An Phoblacht

Travellers and us

It is quite clear that there is a huge gap in understanding of what life is like for Travellers, writes JIM GIBNEY

It comes as a shock when you think you know something about something and you suddenly realise you know very little.

That's how I felt a few weeks ago sitting in a lecture theatre in St Mary's University on Belfast's Falls Road.

The occasion was the Royal Victoria Hospital's annual lecture in West Belfast's Féile an Phobal.

The lecture theme was Health and Travellers. What made me sit up and take notice was the following basic facts, of which I was completely unaware and I assume most people are the same.

Did you know that there are only 1,600 to 1,700 Travellers in the North?

Did you know that there are only 31,000 Travellers in Ireland as a whole?

Did you know that there only 10,000 Travellers in all of Britain, which has a population of 58 million?

Did you know that there are only 10,000 Travellers in the US, which has a population of 290 million?

Did you know that all of them have an Irish connection?

Did you know that Travellers have their own language, called Gammon?

Did you know that Travellers were only recognised as an ethnic group as recently as 1997. And that before that it was perfectly legal not to serve a Traveller or employ one in a shop?

Did you know that life expectancy among Travellers is 11-15 years below that of the settled community?

Did you know that the suicide rate among Travellers is very high?

Did you know as I write, that 1,100 families are living on the side of Irish roads with no electricity and running water?

And did you know 90% of Travellers in Ireland can't read or write?

This information was provided to the meeting by Mark Donahue of the Belfast Travellers' Education and Development Group.

Why am I shocked at these statistics? In addition to not knowing them myself, I am shocked that a small, indeed a minuscule community of Irish people, should find themselves in the situation they are in.

Does it not beggar belief that two governments, Irish and British, who run this country, with all the resources at their disposal, cannot provide Travellers with a lifestyle which, at a minimum, is on an equal power with settled people?

No it doesn't, according to Patricia McKeown of UNISON, who spoke at the meeting. She said what these statistics reveal is the deep-seated racism in Irish society at all levels when it came to dealing with Travellers.

The panel of speakers at the meeting included Travellers from Ireland and Britain as well as people who work in a professional capacity with Travellers in terms of their health and accommodation.

Poor health, bad accommodation and an unhealthy environment are all linked when assessing the health of Travellers.

In addition to these difficulties, doctors can and do refuse to accept Travellers as patients.

There is also a lack of understanding in the medical profession of the traditions and culture of Travellers. This ignorance creates many hidden medical problems.

One of the speakers, a Traveller from Pavée Point in Dublin, called for Travellers to get more involved in helping to shape the health services they need.

She is one of a number of Travellers who is a primary care worker. She said it was important for women to speak out about the health needs of Travellers.

She expressed concern that the level of immunisation for children is low, as is the use of hospitals by Travellers.

She also called on the education authorities to facilitate children of Travellers to move from primary to secondary school and beyond. She urged the parents of children to play their part in ensuring their children are educated to an advanced level.

A number of Travellers made the point that "once a Traveller always a Traveller. Travelling is in the blood, even for those who have chosen to live a settled life in a house."

It is quite clear from my experience at the meeting that there is a huge gap in understanding of what life is like for Travellers.

It would help the settled and Travelling community if there were more meetings like that I attended. It would certainly help overcome the prejudice there is among the settled community about Travellers.

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