidhreacht shaibhir ata ag baint leis an bpobal sin.

It is a great pleasure to be here today at the Travellers’ Journey Exhibition and I would like to express my gratitude to the Chair of the Bord of the National Museum of Ireland for inviting me to be with you here today in Turlough Park to open this exhibition.

This is a day when we celebrate Irish Travellers, their rich history and their role in Irish society which stretches back so many centuries.

The Travelling community is an essential and cherished part of the Irish nation, a part of the Irish experience that has both shared and unique characteristics. Today Irish Travellers comprise approximately .7 of one per cent of the total Irish population and retain a unique position in Ireland as a native, but distinctly nomadic group. One that on the first of March last year, and not before time, was recognised as a distinct ethnic group.

This exhibition is all the more valuable because it is designed with the full collaboration of the Traveller movement. Because of this it will enable all of us to gain an informed understanding of the story and culture of the Traveller community. For younger generations of Travellers, it will provide an opportunity to gain a stronger sense of their own identity, and the distinct history of their community.

As we experience this exhibition we must be concerned that here in Ireland, as in so many places across the globe, nomadic communities are facing profound challenges to their traditional modes of living.

The nomadic herders of India, the Bedouins of North Africa, Egypt, Israel and the Arabian Penisnula, the Tuaregs in Algeria, the Qashqai of Iran and so many other indigenous groups are now facing a type of existential crisis, where their traditional ways of life, their nomadic heritage are in danger of fading from memory as so many states across the world rush to embrace what is heralded as a “modern” culture, one which is presented frequently as evolutionary inevitability and which seems to demand a uniformity in our approach to concepts such as nationality, home, housing and human settlement.

Ireland has been no exception to such assumptions and our increased urbanisation since the 1960s has presented the travelling community with new demands and difficult challenges. Industrialisation, the mechanisation of farming, the introduction of television and radio into the majority of Irish households saw the travelling community’s traditional role as tinsmiths, horse traders, agricultural labourers, and storytellers gradually eroded. 

As large numbers of travellers were forced to move to urbanised areas in search of work, their nomadic lifestyle became increasingly difficult to maintain, as did their culture and the core elements of their traditional and established way of life.

These external factors, however, do not excuse for a second the uncaring attitudes of the public or the authoritarian push for one-size-fits-all solutions in housing by administrations local and national.

Travellers came under increasing pressure to ‘assimilate’, to surrender to what was seen by some as an inevitable absorbing of the travelling community into what they called “mainstream“ Irish society. The nomadic way of life was seen as problematic, opportunities for nomadism were continually reduced and the travelling community, with its rich and wonderful heritage, was urged to become a ‘settled’ people.

This paternalistic and, frankly, ill-informed way of thinking was manifest in the Report of the Commission on Itineracy of 1963 and became reflected in legislation governing the provision of accommodation or, should I say, housing, to members of the Travelling Community. The official state policy was to solve the “problem” of Travellers by housing them, and ensuring that they didn’t travel any more.

This of course led to what I consider were the wasted decades, where the State, despite so much evidence to the contrary, followed a policy that was never going to satisfy the Travellers and in many ways it introduced and exacerbated unnecessary animosity between travellers and the rest of society.

It was to be expected that as the State saw the “solution” as being an end to travelling, the State apparatus became set against any accommodation of the travelling way of life. Social welfare, healthcare, education and all the other services to which we are all entitled, would not bend to meet the particular needs of the travelling community and travellers suffered as a result.

For so many members of the travelling community, marginalisation and exclusion became a daily reality of life as they struggled to hold on to a culture that was perceived to be incompatible with the norms and expectations of contemporary society. Many of you here today will, regrettably, have experienced that exclusion; and others will know how it feels to be unfairly stereotyped due to ignorance, prejudice or misinformation. 

The bitter fruits of this failed State policy are manifold and stand as a litany of indictments on us all in our failure for so long to realistically address, with compassion and understanding, the needs of the travelling community.

Today less than 14% of traveller women have gained secondary education compared to almost 70% in the general population. 60% of traveller men have not progressed beyond primary level compared to 13.6% in the general population.

While the number of travellers with third level qualifications has doubled in the last number of years, and that is to be welcomed, it stands at just over a half of one percent of the traveller population. The figure for the general population is 42%.

Unemployment levels stand at 80.2% amongst travellers. While comprising less than one percent of the general population, members of the travelling community make up 10 percent of the male prison population and 22% of the female prison population.

For Travellers, life expectancy is at least ten years lower than the general population, infant mortality is considerably higher and traveller men are over six times more likely to die by suicide than men in the general population.

These are all profound causes for concern and point to the ongoing need to radically change our approach as a society. Some of this change has already begun.

The patient and constructive work of travellers and advocacy groups during the 80s and 90s eventually led to a new legislative approach. The Housing (Traveller) Accommodation Act of 1998 represented a leap forward in how the distinct accommodation needs of the travelling community could be addressed. It placed clear obligations on local authorities and embraced the very necessary element of consultation with those who would be most affected – members of the travelling community.

However, while many local authorities have made great strides in embracing the principles set out in the 1998 Act, it is disappointing, to say the least, that so many city and county councils have returned unspent allocations for traveller accommodation in recent years, when there is such a desperate need across the country. This is not only unacceptable it is an outrageous abrogation of responsibility.

Many of you here this evening have worked on the very difficult interface between ignorance and understanding, between tolerance and intolerance, between prejudice and justice and between exclusion and acceptance. In seeking to remove the divide of misunderstandings, and their abuse, between our settled and our travelling communities, travellers and those who stand in solidarity with you, have highlighted areas where members of the travelling community experience discrimination and exclusion. Together we have worked within the system to try to remove unnecessary barriers and obstacles to travellers vindicating their rights and playing a full part in society.

Some of you have focused on working within your community to tackle problems at source and reduce the risk of unfair and negative stereotyping. Others have promoted a deeper understanding of the traveller community through creative expression. As a nation we are also grateful to those who have used their unique sporting, artistic and other talents to transcend boundaries and become positive sources of national pride. 

Last year saw a momentous step forward in the struggle to ensure respect for Travellers' distinct identity within the fabric of Irish society through the formal recognition of Irish Travellers as an indigenous ethnic minority.

While it is often popular to criticize politicians, I would like to acknowledge the work of so many councillors and members of the Oireachtas who have worked over the years to address the challenges facing the travelling community and to push for a more appropriate legislative framework, as well as a bespoke approach to the provision of public services to members of the travelling community.

I recall working closely with colleagues and with Dr Joshua Castillino of the Irish Centre for Human Rights in the early 2000s to persuade the relevant Ministers to acknowledge that the traveller community was an indigenous ethnic minority. We could clearly see how it could unlock an ingrained systemic mindset and allow us all to re-think what we were doing and how best to proceed.

I think we succeeded in highlighting the issue, but it would take another decade and the excellent 2017 report on Traveller Ethnicity by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, chaired by Deputy Caoimhín Ó Caoláin, to secure the Government acknowledgement that we had been working for so long to achieve.

This declaration and our consequential duty to re-interpret legislation in relation to Travellers' rights, is an acknowledgment of the discrimination that has been experienced by Travellers by a society determined to view them as a group living on the margins of the settled community, as opposed to a distinct ethnic group that has existed in Ireland since long before the years of the Great Irish Famine.

I recall the moving words of Traveller leader Martin Collins at that time:

“when Travellers are recognised as a minority ethnic group it would allow members of our community to plan for our future. Finally we can rejoice in being both Irish and a Traveller.”


Those are important words behind which lie so many years of hurtful rejection, denial of rights and cruel stereotyping. They are words that remind us of our shared Irish ancestral origin and the shared and mutually respectful future we must craft together. They are words that call on us to understand that when people are excluded on the basis of ethnic characteristics that it constitutes racism. So let us put an end to it. Let’s draw a deep breath and say there won’t be any more of it in Ireland.

In recent years we have, in so many ways, been making efforts towards building a society that values and embraces diversity, one in which we seek tolerance in our attitudes to each other and how we choose to lead our lives. I hope that as a society we, across the settled and traveller communities, can also find within us the resolve, the imagination, and generosity of spirit that are required to make those accommodations for each other, that are required for all of us to vindicate our rights as citizens and to be true to our heritage, in all of its manifestations.

Today, at this exhibition, we celebrate the unique culture of the Traveller community and the role that culture has played in the shared memory of a nation. On display here are so many objects that remind us of the vital role that Travellers traditionally played in an agrarian society and of the positive contribution their culture has made to Irish society.

We see the tools used to repair essential household objects, the flowers and craftwork sold from door to door, the pipes and fiddles that brought music and dance into homes across the country, the barrel top caravans which were once such a familiar sight on Irish roads, facilitating the nomadic lifestyle of the travelling community, many of whom offered seasonal labour to grateful farmers. We see, all around us, material reminders of a time when travellers were welcomed into the homes of Ireland, their culture respected, their talents appreciated.

This exhibition is a great celebration of Traveller heritage, but it is also a sobering reminder of how far we strayed from that time when members of the Travelling Community were distinct but equal members of Irish society.

Today, as we honour and mark the Travelling Community’s journey let us resolve that it will, in future, be a shared journey for all Irish citizens during which we will ensure that none are excluded, denied a voice in society or access to vital services or exposed to unfair and ill-informed prejudice or discrimination.

In conclusion may I thank all those involved in bringing this exhibition together. I understand that the idea for this exhibition emanated from members of the Western Regional Traveller Health Network, and grew and developed in association with the National Museum of Ireland, Mayo County Council and Mayo Traveller Support Group. It is such welcome news that the exhibition has been accepted by the Heritage Council for inclusion as a project in the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. That is a great achievement for which I congratulate you.

This has been a most informative occasion and I am confident the Travellers’ Journey Exhibition will play a valuable role in enabling us to look to all that is best in our shared past and to journey forward together in ways that are positive and enriching.


Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.