Though they inhabit opposite sides of the world, according to prominent academics at Melbourne University, Indigenous Australians and Irish Travellers share a similar history of discrimination, poverty and marginalisation. Indigenous Australians and Irish Travellers might be separated by twelve thousand miles and thousands of years of separate history, but today they share a common story.
While awareness of Indigenous culture and history has exploded since the 1960s, not much is known about the Irish Travellers—‘tinkers’ or “knackers’ as they have been pejoratively known. Historians have never been terribly interested in them, and the Travellers themselves have only an oral culture. Are they the dispossessed remnant of people made homeless by the Irish Famine of 1847, or forced off their land by the ‘Hell or Connacht’ policies of Cromwell in the 1650’s or did they come from outside Ireland?
The latest D.N.A evidence shows them to be Irish and yet distinct—they’ve been in Ireland for as long as everyone else but have always been a separate, roving, landless people. They, therefore, can be understood as Irish indigenous people, and are now demanding recognition of their ethnic identity by both the Irish government and the European Union.
They are in fact among the last of the landless excluded populations that were once found all over Europe, including the Cagots of south-western France and travellers of Scandinavia. These are indigenous people who survived for centuries amidst settled societies. Indigenous Australians were, by contrast, the first Australians, in full possession of country for up to 60,000 years.
In 2001 the governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland asked Professor Cecily Kelleher, then dean of the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science at University College Dublin, to undertake both a census and a health study of Traveller people across Ireland. Over 40,000 people were prepared to identify themselves to Traveller researchers and 400 Traveller interviewers and 80 research managers were trained to carry out the survey, using tablets with symbols because so many Travellers are still illiterate. The response rate was an astonishing 80 per cent, and the results were grave.
- Just like in Australia, in Ireland there is a shameful health gap. Traveller people rarely grow old: half the men are dead by the age of 35 and women fare almost as badly. Male suicide is seven times higher than in the general Irish population. The population pyramid looks like that of a developing country in Africa.
- Irish Travellers look like other Irish people, yet everyone in Ireland ‘knows they are different’. People who have liberal views about people of colour can be cruelly intolerant of ‘tinkers’. They don’t see their disdain as racism, but the effects are the same.
- This is a racism of memory, not visible difference. It is a racism of character, a belief that ‘tinkers’ are bludging inveterate thieves, who are violent, feuding, drunken, disorderly, bad parents, dirty and ignorant.
- Many Irish people do not know that Travellers are deeply religious, scrupulously clean in their caravans and homes, and intensely loving of their families.
Like Indigenous Australians, Traveller people have survived thanks to the power of their extended family networks and their ability to share responsibility for the survival of the group. The flipside is that there are occasionally fierce feuds between families. It is an emotionally intense, rich social world that very few are willing to relinquish.
Traveller people are ridiculed on TV shows like Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and YouTube abounds with snarling bare-knuckle boxers and terrifying sulky road races. This delight in reckless eccentricity and non-conformity denies the misery of Traveller lives cut short. Like Indigenous Australians, one of the markers of being a Traveller is that you are always going to funerals.
According to Professor Janet McCalman, an academic at the Melbourne School of Population & Global Health, the story of the Travellers, like that of Indigenous Australians, is one of exclusion in their own land. Both are peoples who are not allowed to ‘be themselves’ because they have been considered inferior, unacceptable or tainted. Poverty and discrimination are embodied in health, and the most eloquent evidence is in health.