Irish Travelers: Examining one ethnic group’s struggle against the trials of the 21st century

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North Carolinian youth in Warren County lied on the ground in protest of the placement of a hazardous polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) laced landfill in their Black neighborhood. Screenshot by author.

The Irish Travellers, also known as Pavees or Mincéirs, are an ethnic group native to Ireland, with a centuries-long history of leading nomadic lives across their country. Despite their deep roots in the Emerald Isle, they were only formally recognized as an ethnic group by the Irish government in 2017 and have constantly faced prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination by the rest of society, while under constant pressure to assimilate and abandon their cultural practices. To shed light on the Irish Traveller experience, a panel was organized to discuss the community in the context of the 21st century and the challenges that come with it. 

In another installment of the UConn Reads series, discussing Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the UConn Humanities Institute hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Irish Travellers: The Nation State, A Marginalized Minority, And Climate Crisis,” moderated by Mary Burke, professor of English, Irish concentration coordinator and Honors Program director in English at the UConn Storrs campus. 

The panel included Malcolm Sen, assistant professor of English at UMass Amherst, and Jamie Johnson, a Los Angeles-based photographer who specializes in fine arts and documentary projects on children whose work brought her to Ireland to meet and document the Traveller experience. Both panelists were joined by Leanne McDonagh and Mícheál Ó hAodha who offered their thoughts in the post-presentation commentary. 

Dr. Robert Bullard presented his lecture with Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering’s Teale Lecture Series over WebEx. Screenshot by author.

Sen discussed the Travellers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the global climate crisis, explaining how the uncertainty felt by individuals worldwide is commonplace for Travellers and may be commonplace for humanity as climate change continues to threaten its existence. 

Before the pandemic, society – particularly in Ireland – already faced a tremendous number of problems, with “financial crisis,” “debt crisis,” “housing crisis” and “Brexit crisis” all being uttered on a regular basis in Irish news reels. This feeling of uncertainty has forced many to look for a culprit, pointing fingers at “the others” of society, or those on the other side of the border. 

“The border is where war begins,” Sen said. “It is also a place where war talks can come to an end.” 

In the case of the Travellers, Burke explained, society has continuously ostracized these individuals for not adopting the progressive, consumerist cultural values of the majority, seen beginning in the 1920s onward with the creation of the Irish nation-state. 

r. Bullard (pictured second to the left) was present at President Bill Clinton’s signing of the first executive order on environmental justice. Screenshot by author.

Burke explained that the great irony of the disdain for the Travellers by cosmopolitan society is that humanity could be adopting a more nomadic lifestyle in the wake of the climate crisis and the vanishing of habitable land.  

Johnson, who’s spent her entire career photographing children – both in the throngs of privilege in Los Angeles and in poverty in Laos, Cuba and now Ireland – explained why she chose to put together a book after meeting the Traveller children of Ireland. 

“I wanted to tell their stories,” Johnson said. “I wanted to show their pictures. I wanted to have an uplifting look at these children that are so happy. They don’t need any of the modern conveniences, any of the toys of the swag and electronics. And they’re strong, happy, wonderful kids.” 

Johnson explained that it is much harder for a person to uphold a malicious stereotype of a group of people when they see the innocence and pure joy exhibited by a child of that group. 

“There’s just so much stereotyping going on,” Johnson said. “And it’s ridiculous for anyone to stereotype a child.” 

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