September 18, 2021

MICHAEL WOLSEY: The best place for the traditional Traveller lifestyle is in a museum

MY grandfather died in his early sixties; my father lived a decade longer. My generation can reasonably hope to see 80 and my grandchildren have realistic expectations of reaching 100.

Improved medicine and health care have greatly extended life in the western world and changed our definition of growing old. My father regarded 40 as marking the onset of middle-age. Today it is the age when many people embark on new careers, when some decide to start a family and others to change their spouse.

But one section of our people still sees 40 as the age when decline sets in. According to Pavee Point, the organisation that lobbies for Travellers, “indicators redefine Traveller ageing as 40-plus, recognising the short lifespan and early ageing of Travellers.”

Pavee Point quotes figures from the 2016 census showing that just 3% of the Traveller population had reached the age of 65.

It has compiled a report on ‘Indicators of Positive Ageing for Travellers’. At its launch, a Traveller woman called Missie Collins sounded a sad note: “To be an old Traveller means that you’re only over 40.”

Pavee Point is calling for publication of a National Traveller Health Action Plan.

“My community is dying before their time and to stop this from happening we need the plan,” said Missie Collins.

Now I mean no disrespect to Ms Collins, who obviously knows a great deal more about the Traveller community than I do, but I cannot see how publishing a report will prolong a single life.

Acting on it might. But the certain way to extend Traveller lives is to change Traveller lifestyles.

Travellers would live longer if they stopped living in containers and caravans on waste ground or overcrowded halting sites. Traveller women would live longer if they married later and had fewer children. Traveller men would live longer if they gave up bareknuckle boxing and faction fights with other clans.

And yes, I know, not all Travellers do these things. My description is a stereotype but one grounded in fact.

A report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has called for action to be taken against local authorities that fail to spend money allocated for Traveller accommodation.

It expressed concern that “the majority of local authorities have consistently failed to provide adequate and culturally-appropriate accommodation for Travellers”.

I presume that means halting sites. But while good halting sites are obviously better than bad halting sites – and good health care better than no health care – I do not believe that either will solve the root problem.

Traveller life expectancy has not kept pace with modern standards because the Traveller lifestyle belongs to another age.

If you Google Irish Traveller images, you will find lots of pictures of Romany caravans and an archive photo from the Irish Times of a Travelling man outside one of these caravans, mending pots and pans.

By trade he was a tinsmith, a tinker we would have called him when I was a child. He had a hard life but not much harder than the rest of the rural community in which he and his family played a useful role, mending and making metal items and helping with the harvest.

That life has gone and Travellers can’t make it return any more than wheelwrights, stagecoach drivers or, from my own newspaper profession, hot-metal compositors, can force a return of once-useful roles that are now obsolete.

The State cannot prevent Travellers living the lifestyle they choose but encouraging it is not doing them any favours. If the Government tried to force anyone else to live that way it would be taken to the Court of Human Rights.

Travellers should respect their past and its traditions, but the best place for the traditional Traveller lifestyle is in a museum.









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