Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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Ireland's "Travelers" Settle for
A Life of Poverty

In the romantic days of gaily painted horse-drawn caravans, today's Irish "travelers" were known as gypsies. Some have gone on to be financially successful, driving their Winnebagos from town to town and selling antiques. But at this halting site, which serves 12 families, the caravans are replaced by wheel-less mobile homes, and the last caravan horse has been relegated to the pasture as a pet.

Margaret O' Riely, her T-shirt emblazoned with "Love" tight over her pregnant stomach, greets me outside her faded green trailer. Inside, she has all the modern conveniences of any home: two TVs, a VCR, a phone. Dishes have just been washed and the narrow living quarters are neat and clean. She, her husband, and seven children, ages 1 to 11 years old, live in two of these trailers put together. They're on the dole, she says.

O'Riely says she'd like to "settle" here in Cork, but she still regards the caravan as her home, the same as it was for her parents and as far back as she can remember. The trouble is, she and her fellow travelers don't get together around campfires, singing and telling stories, as they once did. Their children, watching TV and videos, have been brought into the information age.

Margaret O'Riely (foreground) with six of her seven children and a halting site neighbor.
But the Irish government's attempts to bring the country's 40,000 travelers into the mainstream of 3.6 million Irish pose major problems on all sides. The travelers are said by many Irish to be the scourge of Irish society. The proprietor of the bed and breakfast where I stayed, who is a policeman who once patrolled the halting site, complains that travelers don't work and stay on the dole; he says they were responsible for a range of domestic violence and petty thefts during his stint as a policeman.

Whether deserved or not, the reputation of the travelers, built up over their 800 years on the road, has led to discrimination. The Irish government has allotted $15 million to improve these sites across Ireland: $7 million has yet to be spent, due to the opposition of the Irish to the location of the sites in established residential areas.

"This is 1999," O'Riely says. "We're classed back here as a troubled people." When she goes to Cork and visits pubs or shops, proprietors hear her distinctive traveler's accent and won't serve her. Her children are shunned at school. None of their "settled" classmates will play with them, or sit by them. They are treated with the same prejudice that some white Americans have for African Americans, O'Riely says.

O'Riely is taking courses through the unemployment office. But neither she nor her husband has any good prospects for jobs. He is illiterate and cannot even write his name. She has her young children to care for. "A lot are on the dole back here," she says. "There are a lot of new jobs in the factories, but they are for the settled people. We've got no proper job in sight." --LE