How mainstreaming becomes assimilation as Traveller-specific supports disappear

My school day, over eleven years, was filled with drawing, knitting and sewing. Various therapies, such as speech and language, occupational therapy and physical therapy were also part of that day. Travellers were automatically assumed to have a cognitive and cultural disability. The segregated syllabus didn’t include languages, maths, history or the Irish language – all mandatory subjects in mainstream education. By Rosaleen McDonagh.

The legacy of segregated education which we as members of the Traveller community have experienced is special schools; special classes; special classes in special schools; special buses; special lunches; special toilets. This demoralising regime included being given daily showers at school. Hair was checked for head lice. This humiliation, in front of our settled peers, made going to school excruciating and terrifying.

One would imagine, with special funding set aside for Traveller education, that at least two generations of Traveller children should be well equipped academically for university. Not so. According to the last available Census (2006) figures two-thirds of Travellers have left school by 15 years and less than 1% make it to third level education.

The formal education system in Ireland refuses to acknowledge nomadism nor does it recognise Traveller ethnicity in the state syllabus.[1] Education is a key element in addressing broader social determinants[2] including risk of poverty, health status and employment opportunities. It is well documented that the more educated you are, the healthier you are, as you are in a position to make informed choices. However, although more than 90% of 14-year-old Travellers are now in school, their educational attainment is very low, with the majority continuing to leave school early.[3]

Since the 1980s, with the emergence of Traveller organisations committed to Traveller self-determination and the use of community development approaches, Traveller leaders have emerged. Most of us had very little or no education. Our consciousness was around the direct experience of racism that impacted on all areas of our lives. Traveller women have played a huge part in the quest for human rights and anti-discrimination laws over the past three decades. The hope was that these laws would possibly change the situation for our children and our grandchildren. Systematic racism is tiresome to challenge. Despite thirty years of political lobbying, social, personal and public activism, the context of our lives hasn’t changed. In 2010, the All Ireland Traveller Health Study was launched. The statistics tell of a stark reality of how another two generations of the Traveller community are affected by discrimination, racism and marginalisation.

The parameters of the racism experienced by Travellers have changed over the past ten years. A more covert racism, a harsher racism and a more difficult racism to challenge has emerged. The economic crisis in Ireland: in an economic crisis people revert to type. This leads to a more censorious public attitude to those deemed to be different - Travellers.

It facilitates public officials with power overtly pursuing an assimilationist mindset. Assimilationist attitudes, practices and provisions which had been hidden behind a rhetoric of equality over the past ten years are once again more evident. Public officials hide behind the mantra: “We have no resources.” It allows public officials to cut back on Traveller-related expenditure in a manner that is disproportionate to cuts in other sectors. This ensures mainstreaming becomes assimilation as the Traveller-specific supports disappear. Equality gets defined as a luxury for when the government has a more disposable income. Protections against discrimination and racism have been dismantled, including the State infrastructure.

In everyday life, the impact of this racism is a backlash in the form of "Aren't they getting it all," and "This has all gone too far," and "Why aren't they more grateful?" This means Travellers who are deemed 'successful' can be drawn away from our community and our cultural roots, creating division, new rejection and maybe even a redefinition of Traveller identity. Mainstreaming, without equality mechanisms being put in place, can and does cause division within our community. Anti-social behaviour grows. This enables stereotypes to deepen and take hold. This creates new isolations, enabling self destruction, individually and collectively. Previously Travellers struggled to put cultural diversity on the agenda. Now it is on the agenda. There is a different struggle for Travellers now - the struggle to be acknowledged as part of the cultural diversity in Ireland.

Winnie is 22. She’s in her second year of a science degree. Winnie is part of the first generation of Traveller women to attend university. Her mother was one of those women who was involved in the Traveller rights movement in the 1980s. Her mother, Annie, fought hard against the system to get her child into mainstream primary and secondary school. Winnie succeeded in completing her education despite the pressure from her family and the wider Traveller community. Winnie says the racism she received from teachers and classmates was “casual” and she managed to “avoid” or ignore most of it.

There were times when Annie had no childcare support so young Winnie would have been brought after school or on holidays to political meetings or Traveller rights marches. The day that Winnie was accepted into university was a very proud moment, not just for her mother and her immediate family, but for the whole community. Five years previous to Winnie’s entrance into university, Traveller activists and Traveller organisations lobbied the government and the university for an affirmative action package targeted at Travellers. The package was generous by way of education, tuition, accommodation and daily subsistence. A working group made up of Traveller activists, academics and student supports set about defining the requirements for this affirmative action package. The applicants who would receive the package had to be from the Traveller community.[4]

The blueprint the working group operated from was similar to that of such programmes in New Zealand for the Maori community and in Australia for the Aboriginal people. The community hoped that not only would it produce Traveller university graduates but that it would also raise a sense of pride and self esteem for younger Travellers. Winnie was successful. She filled all the criteria. Her family were known to the community. Winnie graduated this summer. She refused to do any public events to promote the affirmative action programme. Invitations by the media for her to talk about her experience and to promote the programme Winnie also turned down. Activists and community leaders, particularly those involved in the working group, were angry and frustrated at Winnie’s decision. The academic institution insisted it was her choice to remain anonymous and at no point was she expected to be the poster person for this affirmative action.

The community believed Winnie had become arrogant, had a bad memory, was in denial. Traveller activists believed she was “passing”, not only as a “settled Traveller”, but as a settled person. It was said that she was forgetting her culture and heritage in an effort for personal freedom. Winnie felt she deserved her degree regardless of the affirmative programme. “The community doesn’t own me or my degree.” Traveller activists wanted the programme to be about creating future role models given the context of racism and discrimination experienced by the Traveller community.

Affirmative action is often seen very narrowly as a rite of passage for an individual - almost as a reward, which fulfils personal satisfaction and creates better individual opportunities rather than collective outcomes for the Traveller community. The tension between the individual who benefitted from the affirmative action package and the Traveller activists is straining. Is affirmative action a gift of perceived autonomy and advantage or is it a Trojan horse?

Affirmative action allowed Winnie to catch up to her settled peers. She carried five generations of a community hurt at being excluded, marginalised and forgotten. Her head hasn’t tipped the glass ceiling. It will; then she’ll realise racism is never casual.


[1] Our Geels Traveller Health Study 2010, pg. 163

[2] Bambra etal., 2010; Bambra, C. et al. (2010) Tackling the wider social determinants of health and health inequalities: evidence from systematic reviews. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 64: 284-291.

Rosengren et al. (2009) Rosengren, A. et al. INTERHEART investigators (2009) Education and risk for acute myocardial infarction in 52 high, middle and low-income countries: INTERHEART case-control study. Heart, 95(24): 2014-2022.

[3] Minister Harney launches the findings of the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study, Health Update, September 2 2010 -- 

[4] Defined by the Equal Status Act 2000 - 2008, which defines the community as follows:

“People who are commonly called Travellers, who are identified both by Travellers and others as people with a shared history, culture and traditions, identified historically as a nomadic way of life on the Island of Ireland.”