Poverty in Ireland-Itinerants
Since publication of the Report on Itinerancy instances of victimisation by local residents has doubled. 6,129 itinerant children were born in 1960. 363 (7%) died before age of one month: 782 (15%) before the age of one year. By John Feeney, Dan Ruddy and Vincent Browne. Published in Nusight, November 1969.
. There are few old itinerantsonly one itinerant in thirty reaches the age of sixty.
. Itinerants are almost completely illiterate. In the 1960 Census 782 of of 4,809 over the age of six could read or write slightly.
. Seven itinerant families out of eight have expressed a desire to settle in one place and be assimilated.
ITINERANTS are probably the most abused, most poverty-stricken group in Ireland. Their cause has become most common among prominent liberal circles. Indeed the plight of the itinerants since the publication of the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy shows the futility of many liberal causes which do not attack the powerof private property, and the danger attached to them for many minority groups.
Since the publication of the Report the instances of victimisation by local residents has doubled. In the Dublin area friction with itinerants has become not only more frequent but more organised. Before the popularity of this cause prejudice existed but not on a highly conscious level. Then when the Report was issued itinerants became a direct threat to property values. There were a threat which all potential purchasers could understand. This fear, which the proximity of itinerants brings to the hearts of the middle class, resulted in the highly organised anti-tinker campaign in Stillorgan two years ago and in a bigger example in the Griffith Avenue area this year when all election candidates were pressurised in a disgraceful manner.
Prejudice which hitherto was felt for most minority groups has been channelled mainly in the direction of itinerants in the last few years. The Itinerant Settlement Committee found only ignorance about itinerants six years ago, now they find conscious prejudice, most of which is highlyinaccurate. Many farmers behave like the animals in Orwell's Animal Farm. They have reached a stage where a trampled field or damage caused by wind and rain is automatically imputed to itinerants. Itinerants appear to them to be as evil and omnipresent as Snowball. Itinerants are thought to be drunken, idle, immoral and thieving, qualities attributed to most minorities by the middle class, like the aristocracy. Itinerants first went on the road due to extreme poverty in Ireland. Unlike British or European gypsies the itinerants are the product not of an ancient, highly cultured race with its own folklore and culture but of the immiserisation of a section of the ordinary, illiterate peasantry in Ireland. Among gypsies there was a coherence and a traditional organisation. Itinerants went and still go on the roads because of nothing except necessity. They feel no special cultural superiority and many envy the position of the ordinary citizen. They are not willing vagrants. In the 1960 Census 237 families had applied for a council house or flat and 213 had left them because of bad health, their house being condemned, lack of employment or an inability to pay rent.
History of itinerancy
I tinerancy has been common in Ireland for at least three c:::nturies. The British Imperialist policy of Plantation, often without land compensation of any sort, meant that there have been travelling families for the past three centuries. Many present itinerants have ancestors who have been travelling since the great famines in the early nineteenth century which made over 1,000,000 Irishmen emigrate in ten years. Destitution during the Great Famine forced the starving peasant to do one of two things. He could try to make enough money to emigrate which often meant waiting for the worst of a famine to end so that he could sell an animal in order to pay for his passage (emigration ff0m Ireland was greater after the Great Famine than during it). Another solution was to take to the road. If a peasant had a simple skill such as tinsmithing it was possible to travel around to less blighted areas and earn a precarious living selling the trade. This meant losing his tenure on rented land and usually ensured a life on the road. Itinerants in the nineteenth century were very common. British census figures did not distinguish between different categories of vagrant but in the l860s there must have been at least 500,000 professional itinerants.
Itinerancy is a living tradition in Ireland which formerly performed many useful services and has existed continuously as a large group since that period. Before the advent of modern Health Service, supplied with ambulances, the deprivation of itinerants must have been even more shocking than that revealed in the last ten years.
In 1960 itinerant parents gave birth to 6,129 children; of these 363 had died under the age of one month. This is seven per cent and several hundred per cent higher than the rest of the community. The most common reasons were bronchitis, pneumonia combined with malnutrition and exposure. Between the first month and twelve months another 419 had died, normally for the same reasons. Thus by the first year of an itinerant's life he has fifteen chances in one hundred of dying. Almost one in five children are dead, women with big families suffer most from the early mortality of their children and often their children are buried when they are awaiting another. Before the age of two years another seventy-seven had died which meant that in all in two years 859 itinerant children out of 6,000 were killed by the neglect of society.
This process of early death does not greatly diminish.According to the Census out of 6,591 itinerants only 1,466 would reach the age of thirty or over. Between the age of fifteen and thirty over 1,000 itinerants out of 2,661 would die. Fewer than one itinerant in thirty was over sixty.
Itinerants can thank God if they manage to survive infancy, they are really blessed if they reach a ripe old age of thirty and once they pass that age their days are numbered.In
Ireland such tales of early mortality are only recounted occasionally about large Indian cities. Death not only brings constant misery and sorrow to itinerant families, it creates enormous problems for the families, which are bottom heavy, with far too many young dependents.
In the settled community 30% of the population is under the age of fourteen but 52% of itinerants over, mainly because all their grandparents are dead. There are hardly any old itinerants. People over the age of fifty and under sixty comprise 10.3% of the country but among itinerants it is 3.4%. Fifteen per cent of the settled population reach the age of sixty but only 2.9% of itinerants. This means that families cannot share out the duty of looking after the children. It also means that there is a huge proportion of young itinerants which forces older itinerants to choose between allowing them run wild or getting no money. The difficulties of dealing with these problems kill an alarming number of itinerants in their thirties when most people are at their peak.
Itinerants have very large families. The national average is three and a half children per family while the average for itinerants is six and two thirds. One hundred and forty families have over ten members in the family which does not take into account a probable two or three other children who have already died. As families get poorer they have more children. Most of the families which have only tents have very large families. They divide up their tents and often suffer from intense overcrowding in wet weather, in small spaces, which spreads respiratory infections and makes physical resistance unlikely.
Itinerants marry only slightly earlier than the rest of the community. Fiftyfour itinerant men had married before the age of eighteen in the 1960 Census. But 639 married between 18-25 and 210 between 25-40 and eight over the age of forty. \Vomen married younger as 383, well over a third, married under eighteen. Itinerant marriage habits are somewhere between urban and rural norms. The early marriage of women does have an unfortunate effect because the constant strain of bearing children mcans that there are about fivc hundred more male itinerants than female which is the opposite of the average in almost every country in the world There are hardly any women itinerants over the age of sixty, less than 1 % of the whole group.
The reasons itinerants have more children are not, however, vcry difficult to ascertain. They are nearly all in the position of the most immiserised section of the working class and thus tend to have about the same number of children. They have even less material disincentivcs to have children since they have no hire purchase agreements and very little property. Birth control is not widely comprehended since nearly all itinerants are illiterate and have scarcely heard of it. The close crowding in tents and small caravans is conducive to frequent intercourse. Itinerants also have extremely close family ties which are based to a large degree on a very rigid sexual code. This precludes any form of promiscuity but is based on a taboo about sex which includes contraceptive techniques. Itinerants also like children and in fact are inordinately fond of them. Thus when a family loses a child it makes up for it by having another, furthcrmore in the impossible conditions of their camps families of different sizes cause equal difficulty.
Even surviving itinerants suffer from bad health; 127 itinerants have suffered from severe bronchitis, 148 have had pneumonia and ninety-two suffer fromrheumatism.Death is caused
most commonly by one of these three diseases and mortality from such diseases increased once recent ref0rms were put into effect and itinerants were hcrded into settlements. In such circumstances almost all itinerants catch severe influenza and the old protection of non-contact with infection disappears in the camps. It is not necessarily true that itinerants' life expectancy is raised by being grouped in camps. The most immediate effect of such grouping is an increase in literacy and an increase in disease.
Itinerants also suffer from the law. In the last year ovcr 200 itinerants were committed to jail. Most itinerants are committed to jail for drunkenness, larceny and begging. The Report of the Commission on Itinerancy must take a large measure of the blame for thc legal repression the itinerants suffer. In an irresponsible manner the Report recommended that the laws rcgarding begging should be strictly enforced. It reckoned that this would stop a vicious circle whereby itinerants did not need to be employed because they were dependent on begging and were unemployable because of the manner of life which this forced on itinerants. They believed that itinerants when thcy were deterred from begging would turn to more regular cmployment without proposing legislation stopping discrimination against itinerants.
Itinerants are extremely poor. Due to their complete lack of property any money they do come by is spent very quickly. They are excluded deliberately from nearly all social activities such as cinemas, theatre or restaurants, so they spend a significant portion of what they do get on alcohol which can be consumed off the premises and is readily obtainable. Since they are not allowed enter hire agreements they cannot accumulate consumer goods and at any rate usually have nowhere to put them.
There are four economic classifications for itinerants. The first category has forty to sixty families. This is the most prosperous, they deal in secondhand goods and livestock. This group has a lot of property and a family can earn up to thirty pounds a week. The second category is much larger and includes about 400 families. They deal in scrap but depend much more fully for a livelihood on bcgging and can earn from ten to sixteen pounds a week. The third group is still larger and has about 450 families who only earn from six to ten pounds a wee;, almost entirely from begging. The fourth category is probably the most deprivcd group of any social grouping in Ireland. It has about 400 families, some of which are the offspring of the other groups who married young and had not enough money to buy a caravan. This group live in tents. They have no employment except begging. Their income is way below subsistence level and may only be three or four pounds a week. Thcy oftcn suffer from malnutrition and have an infant mortality rate of about 30 in the first two years. They depend completely on begging but are much worse at it than their more prosperous fellows. Middle class types give money to people who excite their pity and this group looks too poor to do this. Usually they only engender feelings of disgust and offer poor competition on the begging market.
Often this group lives in the countryside where people are less likely to give them money than in the city. Their more .prosperous fellows live nearer the cities.Becauseof their
extreme poverty they steal a good deal from farmers. They often cause grcat damage while stealing by leaving clamps of potatoes exposed and damaging fields of vegetables with their few animals. This has the result of making them even more poor since they arc constantly moved on by the police due to hostility from the agricultural community and often end up in jail due to the case with which they are detected. District Justices tend to be less merciful to this group since they fail to fulfil any of the legal norms regarding any potentiality of reform. This group, for instance, have no fixed address like other itinerants, they have no money to pay fines and cannot report regularly to a police station. Their treatment is probably the most blatant example of leniency being extended only to a certain type in our legal system. This group is also most frequently charged with drunkenness since they arc in a totally demoralised state and tend to fight with richer itinerants who live in the same area.
Itinerants are almost completely illiterate. In the 1960 Census 783 out of a total of 4,809 over the age of six could read or write slightly. Their attitude towards education is indifferent rather than hostile.Only a small percentage are willing to go to school. Only a third express a wish to learn a trade or craft.
Since the Report on Itinerancy greater progress has been made in this field than in any other. Special camp schools have been set up on a voluntary basis in many areas. It is easier to keep down the rate of truancy in the countryside where the economic advantages of having an extra person begging are smaller. There has been no progress beyond the imparting of literacy, since itinerants do not continue on to Vocational School. The poorest category of itinerants who only live in tents remain unschooled. There has been no serious attempt to tackle the problem of wandering itinerants which would require the setting up of staffed, mobile schools. Anyway it is difficult to point out the advantages of a primary education to people since it merely qualifies one for labouring which most itinerants are not physically capable of.
Worsening economic prospects
The economic prospects for itinerants get worse yearly.Traditional itinerant trades are largely redundant. Their most common skill is tinsmithing. Itinerants in previous decades made a good living travelling around the countryside fixing pots and pans. The advent of plastics and of readily disposable household goods has cut into this market very severely. About one itinerant in six used to call himself a tinsmith. The next most common trade used to be that of chimneysweep. There were over one hundred itinerant sweeps ten years ago. New fuels and the growth of specialist fim1s has destroyed this market. These were their two main skills. A few itinerants now claim to be mechanics and operate in the used car business. The market for another itinerant pursuit, trade in scrap and secondhand clothes, still exists, but is less profitable than before with the encroachment of large stores and cheap fabrics allover the country. Itinerants are becoming more dependent on begging as a consequence.
The solution to the itinerant problem is not a facile one. It cannot be effected without massive state legislation. Fianna Fail has failed completely to tackle the problem and the opposition parties have failed to pose a credible solution. Each party has a strong lobby which opposes any solution which would annoy or irritate the forces of reaction in local government. Fianna Fail has also been hamstrung by an inept Civil Service. A solution would need the full co-operation of the Departments of Education, Social Welfare and Lands. It is doubtful if the Civil Service has the capability or imagination needed in such a venture. Ideally it would need a Parliamentary Secretary with special responsibility for itinerants, as in the Netherlands. Itinerants could be assimilated into the community. Seven families out of eight have expressed a desire to settle in one place. They show no hostility to the settled community. Once itinerants are being settled legislation on the lines of Britain's Race Relations Act would be needed.
Fear of local reaction
At the moment few local councils are prepared to house itinerants. They fear local reaction and claim that other councils will not take as much trouble. Legislation will be needed to settle a certain ratio of itinerants which each council should have housed by a fixed time with special funds from the central government. Once itinerants are settled it is also necessary to find them jobs.This would necessitate legislation forcing local employers to take on a certain number of itinerants and penalising victimisation by the employer or trade union involved. Itinerants have proved to be good workers once employed but there have been several instances of employers sacking itinerant girls once they learned of their background. The government has an excellent chance in giving good example, if it wanted to, due to its control of State companies.