Irish Travellers: Getting to Know these Indigenous People

Irish Travellers

Updated On: April 15, 2024 by   Aya RadwanAya Radwan

If you have visited Ireland, you may have met members of the Irish Travellers Community. They are sometimes labelled gipsies by mistake when they’re, in fact, indigenous people who’ve been living in Ireland since the dawn of time, as proven by recent studies that looked deeper into the origin of the Irish Travellers.

In this article, we will get to know the Irish Travellers, some of their traditions, and official statistics about them, focusing on education, suicide rate, and crime and prison statistics. The Irish government formally acknowledged them in 2017 as indigenous to Ireland. This acknowledgement took place in the hopes of starting a new page with the travelling minority. 

The Irish Travellers

The indigenous people, known as Irish Travellers, were officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group of Irish society by the Irish government back in 2017. In light of this recognition, a special decorative pin was designed to represent the government’s achievement.

Irish Travellers have faced many years of misconceptions and prejudice. They have been questioned about their origin and whether they were a part of the Irish community or related to other travelling groups such as the European Roma, the closest neighbours.

irish travellers

Irish Travellers, who also like to be known as the Walking People, are indigenous people who have been scientifically proven to have been a part of the Irish population for centuries. What made the Irish Travellers a self-defined group is their shared history, cultural heritage, language, traditions, and customs, which are all very distinct.

Irish Travellers do not represent a large number of the Irish population, but only 0.6% of it, which translates to between 29,000 and 40,000 people. These numbers make them a minority not only in Ireland but in general.

Some of the Irish Travellers’ Traditions

Irish Travellers are talented in many aspects, and this suits the nature of travelling around often and benefits them in their daily lives. They’ve developed and honed some of these crafts for years, such as metal works and garment making.

1. Trades and Crafts People

From crafting tin and copper to making buckets, mugs, coal scuttles, and churns, the Irish traveller is known to have skilled hands for making such items. These represent only a fraction of the things the Irish Travellers can make. They are also known to offer to take off seasonal work from farmers, such as picking vegetables or fruits.

The Irish Travellers’ trading and crafting spirit is a symbol of their independence and strength over the years. Everyone in the community takes pride in such a spirit. It is proudly displayed in giving new life to old furniture, market stalls, and gardening businesses.

2. Sewing and Garment Making

Many Irish Traveller women love decorating their clothes and accessories with beautiful stitches, beads, and colourful designs. One of the most significant features of Irish Traveller women’s sewing skills was making a “beady pocket,” a small bag worn around the waist and kept hidden under an apron that Traveller women used to trade with each other. They used their pockets to keep money and essential items safe, and its flap was usually decorated with colourful accessories, stitches, buttons, and beads.

3. Music

Irish Travellers have influenced musicians both in Ireland and abroad. Some of these musicians include Felix and Johnny Doran. They were Uilleann pipers and were, in fact, descendants of the Wexford piper John Cash. Paddy Keenan, Finbar Furey, Thomas McCarthy, John Doherty -who played with his family occasionally in Donegal-, and Steo Wall are just some of the names who shone and kept on shining in the music world.

Irish Travellers
The Uilleann Pipe

4. The Importance of Family and Religion

It’s widely known that Irish Travellers are very family-oriented. The headstones of their dead are engraved with nice words to indicate how much the deceased was loved by their family. They’re also very religious and go on a pilgrimage from time to time. Some of the most popular pilgrimage places include the Croagh Patrick Mountain and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock or the Knock Shrine, both in County Mayo. Another important place is walking the Camino de Santiago to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Irish Travellers

Traveller Community in Ireland Statistics

One of the most common misconceptions about Irish Travellers is that the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852 was the reason behind the displacement of the Travellers and parting from the settled Irish population. However, recent research by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland proved just how far from the truth this misconception was.

In cooperation with the University of Edinburgh, the research by the RCSI used DNA samples from Irish Travellers, the European Roma and the settled people of Ireland, the United Kingdom, as well as Europe and the world, and came to many significant finds:

  1. The actual time when the Travellers separated from the settled population is 360 years ago, which puts the time frame back to the 1600s; almost 12 generations of Travellers.
  2. According to the research, there are not only small but major differences between the genomes of the Irish Travellers and those of the settled population. Such differences could be mainly attributed to the long years of isolation and separate development of the Travellers. This confirms the first fact that the Travellers have been a part of the Irish community for centuries.
  3. There were no genetic similarities between the genomes of the Irish Travellers and other travelling groups, such as the European Roma.
  4. Irish Travellers speak Irish, Irish English or Hiberno-English, and Shelta, which is the linguistic term for the Cant and Gammon dialects for Irish Travellers. This research has shown some genetic differences between the speakers of the Cant and Gammon dialects.

This research was vital in discovering how the origins of the Irish Travellers were carved in history as being an original part of the Irish population for centuries.

Central Statistics Office Ireland Travellers

The CSO is the national office for statistics in Ireland. It is responsible for collecting and analysing data about Ireland’s people, economy, and society in an impartial manner. The office’s report regarding the population census in 2016 has incorporated statistics about Irish Travellers, which coincided with the Irish government’s recognition of the group as an indigenous part of the Irish population.

The statistics about Irish Travellers included information about their numbers compared to the total population, housing, economic aspects, ethnicity, and religion. Here are these statistics:

  1. At the time of this report, the number of Irish Travellers had increased by 5.1% since 2011, bringing the total number to 30,987.
  2. Of the Irish counties, the county with the most significant number of travellers was County Galway, with 2,647 travellers, which is a 6.7% increase from 2011. South Dublin followed with 2,208, representing a 1.5% decrease from 2011.
  3. Tuam town had the largest number of Travellers, with 737 travellers.
  4. Almost 32% of married Irish Travellers were between the ages of 15 and 29 years old, compared to 5.8% of the general population.
  5. The divorce rate also differed, with 2.2% for Irish Travellers compared to 4.7% for the general population.
  6. Almost 40% of Irish Travellers were under the age of 15, 57% were between the ages of 15 and 64, and only 3% were over 65.
  7. The number of Irish Traveller males who were 65 years old or more was 451, while for females, it was 481, which represented 2.9% and 3.1% respectively compared to their peers of the general population, which stood at 12.6% for the males and 14.1% for the females.
  8. One out of two Irish Traveller women between the ages of 40 and 49 had given birth to 5 or more children.
  9. There was a 12.3% increase in the number of households with Irish Travellers between 2011 and 2016, where the numbers increased from 7,765 to 8,717 households.
  10. Almost 85.2% of the increase in Irish Travellers’ households were classified as family households, compared to 70.2% for the general population.
  11. Almost 18% of Irish Travellers were lone parents with children, compared to 11.7% of the general population.
  12. Almost 9% of Irish Travellers were married but had no children, compared to 15.7% of the general population.
  13. Almost 11% of Irish Travellers, nearly 1 in 10, lived in a one-person household, compared to 23.5% or 1 out of 4 of the general population.
  14. The average number of people living in the households of the Irish Travellers who had a married couple with children stood at 5.3, compared to 4.1 persons for the general population.
  15. The percentage of Irish Travellers’ households with nine people or more living inside amounted to 4.2% in 2016, compared to 0.1% of the general population.
  16. The number of Irish Travellers with a 3rd-level educational qualification increased from 1989 to 2011 to 167.
  17. The number of Irish Travellers females with a secondary or upper secondary education stood at 13.3%, compared to 69.1% of the general population.
  18. About 57.2% of Irish Travellers males, which translates to 6 in 10 men, had education up until the Primary level, compared to 13.6% of the general population.
  19. The number of Irish Travellers in the Irish labour force stood at 10,653. However, about 80% of this number, which translates to 8,541 people, were unemployed, while the remaining 2,112 were employed.
  20. The Irish Travellers’ participation rate in the labour force stood at 57%, compared to 61.4% for the general population.
  21. Slightly more than 11% of Irish Travellers, about 1 in 8, stated they couldn’t work due to a disability, which is three times more than the general population’s 4.3%.
  22. There were 972 Irish Travellers females at work, while 2,938 stayed home looking after their families. This represents over 30% of traveller women who were 15 years old or older.
  23. One in five Irish Travellers (about 19.2%) suffered from a disability. This number translates to 5,963 people.
  24. Difficulty with pain or breathing and chronic illnesses were the most recorded disability, with 2,658 cases. In comparison, difficulty with physical activity had 2,363 cases.
  25. The majority of Irish Travellers lived in private homes, while a small number of 639 lived in communal establishments.
  26. There was a 10.3% increase in the number of mobile private dwellings, such as caravans, between 2011 and 2016.
  27. Statistics found that 39.1% of Irish Travellers’ households (about two in five) have more individuals than the number of rooms, compared to less than 6% of general households.
  28. Five hundred and seventeen Irish Travellers were recorded as homeless in 2016.
  29. Only one in five Irish Travellers (about 20%) own their households, compared to 67.6% of the general population.
  30. There was an increase in the number of Irish Travellers who had complete ownership of their homes by 22.8% in 2016 to reach 1,133.
  31. More than six thousand Irish Travellers rented homes. 65.5% of them rented from a local authority, representing an increase from the previous 3,317 to 3,938. On the other hand, the number who rented from a private landlord decreased from 2,257 back in 2011 to 1,835 in 2016.
  32. About 30% of Irish Travellers had internet access compared to more than 75% of the general population. The 59.9% of Irish Travellers who didn’t have internet access in 2016 represents a decrease from 71.7% in 2011.

These were the latest statistics about Irish Travellers as mentioned in the Population Census conducted by CSO in 2016.

Traveller Suicide Statistics Ireland

In 2019, a new group was established to advocate further and emphasize the importance of mental health for the traveller community in Ireland. The newly launched lobby was the National Traveller Mental Health Network, which will focus on sharing information about the reasons for traveller mental health issues and address them to develop practices and policies to deal with such matters.

There were many facts discussed at the launch of the new lobby group. It was revealed that the suicide rate among the traveller community was six times higher than that of the general public. Such a horrific number was not the only issue discussed. The other ones were:

  1. Suicide affected 82% of the traveller community.
  2. About 90% of the traveller community agree that mental health problems are common in their community.
  3. Poor physical health, as well as mental health, were chosen by 56% of Travellers as negatively affecting their regular everyday activities.
  4. About 63% of traveller women and 59.4% of men stated their mental health wasn’t good for at least a couple of days in the previous 30 days.
  5. Travellers represent a large number of the residents at the Central Mental Hospital, amounting to 10%, a staggering number that’s ten times higher than the general population.

These unfortunately are not the only numbers regarding mental health issues in the traveller community, according to Pavee Point (The Traveller and Roma Centre), we have these numbers as well:

  1. The high rate of traveller suicide reflected the actual suicide cases registered by the General Register Office. Suicide was the cause of 11% of deaths in the traveller community.
  2. The suicide rate for traveller men was higher by seven times compared with the general population and was more common among traveller men between the ages of 15 and 25.
  3. The suicide rate for traveller women was higher by 5 times compared to the general population.
  4. Of the travellers in prison and surveyed, 39% had mental health problems that they were being treated for, while 81% were already taking prescribed medication.
  5. There were many factors affecting traveller mental health, whether social, economic or even the surrounding physical environments. These factors included:
  • Discrimination.
  • Physical illnesses.
  • Exclusion by society.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Misusing drugs.
  • Low education level.
  • The inadequacy of household or accommodation.
  • Not trusting service providers, where only 41% of travellers trusted healthcare professionals.

The data made available by the All Ireland Traveller Health Study Team indicates that mental healthcare services are made available for the traveller community. However, these services need significant improvement. There’s also a great shortage of data about travellers seeking mental health care because such data is not necessarily collected on an ethnic or cultural basis. Such an issue creates a massive gap between the actual numbers and those of travellers who sought help.

Traveller Crime Statistics Ireland

Even though the travelling community represents less than 1% of the general population in Ireland, the number of travellers detained or in the criminal justice system is astounding. Over the past years, there has been a growing concern about a disproportionate representation of Irish Travellers in the criminal justice system. This called for a conference in Dublin where the host was an initiative called Travellers in Prison. There was a beneficial discussion from all the attendants represented by the Irish Prison Service or IPS, the Probation Service and notable traveller activists such as Thomas McCann.

Irish Travellers

The conference discussed many of the problems faced by the travelling community. Although some of the issues might lead individuals to commit crimes, these problems, in fact, could be sorted out peacefully. Mr McCann stressed the pressing need to handle the social and institutional issues facing the travellers, or it would only worsen for them. At the same time, David Staunton, Minister of State for Equality, hoped to see mediation attempts to work problems facing the travelling community.

Some of the statistics discussed at the previous conference as well as ones shared by Pavee Point include:

  1. More than 10% of adult male prisoners in Irish prisons were travellers.
  2. About 22% of the adult female prisoners in Irish prisons were travellers. This indicates that one in every four women in prison had a traveller background.
  3. Of the youth detained at Oberstown (a children’s detention campus), 19% had a traveller background.

On the other hand, the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain or the IBC, conducted a study titled “Voices Unheard.’ The objective was to research and reveal the findings of the Irish Travellers in British prisons in Britain and Wales. The study included surveys and several discussion points with prisoners across nine prisons. These are the main findings:

  1. The number of Irish Travellers in British prisons only represented between 0.6% and 1%.
  2. Of the total minority prison population, Irish Travellers represented between 2.5% and 4% only.
  3. Of the total foreign population in prison, Irish Travellers represented between 5% and 8%.
  4. About 52% of the offences committed by Irish Travellers for which they were imprisoned pertained to obtaining property illegally.
  5. Irish Travellers continuously suffered from discrimination and racism in prison.
  6. There were no measurements or rules in place that ensured equality of treatment of the Irish travelling community in prison, despite the alleged priority with which the needs of this community are handled.
  7. More than 59% of Irish Travellers in prison were identified by the study as needing basic educational intervention.
  8. More than 26% of Irish Travellers in prison were identified as suffering from one or more mental illnesses.
  9. About 65% of female Irish Travellers in prison were identified as having a mental illness.
  10. About 59% of the total Irish Travellers in prison had one or more children under 18 years of age.
  11. About 53% of the female Irish travellers in prison had a child, or children, under 18 years of age.
  12. Unfortunately, more than 46% of the total Irish Travellers in prison were young adults between the ages of 18 and 21.
  13. Before imprisonment, 37% of Irish Travellers lived on traveller sites.
  14. About 52% of the male offenders of the Irish Travellers in prison one or more children.

These numbers were the result of discussions with the prisoners about several issues such as family, discrimination, education, and both physical and mental health.

Traveller Education Statistics Ireland

The UN Convention regarding the rights of the child states in its 29th article that:

“Education shall aim at developing the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to the fullest extent. Education shall prepare the child for active adult living in a free society and foster respect for the child’s parents, their own cultural identity, language and values, and for the cultural background and values of others.”

The importance of education cannot be stressed enough in any given society worldwide, and its significance for the traveller community is equal. However, such importance is not translated into the educational system’s number of children, youth, or even adult travellers. Unfortunately, the numbers of travellers in the educational system are still way too low. The following numbers might elaborate:

  1. During the school year of 2017-2018, 1.3% of children attending or taking early years services were identified as travellers. The total number of enrolled children in the entire system amounted to 202,633, of which 3,080 were identified as travellers.
  2. Between the school years of 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, there was a 16% increase in the number of all traveller students attending all services, which brought their number from the previous 611 to 642.
  3. When looking at the data of the school years 2011-2012 up to 2018-2019, the total number of traveller students in the Primary Level of Education amounted to 7,884, which translates to 1.4% of the total number of pupils in the school year 2018-2019. This number is slightly lower than the previous school year of 2017-2018 when the traveller pupils represented 7,908, which translates to 1.5% of the total number of pupils. The numbers show a slight decrease from 2011-2012 to 2018-2019 by 0.2%.
  4. In the school year of 2018-2019, the number of traveller students enrolled in traveller-only schools, which were two schools, was only 76 pupils.
  5. The number of traveller pupils during the school year 2011-2012 up to 2018-2019 in DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools had increased; they represented about 4% of the total number of pupils. In comparison to non-DEIS schools, traveller pupils make up only 1%.
Irish Travellers

The DEIS action plan was launched in May of 2005 with the aim of education inclusion and addressing educational disadvantages. The action plan prioritises the educational needs of children from disadvantaged communities, working from ages 3 to 18, covering the preschool years up to second-level education.

  • During the school year of 2018-2019, more than 2,000 students studying in the Junior Cycle got traveller support during the school year. During the same period, those receiving traveller support at the Leaving Certificate Level were only 704. This trend has been ongoing for several years. More traveller students benefit from traveller support during the Junior Cycle compared to the Leaving Certificate Level. This also reflects the low number of traveller students who advance to the Senior or Leaving Certificate Level.
  • From the academic year 2010-2011 up to 2016-2017, the total number of students who identified as travellers constituted merely 0.2% of the total number of new entrants to all higher education institutions. During the same, new entrants who applied for the first year in a university-level program who identified as travellers were consistently at 0.1%, which increased to 0.2% in the academic year of 2017-2018.

While the number of Irish Travellers students progressing to university-level education has been increasing, the goal set by the five-year plan of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education of having 80 traveller students per year is yet to be achieved.

  • Between 2011 and 2016, for the age groups of 15 to 19-year-olds and 20 to 24-year-olds, there was a decrease in the number of Irish Travellers whose highest level of education was primary education or even below. On the other hand, there was an increase in the number of Irish Travellers whose highest level of education was lower secondary and upper secondary, which increased from 13.3% to 20.4%.
  • One of the most interesting statistics concerned the traveller mothers’ education level. The majority of traveller mothers, about 71%, whose youngest child was between 18 and 24, had neither formal nor primary education. While 11.8% of the same mother group had lower secondary education, only 2.2% had upper secondary education. On the other hand, 48.2% of traveller mothers whose youngest child was between the ages of mere months to 5 years old had neither formal nor primary education. In comparison, 28.3% of the same mother group had lower secondary education, and 12.6% had upper secondary education. Furthermore, 2.3% of this mother group had third-level education and above.

The Irish government might have set ambitious plans to further integrate traveller children, youth, and young adults into the educational system. While there has been a slight increase over the past years, several aspects lacked progress. These previous statistics were listed in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs report with the title “Young Travellers in Ireland.”

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