‘A vast majority of people have no idea who Travellers actually are’

A new initiative aims to preserve and promote the Travelling community’s heritage

A compilation of stories collected from Traveller elders has been published as part of an initiative to preserve and promote the heritage of the Travelling community.

The Mincéirí Archives is an audiovisual project focusing on the lived experiences of the Mincéirí, also known as Irish Travellers, through a compilation of oral histories and narratives.

Because Traveller history is not a compulsory part of the school curriculum in Ireland, the Mincéirí Archives aim to provide an education tool for primary schools, ensuring that future generations of Irish children have opportunity to grow up with a greater understanding and respect for the community.

The project was developed by the National Museum of Ireland in partnership with representatives of Ireland’s Travelling community, a group of historians and advertising agency TBWA Dublin.

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The collection currently consists of 10 videos, with more planned, to highlight the contributions of the Traveller community to Irish art, music and sport, as well as its language and traditions.

If it’s good enough for our children to learn about the settled way of life, it should be good enough for settled people to learn the Travellers’ way of life

—  Chrissie Donoghue Ward, Traveller

Only 10 per cent of the Traveller population is over the age of 65, and according to the last census there were only five over the age of 85, according to Oein DeBhairduin, Traveller cultural collections officer at the National Museum of Ireland and a member of the Traveller community.

“At the moment, there’s no direct initiative to incorporate our history among the history of the island,” he says., “We have a shared history, so if we’re not part of the history that’s being taught, we’re being taught an erroneous thing.

“We’re being taught a remodelling of the history ... and a vast majority of people have no idea who Travellers actually are. They know about issues and trauma and isolation, mental health, accommodation – but what do people know about our culture?”

DeBhairduin says extra effort must be made to teach people about Traveller history and culture, and that the Mincéirí Archives will give teachers and parents tools to teach children.

Another factor DeBhairduin was conscious of during the process was that when Travellers are looked up online, “you’d probably find all the negativity, you don’t actually see us”.

“When we were looking at the Mincéirí Archive, it’s just a start, and I thought, what a wonderful way to start it, to ensure our elder voices were the first thing that were on it, and I think that’ll really anchor it and give people that exposure, that richness, and also the younger community members [the chance] to reconnect,” DeBhairduin says.

Chrissie Donoghue Ward, one of the elders who took part in the video series, says often passed history she learned from her mother down to her own children, and that this tradition is very important to her.

“It should be spread in schools and high places, even for the Government – [the Mincéirí Archives] should even be in there for training them,” she says.

“Travellers aren’t even taught their own culture in the schools, and they’re reading settled-people books, and they’re reading about settled people, but the Travellers are not even reading about themselves; now the settled people are not reading about Traveller children in school either.

“So if it’s good enough for our children to learn about the settled way of life, it should be good enough for settled people to learn the Travellers’ way of life,” Donoghue Ward says.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that members of the Travelling community are probably the most disadvantaged minority in our country today, if we look at things as simple as life expectancy and access to education,” says Niall Callan, of Shellybanks Educate Together National School in Dublin’s Sandymount, who has been involved in the project.

Childrenat Shellybanks learn about the history of ethnic discrimination against the Travelling community, he says. “But the really important consideration here, and it’s something that teachers really need to think about and look at, is that the children are learning about the Traveller experience as a negative one, it’s all through the lens of discrimination and I suppose the deprivations that members of that community have faced,” Callan says.

It means that if teachers want to teach about Traveller culture, they have somewhere to go, they have really good, thought-provoking resources

—  Niall Callan, Shellybanks Educate Together National School, on the Mincéirí Archives

“Often when you’re learning about equality and discrimination, whichever minority group you’re talking about, there does tend to be the focus on the negative, it’s on the struggle, the difficulties that group has faced rather than a celebration of their uniqueness and culture.

“I think that’s something that the Mincéirí Archives is trying to do ...,Traveller culture is not all about discrimination, the Travelling people have a rich and unique cultural perspective to offer us, and here it is children, now you get to listen to it, to experience it,” he says.

Callan adds that, to date, he has not come across any history textbooks which reference Travellers.

“The problem is, if it’s not in the history book, it’s up to you to go and find that resource, and where are those resources about the Travelling community? You’ll get a few on the National Museum’s website, and obviously the Traveller organisations like Pavee Point that you can go to, but there’s not a lot out there,” he says.

“So that’s why a resource like this, the Mincéirí Archives, is brilliant, because there it is, and it means that if teachers want to teach about Traveller culture, they have somewhere to go, they have really good, thought-provoking resources.”

Dr Hannagh McGinley, the third Traveller to be awarded a PhD in the history of the State, and who works as an education officer at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on adding Traveller history and culture to school curriculums, also welcomes the archives.

“I think it’s a really good idea, I suppose one of my greatest regrets as a Traveller myself was not capturing some of the stories from my own grandmother and grandparents, and they’re gone, and so it’s too late,” Dr McGinley says.

“Even stuff like their use of the language was amazing ... at the time, as a child, I didn’t even know it was a language, I just thought we were speaking gibberish, so I wish I had known to capture all of those things.

“I think it’s such – once it’s gone, it’s gone, and given the oral nature and the oral tradition of the community, I think capturing those stories is really, really important.”

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