The Traveller life: What is it?, New Zealand/January 18, 2019

By Joanne Carroll

An unruly tourist family, initially described as being Irish Travellers, has caused chaos across the country, a public backlash and a high profile deportation order. 

But who are Travellers?

Travellers are a specific ethnic group, not necessarily of Irish nationality. There are estimated to be 30,000 Travellers in Ireland, with another 15,000 in the UK and large communities in the US. They came to the fore in the one of Britain's highest-rated documentary series – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

A spokeswoman for Pavee Point, an Irish organisation aiming to improve the human rights of Irish Travellers, said it would be inappropriate to comment as the family in New Zealand had not actually identified as Travellers. 

One of the family members, John Johnson, said he was not Irish and was not a gypsy. 

The Sun Online reported the family had lived on a traveller site near Lutterworth, Leicestershire, where police are reportedly set to hold a public forum because of concerns about crime levels. 

Honorary Consul-General for Ireland in New Zealand Niamh McMahon said she was concerned the family had been labelled as Irish and as Travellers. 

"The focus should not be on their nationality, it should be on their behaviour. Their behaviour has been abhorrent, to abuse and trash this beautiful country."

She hoped people would not stereotype Irish people or Travellers. 

"Here in New Zealand the only exposure people have had to Travellers is My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and documentaries like that sensationalise aspects of their culture. I'm not comfortable watching it," she said. 

According to Pavee Point, the community faces discrimination and disadvantage in health, employment and education and its members are stereotyped as being dirty, violent and criminal. 

A 2010 survey in Ireland found 20 per cent of respondents believed Irish Travellers should not have Irish citizenship. 

A Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Economic and Social Research Institute report in 2017 found Irish Travellers were 10 times more likely than white Irish people to experience discrimination when seeking work and were more than 22 times more likely to report discrimination, particularly in shops, pubs and restaurants.

Many Travellers find themselves forced to hide their identity to be able to participate in society.

A bill is currently going through the Irish Parliament that would put Traveller culture and heritage on the school curriculum.

Traveller culture is based on a nomadic tradition. Traveller ethnicity was recognised by the Irish State in March 2017 and recognised in Northern Ireland and the UK in 2004. According to the 2016 census, there are 30,987 Travellers in the Irish State. Travellers tend to marry younger, have larger families, and die younger. According to the 2010 All Ireland Health Study, Traveller men live 15 years less than men of the settled population and Traveller women 11.5 years less than their settled counterparts.

Pavee Point research found there is a 80 per cent unemployment rate among Travellers. Only 13 per cent complete secondary education and only 1 per cent go on to third level education. Sindy Joyce recently became the first Traveller to graduate with a PhD.

A study by Maynooth University in 2010 showed 41 per of people were not willing to employ a Traveller. Travellers are commercial nomads, traditionally travelling within 64 kilometres of their base camp to provide services like recycling, tin-smithing, seasonal labour and door-to-door selling. Some have made fortunes in the antiques trade.

Their way of life is under threat after a law passed in Ireland in 2002 made it an offence to trespass on a public place. The community was promised better conditions at designated halting sites but no transient sites were ever built. Funding for Traveller accommodation was cut from €40 million (NZ$67.4m) in 2008 to €4m in 2013. According to local authority figures, 536 families were living on unauthorised sites on the side of the road in 2016. There is widespread overcrowding in the existing halting sites, which do not allow for a nomadic lifestyle and families live in motorhomes on the sites permanently. 

Travellers have their own language called Cant or Gammon. They traditionally took songs and stories from parish to parish, produced tin musical instruments, and developed unique styles of singing, playing music and storytelling.

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