Opinion: Ireland's Travellers' culture is part of the country's intangible cultural heritage, but is ignored, rejected and marginalised

Earlier this month, Seanad Eireann passed the draft legislation which would amend the Education Act 1988 to include Traveller culture and history as an obligatory part of the curriculum at primary and secondary school. According to Senator Collette Kelleher, this is the first significant legislative inclusion following the recognition of Travellers' ethnic minority status in 2017.

Although this recognition has been a crucial step towards the protection of the inherent rights of Travellers in Ireland, the present situation shows that there are still serious deficiencies in the protection of this community's rights, especially the absence of their long and proud history in the education system. While this gap has exerted negative effects on the self-concept of young Travellers, the rest of society has lost the opportunity to learn about the diversity and wider context of Traveller culture and history. This absence has contributed to ongoing prejudice and racism against Travellers that has led them to a cultural identity crisis.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Carole Coleman reports on the quality of life for Travellers, two years after the state officially recognised the community as a separate ethnic group

As a result, this culture may be endangered, as its followers either have been isolated or have had to hide their identity or values to gain acceptance in society. But Travellers are carriers of the intangible cultural heritage of Ireland, which includes practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and know-how transmitted from generation to generation within this community, depending on their interaction with nature and history. This culture provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, transmitted through imitation, and does not necessarily require a specific place or material objects.

The importance of the right to culture has been enshrined by international legal instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits". The 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity notes that "all persons have the right to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons are entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity; and all persons have the right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and conduct their own cultural practices, subject to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms".

Policymakers should consider that no country can develop while it dismisses a part of its past

One of the aims of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is "to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned." Accordingly, "each State Party shall endeavour to ensure the widest possible participation of communities, groups and, where appropriate, individuals that create, maintain and transmit such heritage, and to involve them actively in its management". The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 asserts that "the education of the child shall be directed to […] the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own".

Therefore it is expected that Travellers’ culture, which is part of Ireland's intangible cultural heritage after all, be respected and protected. But in practice, the importance of this culture is ignored and this minority struggles to survive under the pressure of long-term marginalisation and rejection through different levels of life, education and employment. Due to this widespread discrimination and exclusion, many leave school or die by suicide as a way out of the current situation.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, a discussion on the mental health of the Traveller community

Cultural marginalisation makes some of them abandon their own cultural values, either by themselves or by not passing it on to the next generation. This can be seen in the association between this culture and negative social stigmas, such as poverty and illiteracy. This approach has gradually forced Travellers to consciously or unconsciously abandon their customs and traditions to achieve higher social admissibility.

This leads to an identity crisis and deprives other people in society from Travellers’ knowledge, skills and traditions, which can enhance the general culture. For example, Travellers’ knowledge of animals, insects, agricultural techniques and weather patterns has improved from interaction with nature, often gained over ages and passed down through generations. These traditions promote living in harmony with nature rather than conquering it.

This cultural marginalisation represents a mutual loss for both the country and this ethnic minority. The denial of the cultural rights of ethnic groups leads to antisocial behaviours and social disobedience and leads to cultural loss with devastating impacts for the history of society and even the economy and political system. Policymakers should consider that no country can develop while it dismisses a part of its past and every state requires cultural legitimacy to govern effectively. This requires the recognition, implementation and enforcement of cultural rights of different minorities from various ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds who reside in a country.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Music Passport, Kathryn Thomas looks at the importance of music within the travelling community from Johnny Doran, Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne to Shayne Ward and Kelly Mongan

The realisation of cultural rights should not be regarded as a gift to be granted to this ethnic group, but rather a constitutional imperative for the government. Otherwise, the state should expect consequences in response to the denial of cultural recognition and loss of cultural legitimacy, which is a core element of a state’s general legitimacy. A strong political will is required to guarantee that no part of society is left behind. The Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 is a critical step towards integrity between groups in a culturally diverse context, and also for combatting racism and discrimination in Ireland. Indeed, the new act can serve as an effective remedy to save this cultural heritage from imminent extinction.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ