Making education work for Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in prison

Home > Making education work for Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in prison

Jon Collins | 06 April 2023

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Last week PET’s Chief Executive Jon Collins spoke at the launch of an excellent new report from the Traveller Movement. Available but not Accessible looks at the barriers that Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers face in accessing purposeful activities in prison – including their experience of education. Here, he takes a look at what the report found. 

Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller people are heavily overrepresented within the criminal justice system. Despite only making up an estimated 0.1% of the population, 5% of people in prison identify as Romany Gypsy or Irish Traveller. Moreover, education provision may be particularly important for this group given that, as the report notes, 68% of Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller people in prison did not complete school.

The report is occasionally enraging, genuinely insightful and well worth a read. It is also well-timed in terms of considering what an effective prison regime should look like, with HMPPS in the midst of a project on future regime design and new contracts for the delivery of prison education about to be tendered.

irish traveller folsom prison

Worrying data on education participation

Based on a snapshot of data from five prisons, the report found that 69% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people were taking part in purposeful activity – activities provided in prisons to assist with rehabilitation, such as education, training and employment – compared to 64% of the overall prison population. Similarly, GRT people were more likely to be participating in vocational training than the overall population.

But worryingly GRT people were less likely to be taking part in education than the overall population (16% vs 20%).

The findings of the focus groups carried out with Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers shed some light on the issues underpinning these numbers.

They suggested that Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers would rather take part in prison-based work than in education. There were multiple reasons for this, from the fact that education is often less well paid than work, to a reluctance to participate in classroom-based education (in part due to negative childhood experiences of education), to ambivalence about whether literacy and numeracy skills are really that important. Some participants expressed a preference for vocational courses that would help them find work on release.

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Participants also expressed resentment about prison policies that excluded them from higher-paying prison jobs until they had completed literacy courses. This, in effect, makes these courses mandatory. It also penalises Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers – who on average have lower levels of literacy when entering prison – by preventing them from participating in their preferred activities.

Recommendations for change

The report makes a series of sensible recommendations for change on education.

They include improving access to one-to-one learning schemes for those reluctant to participate in classroom-based education; the provision of more age-appropriate reading materials; and the introduction of more courses that combine practical vocational skills with literacy and numeracy.

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It also highlights the importance of introducing the idea of mandatory education sensitively, including using culturally competent and appropriate learning materials. This would help to reduce conflict and improve relationships between staff and prisoners.

These recommendations would all undoubtedly improve the experience of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in prison, making it more likely that they would willingly take part in education. But there are also broader lessons here for the provision of education, lessons that should be taken into account in the design of the new Prison Education Service.

Helping make prison education better for everyone

Firstly, education must be prison-wide. Effective prison education, and particularly the development of literacy and numeracy skills, cannot only be delivered in classrooms. It must also permeate other elements of the prison regime. Bricklaying courses can encompass literacy and numeracy, for example, as the report recommends.

Secondly, as far as possible prison education needs to be personalised. This report highlights how learners’ differing needs, interests and aspirations need to be met if education is going to be appealing and engaging. There are, of course, limits to the extent to which education provision can be individually tailored. But the more it can be personalised, the greater impact it will have.

Finally, for any of this to be achievable prison education has to be properly funded. This report highlights, yet again, both the importance of prison education and the challenges with delivering it effectively. If these challenges are going to be met, then current woeful levels of underfunding must be addressed.

Given the overrepresentation of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in the prison population and the negative experiences recounted in this report, making prison regimes more accessible should clearly be a priority. But it is also the case that making these changes would help to make prison education better for everyone, improving what is offered and enabling more people in prison to access the life-changing power of education.

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Working Notes 93: Unheard Voices: Irish Travellers and the Struggle for Social Justice

Irish travellers and prison: discrimination, education, and lateral violence.

Posted on September 18, 2023 by Martina Madden - Education   Penal Reform   Poverty & Inequality  

irish traveller folsom prison

by Martina Madden

Martina Madden is Communications and Social Policy Advocate of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

INTRODUCTION

Irish Travellers are underrepresented in all of the categories we associate with status and success in our society. They are barely visible in positions of power, (despite the appointment of Eileen Flynn, an Irish Traveller, to the Seanad in 2020 [1] ) and their education rates are dismally low, with the majority of Traveller men having just received primary-level schooling. [2]

One area where they are overrepresented is in our prisons. Travellers comprise less than 0.7 per cent of the population of the Republic of Ireland but make up 10 per cent of the general prison population and 15 per cent of the female prisoner population. [3] We, as a society, should be deeply concerned about these figures, and about the contributory factors involved.

The framing of Travellers as disruptive criminals, in our media and in our collective consciousness provides us with an excuse to justify their exclusion from society and the discrimination they endure. It scapegoats a vulnerable group who are trying to survive in a system where the odds are stacked against them and blames the entirety of that cohort for the actions of a few. When we examine the historical and existing barriers to full participation in society that exist for Travellers and the injustice of their exclusion, it is our mainstream, settled, majority population that emerges as culpable of wrongdoing, which is resulting in grievous harms being inflicted on the lives of members of the Traveller community.

A COMMUNITY COMING UNDONE

Travellers are loose threads in the fabric of Irish society. They exist at the edges rather than being interwoven into the whole. This is often excused by settled people as being their choice, and even their fault. We have all heard about, and read about in the media, Travellers’ propensity to crime and disruption. But what we don’t hear about is Travellers’ struggles to exist and find their place in a society that was designed for a settled lifestyle. We also don’t hear much about the loss of their unique culture and heritage, including traditional modes of making a living.

The unpalatable fact, which many of us in mainstream society struggle to accept, is that Travellers are the victims of grave systemic injustices, and the effects of these prevail. Decades of institutional discrimination, and social exclusion, have resulted in disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and ill health (both physical and mental), as well as low levels of educational achievement. The experience of Irish Travellers starkly contrasts with the broader narrative of Irish prosperity and social progression since Independence in 1922, and they remain one of the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups in Ireland. The impact of this on their lives is stark: suicide rates among this community are six times higher than in the general population and their life expectancy remains much lower. [4]

NARRATIVES OF TWO TRAVELLER MEN

For this essay I spoke to two Traveller men in their 40s, Patrick* and William*, both of whom were sent to prison in their twenties. They both have overcome significant challenges and today have rewarding careers in the social care sector, where they provide guidance and support to young Traveller men. Their personal narratives help to illuminate the level of injustice this group faces, how high the barriers to inclusion in our society are, and the impossibility – as a member of a marginalised group – of breaching them, without adequate and sustained assistance. The overrepresentation of Travellers in our prison and crime statistics indicate an issue that is broader and more complex than it is represented by our media and by the establishment. It reveals the personal and societal impact of poverty and exclusion and the inherent injustice in our policing [5] and penal system, [6] as well as a community that is visibly in need of understanding and support.

ETHNIC IDENTITY, DISCRIMINATION AND LOSS OF LIFESTYLE

Irish Travellers were formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group by the State in March 2017. [7]   This was the result of years of campaigning for their unique cultural identity to be acknowledged and was welcomed by Traveller advocacy groups. It was an event that had huge symbolic importance, but it did little to reverse the harms that had been done before.

The Irish State’s discrimination against Travellers is longstanding. The Commission on Itinerancy Report 1963, identified “the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants” [as Travellers were then called]. It not only failed to acknowledge Traveller ethnicity and nomadism but threatened to assimilate and absorb them into wider society as the “final solution” to everyone’s problems. This inherently racist and misguided strategy failed on many counts but it provided a precedent that “established policy relating to Travellers for the next twenty years”. This included criminalising their nomadic way of life (by outlawing the ability to park their trailers on agricultural land), and began a process of legitimising hostility and discrimination against Travellers from the settled community. [8]

Travellers have for centuries supported themselves through their traditional occupations of tin smithing, seasonal agricultural work, and horse trading. But the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of Ireland, with its shift towards a service-based, high-tech economy has made many of these occupations obsolete. The need for a formal education to access opportunities in this modern system has been a challenge for Travellers, whose rates of literacy and educational attainment are low, in part due to a peripatetic lifestyle and their experience of prejudice and bullying in the school system. Entrenched social prejudice towards them effectively excludes Travellers from obtaining any job in the mainstream workforce, leaving them disproportionately affected by unemployment, poverty, mental health issues and homelessness.

PATRICK’S NARRATIVE

Patrick is a 40-year-old Traveller man who was born in Ireland but lived with his family in England until his mid-teens, when he left school. He showed promise as a boxer, making it to the all-Ireland finals twice, at age 17 and 18. Unfortunately he did not win the title at either match. A loss at this level was hard on his self-esteem, which was already shaky. Leaving school early had left him with no qualifications. This, and the blatant discrimination he experienced from employers who did not want a Traveller working for them, made finding a job impossible. After a row with his mother, Patrick moved to a halting site where he began to hang out with other young men who were also unemployed, bored and disillusioned by the discrimination they endured and the social inequality they witnessed. He began to take drugs and to get involved in crime. The breakup of his marriage which resulted in his wife and children moving to England exacerbated his drug use and depression. In and out of prison, he was at a loss to find a way to move forward and change his life. Thanks to his own determination, and to organisations that provided him with the mental health and addiction supports as well as secure housing, he is now about to complete a BA in Community Youth Work and is hoping that his story will be an inspiration for other young Travellers who are struggling. [9]

WILLIAM’S NARRATIVE

William is a Traveller in his late 30s. His family moved between Ireland and the UK for most of his childhood and he continued to move between both places in early adulthood. He left school at 11 without being able to read or write, only much later being diagnosed as dyslexic. He began to earn money by washing car windows at traffic lights and moved onto trading from stalls on the street, but was in trouble with the police for minor offences. In his late teens he got pulled into a long-standing family feud which escalated over a period of years into serious violence, which resulted in him being imprisoned for 14 years. While imprisoned, he learned to read and write. In addition to his determination to learn, William also volunteered for the Samaritans, providing a listening ear to other prisoners. He also became involved in the Red Cross and got a job in the mess kitchen as a chef. William is grateful to the teachers in Mountjoy for their encouragement and support. Since leaving prison he has found employment providing support for younger Travellers, something that he could not have done without an education. [10]

EDUCATION AND TRAVELLERS

Higher education is a prerequisite for almost every job these days. Applicants are expected to have a Leaving Certificate at least, and increasingly to have a degree, even if its subject matter does not relate to the job itself. This is challenging for the Traveller population, who often leave school early. This can be because the family is moving but often it is because of bullying and exclusion within the school system. The bullying can come from teachers, or from other students. Both men I spoke to for this essay had their own experiences with this.

William recounted his experience of not being supported at school:

“Well, I never really got in to school. I was, was always getting suspended. Like I was dyslexic. So I spent most of my time in Mr Golden’s office looking at a wall [laughs] for obviously disrupting class and things like that. Which I did because I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t got a clue and I couldn’t read and write. And then you had kids… kind of… you had a bit of racism and [in England] it wasn’t as bad as here, but there was still some.” [11]

Patrick agreed that racism against Travellers was not as bad in English schools as in Ireland; his schooling ended when the family moved back to Ireland in his early teens. He explained that one often overlooked reason why Traveller children leave school early is that their parents are afraid that they are being treated as badly as they were during their own schooldays.

“Their mothers probably know what’s going on in the schools and they know that they’re not getting cared for. They probably remember back when they were going to school, the mothers, and thinking what it was like for them … And they’re thinking … my daughter’s better off out of there now. Maybe … she’s getting bullied in the class, so maybe we’re better off taking her out.” [12]

Unfortunately, those mothers are probably right. In Irish schools, shunning Travellers is not something that is consigned to the past. William said of his 15-year-old daughter:

“My daughter’s friends in the school are all foreign. The foreign girls have no problem talking to her … but the Irish girls mostly don’t talk to her. So, she doesn’t make much of an effort herself. She’ll admit that’s because she just has that fear. She expects it. You know what I mean?” [13]

The phenomenon of early school-leaving affects the treatment of Travellers while they are in school. Patrick said: “The teachers don’t really give a hundred percent to Travellers because they assume that Travellers are going to leave school early, because that’s the history of Travellers … So the teachers don’t really put a lot of attention into them.” [14]

This is an injustice for every Traveller child, but it is particularly hard on the ones who need additional supports, as William did. Children who struggle in to learn foundational skills of reading and writing in primary education, are at a huge disadvantage in secondary school. William reports that in his work as he hears of many Traveller children who are “completely lost”. This is an experience that resonates with him as it is what he went through himself as a dyslexic child. [15]

EMPLOYMENT AND TRAVELLERS

The lack of qualifications or higher education among Travellers is an obvious disadvantage in the job market. But they also face discrimination when seeking employment, which is unrelated to their education levels. Patrick recalls going for several jobs in his youth, only to be rebuffed when he arrived at the interview. He said “You could tell by them when you’d walk in. You’d know. You’re a Traveller… you’re not getting a job. [And you would be] right about it. So when you’re going through that for a while, you just, you know… [give up], and then you’re just at home.” [16]

Patrick reflected on how the lack of a job or anything meaningful to do affected his confidence and left him at a loose end and made it extremely difficult to keep his drinking and drug-taking under control. He said: “[E]ven when you’d want to stop taking, when you’d want to stop drinking and when you’d take a break, there’d be absolutely nothing else to do. There was no work. There’s no other options. I mean, I could be bored. You’d be bored … Because there’s not… there was nothing to do, you know?” [17]

This lack of direction, as well as a sense of hopelessness about his own options led him down a path of joining in with others from the site he lived on in petty theft and burglary. “There doesn’t seem to be any kind of… nothing going forward for you. No development in your life. You’re looking at fellows coming in the odd time driving a really nice car, a really nice van. And you want to get that van, you know, and you say, how am I going to, get money? How am I going to survive? Like how am I going to improve my life? You know? So a few of my cousins broke off, going off robbing and that, and they were coming back sometimes with some money and they driving nice cars and… So I just decided, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that as well, you know?” [18]

It shouldn’t come as a shock that when we as a society treat people as if they don’t matter and consign them to lives of poverty and exclusion, they sometimes react by taking something from us. If the game is rigged anyway, there’s little to gain by playing by the rules. But despite the initial rewards, Patrick’s new direction didn’t end well for him and he ended up in and out of prison.

His addictions spiralled out of control too when, a few years later, his marriage broke up and his wife left Ireland for the UK, taking their children with her. He said: “I’d follow her back and forth a few times, but it wasn’t working out. And I, I kept coming back on my own and then when I come back I’m really depressed, you know. And then I started taking prescription tablets and I ended up getting strung out on them.” [19]

As someone who couldn’t read or write, it was difficult for William to find a regular job, but he tried to earn a living using his wits. He washed car windows at traffic lights and was a street trader. He recalls police discrimination against Travellers and how he – like other Travellers – was singled out by the police/Gardaí for checks on his vehicle, to be fingerprinted (illegally) and to be questioned about his actions while just going about his day.

His work with Traveller youth has shown him that it is still very difficult for a Traveller to find a job in Ireland today:

“What I’m hearing back from these groups I’m working with discrimination is the biggest thing. A little bit less for the young group in Dublin seemingly, compared to everyone else. But in the smaller towns [they] can’t get jobs… all jobs they’re getting is cleaning jobs or if they’re hiding their identity. And then when they’re hiding it, they hear all this negative stuff about Travellers. Especially if they’re working in public, like say public service shops or things like that. So they might not realise they’re Traveller, but if they’ve a kind of distinctive Traveller name…  they’re in a bit more trouble.” [20]

LATERAL VIOLENCE AND TRAVELLERS

The sociological concept of lateral violence refers to acts of aggression, harassment, or harm inflicted by members of a marginalised or oppressed group on each other, rather than on their oppressors. It has been observed and studied in various contexts, including among indigenous communities including the Aboriginal people of Australia, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities and in certain socioeconomic groups. [21]

Lateral violence, in the context of Irish Travellers, can be viewed as a manifestation of the trauma experienced as a result of losing their traditional identity and way of life, as well as their alienation from mainstream society. The frustration, anger, and despair that arise from being oppressed are redirected towards peers or individuals within their own community, rather than towards the larger systems or structures of power that are the sources of oppression, e.g. the government, the education system, the Gardaí and the criminal justice system.

William said of the lateral violence theory: “I think it’s very relevant to Travellers. So like the group who’s kind of marginalised and isolated from the rest of society and then I think obviously they internalised that anger and that kind of feud with each other.” [22]

He also demonstrated how the laws which made nomadism illegal as well as the futility of depending on the Gardaí for justice contribute to the problem:   “I think as well since Travellers are not allowed to move around the way they used to. So if you were on the receiving end of something, you could move away and you could, that’s a good place. Try and escape and now you can’t… Because Guards don’t do nothing. Guards will tear you out of your car for having no insurance, no license or that. But if your house is smashed up or your car smashed up or some of your family’s being caught up, what did you do? They’re more interested. What did you do to escalate? What did you do? Didn’t happen for nothing. So if you’re a victim of crime, they want to know what you’ve done to provoke that aside. That’s more their concern.” [23]

The intransigence of the Gardaí as well as a lack of faith in fair treatment by the wider justice system make it feel inevitable that Travellers will be forced to take matters into their own hands, despite a reluctance to do so. William said: “… sometimes people in in families, it just might be totally against their nature to be get involved in violence or be involved in that type of thing. But they can’t get away from it because they feel like they’ve nowhere to turn. Do you know what I mean?” He added that it can be a “no win” situation where a refusal to be involved in defending your own family can leave you isolated and vulnerable. [24]

It should be noted that violence in the Traveller community is an issue that receives a disproportionate amount of media attention, and is not typical of the vast majority of Travellers. William was clear that although the circumstances surrounding him in his youth were not great, he takes responsibility for his actions. What we are exploring here are the reasons why it occurs. Addressing the systemic oppression that Travellers experience, as well as improving access to education, health supports, and the restoration of their cultural identity and pride would help to provide the community with the tools needed to foster unity.

SUPPORT SYSTEMS IN AND AFTER PRISON – HOUSING AND EDUCATION

Both Patrick and William have been through a lot, not least by enduring imprisonment, but their stories are ones with happy endings. They are both employed in meaningful jobs, helping to create a better future for younger Travellers and are living stable fulfilling lives. But their success is not just due to their own determination and hard work. It is also because of the supports they received along the way – supports that they should have had access to in the first place.

During William’s time in prison, he finally got the educational support he needed. It’s hard to disagree with his statement:  “It’s sad I had to go to prison to get an education.” Had he been given the help he needed in school, his life might have turned out differently. Patrick also found stability and treatment for addiction after his time in prison, when housing with supports was provided by an NGO, giving him the foundation he needed to rebuild his life. What would his story have been had he been helped to find rewarding employment, somewhere safe to live and mental health supports when he was a teenager?

Of course, no amount of support and guidance can help Travellers to overcome the brutality of living with the stigma and discrimination that is still endemic in Ireland. It is the systems, institutions and society that needs to change, not the groups which are enduring harms because of them. Travellers can and do campaign for these changes but it is the mainstream, settled majority which must take action to implement them.

In scapegoating Irish Travellers for problems which are the effect of decades of exclusion and oppression, we harm ourselves as a society as well as continuing to harm them. The exclusion of this indigenous minority also deprives us of the richness that their unique culture and history can contribute to our collective Irish heritage. The Traveller community provides us with a mirror reflecting back to us what is happening in wider society. The problems of exclusion, inequality and injustice apply to us all, but they are most acute at the margins, where our policymakers and our society has kept Travellers. We must stop blaming the mirror – the Irish Traveller community – for what it shows and start facing the realities we’ve been too willing to ignore.

By embracing diversity, demanding fairness in allocation of resources and tackling the inherent racism against Travellers that we are still far too willing to participate in or turn a blind eye to, we can create an actual inclusive society where everyone can thrive.

*For reasons of privacy William and Patrick have asked that their surnames be omitted.

[1] ‘eileen flynn’ (oireachtas, 29 june 2020), https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/members/member/eileen-flynn.s.2020-06-29/., [2] ‘census of population 2016 – profile 8 irish travellers, ethnicity and religion’ (central statistics office of ireland, 2016), https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp8iter/p8iter/p8itseah/., [3] conor gallager, ‘travellers significantly over-represented in irish prisons, un committee told’, the irish times , accessed 13 may 2023, https://www.irishtimes.com/crime-law/2022/07/05/travellers-significantly-over-represented-in-irish-prisons-un-committee-told/., [4] ‘travellers and suicide: facts and figures’ (pavee point, 2010), https://www.paveepoint.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/suicide-facts-figures-a0.pdf., [5] conor gallager, ‘gardaí have negative view of travellers, survey finds’, the irish times , 20 august 2023, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/gardai-have-negative-view-of-travellers-survey-finds-1.4334274., [6] michelle hennessy, ‘blind justice: how prison is leaving travellers isolated and traumatised’, the journal , 31 october 2022, https://www.thejournal.ie/blind-justice-prison-5890179-oct2022/#:~:text=once%20in%20prison%2c%20travellers%20have,because%20of%20who%20she%20was., [7] marie o’halloran and michael o’regan, ‘travellers formally recognised as an ethnic minority’, the irish times , 1 march 2017, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/oireachtas/travellers-formally-recognised-as-an-ethnic-minority-1.2994309., [8] https://itmtrav.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/itm-review-of-the-1963-commission-on-itinerancy.pdf, [9] martina madden, interview with patrick*, in-person, 14 october 2022., [10] martina madden, interview with william*, in-person, 21 october 2022., [11] madden., [12] madden, interview with patrick*., [13] madden, interview with william*., [14] madden, interview with patrick*., [15] madden, interview with william*., [16] madden, interview with patrick*., [17] madden., [18] madden., [19] madden., [20] madden, interview with william*., [21] theoni whyman et al., ‘lateral violence in indigenous peoples’, australian psychologist 56, no. 1 (2021): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/00050067.2021.1893595., [22] madden, interview with william*., [23] madden., [24] madden..

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.

The long road towards acceptance for Irish Travellers

The Irish Traveller community is fighting for official recognition of its ethnic identity and for a way of life.

James Collins, traveller, Ireland

Avila Park, Dublin, Ireland –   In a wooden shed in his back garden, James Collins sits on a low stool hammering out the final touches on a billy can. At 68, he is one of only two remaining traveller tinsmiths in Ireland.

Above the clutter of well-worn tools and scrap sheet metal hang a dozen or so other cans. Nowadays, he says, there’s precious little demand for his trade, and he largely continues it as a hobby, occasionally selling some of his work at vintage craft fairs.

Since the introduction of plastic homeware in the 1960s and 1970s, tinsmithing – traditionally dominated by the historically nomadic community known as Travellers – has effectively died out. Even the block tin, James originally used, is no longer available.

“It’s more difficult to work with,” he says, holding up a gleaming aluminium can. “You can’t make what you want to make out of it because you have to use solder and that won’t take solder.”

READ MORE: Ballinasloe Horse Fair – An ancient Irish tradition

James was raised on the road in the Irish midlands, a traditional upbringing unknown to most Travellers today. “I was bred, born and reared on the road,” he says, “but the young lads today wasn’t. They all grew up in houses and went to school and all this craic. I never got any education, never went to school in my life.”

Until his late 20s, when he settled in Avila Park, a housing estate for Travellers on the outskirts of Dublin, the Irish capital, James plied his trade for farmers, smithing and repairing buckets. “It never goes out of your mind; you’re always thinking, thinking the whole time about the road,” he says.

In comparison, younger generations have little interest in traditional crafts or the travelling lifestyle – James’ children and grandchildren don’t know how to harness a horse, for example. And anti-trespass legislation introduced in the early 2000s, which was used to disperse encampments by the side of roads or on council-owned land, made a nomadic existence increasingly difficult.

Yet, even as the distinct traditions of Irish Travellers seem to fade into the past, the battle for official recognition of their identity continues.

Avila Park is a housing estate for Travellers on the outskirts of Dublin [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

The search for recognition

Unlike the United Nations and the United Kingdom, Ireland does not recognise Travellers as a separate ethnicity from the non-Traveller community. For decades, human rights organisations and Traveller advocacy groups have been seeking this recognition, but to little avail.

However, on January 26, a parliamentary committee established to investigate the issue stated unequivocally that “Travellers are, de facto, a separate ethnic group”.

“This is not a gift to be bestowed upon them, but a fact the state ought to formally acknowledge,” it further said.

The committee report urged the Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister, or the minister for justice to give a statement to the Dail, the Irish parliament, acknowledging this at the earliest opportunity.

This development was welcomed by members of the Travelling community, although some remain cautious in their optimism. It would not be the first time an Irish government has reneged on such commitments – a 2014 parliamentary report made the same recommendation, which was never acted upon.

A history of deprivation and discrimination

An examination of the almost 30,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland shows a staggering level of deprivation completely at odds with the non-Traveller community. Another 4,000 to 5,000 Travellers live in Northern Ireland, in a similar situation.

Around half of Travellers have no secondary education and only 1 percent have attended university, according to Pavee Point, a group fighting for the rights of Travellers.

WATCH: Irish travellers facing discrimination

Some 84 percent of Travellers are unemployed, while suicide rates are almost seven times higher than among settled people. A 2010 study found that life expectancy was 15 years lower among men and 11 years lower among women when compared with their settled counterparts.

Discrimination against Travellers remains endemic at social and institutional levels. Being denied entry to businesses is a common occurrence and many try to hide their background when applying for jobs, fearing that potential employers will not hire them.

“Symbolically it would have a profound impact on our collective sense of identity, self-esteem and confidence as a people,” says Martin Collins, the co-director of Pavee Point, on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

“Some travellers have internalised [racism] and end up believing that they are of no value, they are of no worth … So that’s the impact. That’s the outcome of both racism and your identity being denied.”

A culture denied

It was a 1963 government report, the Commission on Itinerancy, that has set the tone for the state’s attitude towards Travellers ever since, says Sinn Fein Senator Padraig MacLochlainn, the first person from a Traveller background to be elected to the Irish parliament.

Traveller rights groups have been seeking recognition for their community [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

The Committee on Itinerancy ‘s terms of reference defined Travellers as a “problem”, whose social ills were “inherent in their way of life,” and outlined the goal of “promot[ing] their absorption into the general community”.

No Travellers were on the committee, nor were they consulted for its report.

“Our people and our state denied their history and decided that they were criminals and they needed to be immersed in with the rest of us,” says MacLochlainn.

This refusal to acknowledge the community’s rich cultural history – notably their own language, Cant, and significant contributions to Irish traditional music – persists today.

Traveller culture is frequently portrayed in the media as separate and distinct, MacLochlainn says, but almost always in negative terms, in exploitation TV shows   such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and exposes on Traveller criminality.

“You clearly accept them as a distinct group – why are you making these programmes if you don’t? If they’re a distinct group, could you do it now in positive terms?

“When it comes to negative characterisations, the media, the establishment … in Ireland are more than happy for them to be characterised in negative terms,” the senator says.

Behind James’ shed in Avila Park, traditional and modern Traveller accommodation sit side by side. A wooden barreltop caravan, washed green with blue and red embellishments, sits between two mobile home units, where his younger relatives stay.

Only one has both electricity and running water, which were installed by the family. Power is provided from the house by a yellow cable, wound loosely around plastic drainpipes and holes in its pebbledash exterior.

An early morning fire in a nearby prefabricated unit just a few weeks before offered a bleak reminder of the danger these makeshift electrical fixtures pose. A neighbour raised the alarm and the young couple inside escaped before their home was reduced to a charred husk.

Children burned to death

This near disaster has reminded some people of a fire in the south Dublin suburb of Carrickmines more than a year ago, which continues to cast a shadow over relations between the Traveller and the settled communities.

In the early hours of October 10, 2015, a fire ripped through a halting site killing 10 people, including five children, from two families – the Lynch and Gilbert family and the Connors. The youngest victim was five months old. It was one of the deadliest fires in the history of the Republic of Ireland.

Social workers had raised concerns about the site’s substandard prefabricated units to authorities in the months before the fire, but no action was taken. The blaze and its aftermath would, for many, become an example of the pervasive discrimination Travellers face in Ireland today.

Three days after the fire, some locals blockaded land marked for temporary accommodation for the surviving members of the Connors family, preventing construction vehicles from entering. Though the obstruction was condemned by then Environment Minister Alan Kelly and several Traveller groups, the protesters were successful.

OPINION: Catholic Ireland’s saints and sinners

On October 21, one day before the last victims were buried, the county council announced that the Connors family would instead be resettled on a reclaimed dump on council land in a nearby suburb. At the time of writing, the family remain in that location.

Alongside many expressions of grief on social media after the fire were comments highlighting the discrimination towards travellers in Irish society.

On one popular news site, a comment simply wishing that the victims rest in peace received hundreds of thumbs down votes from other readers. “Hundreds of Irish people gave a thumbs down to an expression of sympathy for children who were burned to death,” says MacLochlainn. “That’s terrifying; that’s absolutely terrifying.”

In response to the tragedy, local authorities across the country conducted fire safety audits at Traveller accommodation sites. “All we got was a few fire alarms, a few fire blankets and some carbon monoxide alarms,” says Collins, of Pavee Point.

“That’s like re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic. That’s totally inadequate. These sites need to be completely redeveloped [and] refurbished, because the sites are just inherently dangerous. Getting a few fire alarms and a few hoses will not rectify the situation.”

For Collins, the long overdue recognition of Traveller ethnicity is an important milestone, but as the Carrickmines example shows, a commitment to materially improving the lives of Travellers is also necessary if they are to be truly equal in their own country.

Traveller culture is frequently portrayed negatively in the media [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

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Travellers in the Irish Prison System: A qualitative study

19th May 2014

Travellers in the Irish Prison System: A qualitative study is a 76-page qualitative research report, which includes interviews with 10 former prisoners (5 female, 5 male).

Download the report here .

Download appendices C and D here .

The findings in the report are illustrated with direct quotes, which detail:

  • Issues facing Travellers while they are in prison: Discrimination from other prisoners and from staff / literacy problems / separation from family / conflict in prison / mental health problems in prison / illicit drug use in prison

Issues facing Travellers leaving prison: Estrangement and isolation / returning to a violent relationship / difficulties finding somewhere to live

Supports and coping strategies in prison: Support from other prisoners / ritual and filling time / support from staff

The Bigger Picture: Discrimination in daily life / marginalisation and offending behaviour / drug dependence and offending behaviour / discrimination in the criminal justice system / external pressures on Traveller culture

Review of the Literature, Ways Forward and Recommendations

Six key recommendations included in the report are:

Recommendation 1: Develop a strategy for Travellers in the criminal justice system to: address discrimination; identify proactive steps to ensure that Travellers have equal and culturally appropriate access to education while in prison; and ensure equitable access to relevant supports for Travellers on leaving prison.

Recommendation 2: Develop an equality policy for the Irish prison system, which sets out how the Irish Prison Service will ensure that all prisoners receive equal treatment and enjoy equal rights.

Recommendation 3: Conduct effective ethnic monitoring; analyse, and publish the results on a regular basis; and addressing any unjustifiable disproportional outcomes between Travellers and other prisoners.

Recommendation 4: Establish Traveller groups in prisons to ensure that Travellers’ needs are identified and brought to the attention of prison staff; the involvement of community-based Traveller organisations is key.

Recommendation 5: Provide targeted reintegration support to Travellers on release from prison, and work with Traveller communities to address factors such as stigma surrounding drug use and offending behaviour. For those who cannot return to their family, targeted support measures should exist to enable them to access secure accommodation and employment. 

Recommendation 6: Further research is required to fully explore the relationship between social disadvantage, marginalisation and offending behaviour among Travellers.

IPRT is very grateful to the St Stephen’s Green Trust for supporting this research project.

Members of the research group which supported the study were: Seamus Taylor, Lecturer in Applied Social Studies, NUI Maynooth; Katayoun Bahramian, Co-ordinator and John Paul Collins, Community Development Worker, Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre; Susan Fay, Managing Solicitor of the Irish Traveller Movement Independent Law Centre; and Maria Joyce, Co-ordinator of the National Traveller Women’s Forum.

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Travellers significantly over-represented in Irish prisons, UN committee told

Irish delegation concedes more work needed to address needs of travellers.

irish traveller folsom prison

Members of the committee raised concerns that Travellers were discriminated against by the justice system and that gardaí were carrying out searches of homes without warrants. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Members of the Travelling community are significantly over-represented in the Irish prison system, Government representatives have conceded at the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Irish delegation faced a number of questions on the treatment of Travellers and other vulnerable groups during the second and final day of hearings in Geneva, Switzerland.

Members of the committee raised concerns that Travellers were discriminated against by the justice system and that gardaí were carrying out searches of homes without warrants.

They also raised concerns that Ireland’s recognition of the ethnicity of Travellers in 2017 had not been backed up by legislation.

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The Irish delegation said Travellers accounted for 0.7 per cent of the country’s population but made up 10 per cent of the general prison population and 15 per cent of the female prisoner population.

It called this a “striking” statistic and said it was important the needs of Traveller prisoners were supported in rehabilitating and reintegrating them back into society.

It said a one-size-fits-all approach would not meet the needs of individual offenders and that a lot of work was being done by the Irish Prison Service and others in this area.

The Garda was also focused on a human rights-led policing approach and was attempting to recruit more members of the Traveller community, including by offering an internship programme, it said.

Ireland also faced questions on the implementation of the Fines Act in 2016, which provides for alternatives to prison for people who fail to pay court-imposed fines.

The law was designed to reduce the high numbers of short prison sentences being imposed for nonpayment of fines.

The delegation said the Act had resulted in the number of fine-related sentences falling from nearly 10,000 in 2015 to just under 900 in 2019, a 91 per cent reduction.

However, the new fine-collection system has proven “cumbersome to operate” and it is being reviewed by a high level group chaired by the Department of Justices with the aim of streamlining the process.

The committee also asked why there had been so few convictions for human trafficking in Ireland when there had been several hundred reported incidents in the past decade. It noted the first conviction did not occur until 2021.

It noted concerns by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission about the decreasing numbers of children being officially designated as victims of child trafficking. There were nine reports of child trafficking in 2019 but none in 2020 and 2021, it said.

Human trafficking is a very difficult crime to investigate, an Irish Department of Justice official said. He said it was quite typical for the victim to be so controlled they could not accept they were a victim of trafficking. Distrust of the police by people who do not come from Ireland is another factor, he said.

The Irish delegation faced questions about the use of emergency surgery in cases where a child presents as intersex.

“We’ve received information that surgery on intersex children is still performed for social emergencies. This is necessarily done without consent, and it involves irreversible and deeply harmful procedures,” committee member Christopher Bulkan said.

Every year two to three children are born with “ambiguous genitalia” in Ireland. They are fully assessed by an interdisciplinary team before any decision is made regarding treatment, an Irish official said. “Only medically necessary treatment will be performed.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times

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Irish Travellers' Access to Justice

Irish Travellers' Access to Justice

About the irish travellers access to justice project.

The findings of this research are based on a survey conducted with the Traveller population in Ireland about their experiences with the police and courts in this country in the period 2016- 2021. The data was collected July-December 2021. During the course of conducting that survey, we spoke with 1 in every 60 adult Travellers in Ireland. We also conducted 29 interviews with people working in Traveller organisations across Ireland, and focus groups with younger and older generations of Travellers. These data include Travellers from all over Ireland, with Travellers in 25 of the 26 counties included in the survey. The findings from the ITAJ survey closely reflect and expand on the findings of the EU FRA Roma and Travellers in Six Countries (2020). For example, of those Travellers who were stopped by the police in the 12 months before the FRA survey, 58% thought they were stopped because they are a Traveller; of the respondents to our survey who had been stopped by a garda in the five years prior to the ITAJ survey, 59% believed they were stopped because they are a Traveller. The report documents Travellers’ perceptions and experiences of criminal justice institutions as suspects, victims, and those who are the accused in criminal cases. Its key findings reflect a need for radical changes in the way in which criminal justice institutions engage with, perceive, and address Travellers.

This research finds that Travellers’ trust in the Irish criminal justice system is low. Its roots lie in fears of wrongful arrest, excessive use of force, wrongful conviction, disproportionately high sentences, and wrongful imprisonment, that frame the way Travellers engage with and experience the criminal justice system. These fears are well-founded. Our research shows that Travellers are simultaneously overpoliced as suspects and underpoliced as victims, and the overrepresentation of Travellers in prison is long acknowledged. This research, by meticulously documenting Travellers’ own accounts of their experiences with the police and the courts, contributes to explaining this phenomenon. The criminal justice system is built by and for settled people, and Travellers perceive that settled people are seen as more trustworthy than Travellers, believed over Travellers, and protected more than Travellers. These perceptions are reinforced by experiences lived by the individual and shared within the community, through generations. Despite this, Travellers express a commitment to the legal system, and a desire to be protected and acknowledged by that system.

Watch the launch of the Irish Travellers Access to Justice Project

Irish Travellers Access to Justice

News and Opinion A lifeline for Travellers in prison

A lifeline for Travellers in prison

It’s usually a lot noisier. The men were so attentive, a different atmosphere today. I think they really appreciated it.

These are the words that we hear often after a visit by the Traveller Project to a Traveller Group meeting in any one of the 138 prisons across England and Wales. The speaker, usually a prison officer or chaplain, is often surprised by the engagement of the Travellers present but for us at the Traveller Project it simply makes sense – the group meetings are about things that are relevant, interesting and helpful to them and their families.

Traveller Groups in prison are by and large a recent phenomenon but they are a vital source of support and advice for a section of society that experiences an unrelentingly negative media portrayal. However, encouraging the provision of effective custody and rehabilitation of Travellers in prison is a challenge; a challenge that means starting from scratch within prisons – encouraging groups but also encouraging the sharing of ideas and news amongst staff and prisoners.

A few years ago before many Traveller Groups in prison were launched, a Traveller prisoner would do his or her time the ‘hard way’. The high levels of illiteracy amongst Travellers affecting over 60% of the community means many Travellers are isolated in the rigid bureaucracy that is prison life. Without literacy skills, he or she, even if willing, cannot do rehab courses necessary for early release or vocational training like bricklaying to go straight or even to gain a prized prison job.

Irish Travellers and Gypsies represent approximately 5% of the prison population – a vast over-representation in relation to their numbers in the general population – but quite standard for traditional or aboriginal communities adapting poorly to modern economic and social realities.

With this population spread across so many prisons it was a great challenge for our small team to disseminate the information and news that are necessary in promoting the needs of Travellers in prison. We needed a forum that was interesting and informative, useful and enjoyable. So we started the Travellers in Prison News (TIPN), a newsletter supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, now read in over 100 prisons by approximately 500 men and women.

irish 1

TIPN is a lively mix. It provides a platform for Travellers contributing articles, poems and drawings. It covers news relevant to Travellers, from Britain and Ireland often about success stories and role models. One of the most important elements of TIPN is its work in promoting literacy, education and the use of services in prison and upon release. In short, TIPN is a tool written mainly by Travellers for Travellers with the ultimate aim of building an empowered community inside and outside.

TIPN has become an integral part of building a greater awareness of Travellers in prison in England and Wales. As well as highlighting local prison initiatives, it has been crucial in the development of some of our own national projects. For example, the increased interest and uptake amongst Travellers in the reading programme Toe By Toe undoubtedly stems in part from TIPN’s circulation and TIPN’s testimonies from Travellers on the programme.

Travellers in Prison News has proven such a successful blueprint that the National Offender Management Service, the people who run prisons and probation have just commissioned a monthly programme for Travellers on Prison Radio.

Thanks for the Newsletter. I passed it on to one of the girls a few weeks back. It was about Travellers in prison, anyway it really inspired me to step up and be heard. I’m now training to be a Toe by Toe mentor and I am the Traveller Rep at Downview – Catherine, Traveller Representative, HMP Downview

Race Review 2008, a report by the National Offender Management Service, stated a particular concern for Gypsy Traveller Roma prisoners which ‘included: difficulties accessing services, including offender behaviour programmes, as the literacy level required was too high, derogatory and racist name calling primarily by prisoners, and by some staff, in two of the prisons visited, lack of confidence in the complaints system and the lack of cultural awareness and understanding of staff.’

As each month passes more and more prisons are conscious that there is a demand and interest in the provision of services for Travellers in prison. Travellers in prison are no longer so easy to disregard as being ‘hard to reach’. All of this is in no small part thanks to Travellers in Prison News and the support of Barrow Cadbury Trust.

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'Revolving door': Traveller women imprisoned for minor offences such as driving without tax

irish traveller folsom prison

TRAVELLER WOMEN ARE being imprisoned for minor first time offences such as driving without tax, shoplifting and crimes linked to addiction, an Oireachtas committee has heard.  

Almost one quarter – 25% – of the women at the Dóchas Centre women’s prison were Traveller women, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in 2019, despite adult Travellers making up just 0.5% of the total population of the country. 

Advocates yesterday told TDs and Senators that there is an impression that Traveller women are more likely to receive a prison sentence than a settled person who commits a similar crime.

The Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community heard calls  for a move away from custodial sentences for minor offences which are creating “a revolving door” of re-offending among Traveller women.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project to investigate if Travellers experience harsher interactions with the Irish law and prison system.

Anne Costello, coordinator at the Travellers in Prison Initiative (TPI), told the committee that their research found many Traveller women in prison were there for minor crimes.

“It was for driving offences, shoplifting, a number of crimes linked to addiction,” she said.

“Women described their stories of trauma around close family members and suicide, or other bereavements, and then moving on to prescribed drugs, and then that leading into harder drugs. That was the kind of the story that we got generally from the women.”

irish traveller folsom prison

Maria Joyce, coordinator with the National Traveller Women’s Forum, told the committee that she has worked with women in the Dóchas Centre who are there because they were caught driving without tax or insurance.

“Sometimes these are first offences and some felt a non-custodial sentence would have addressed the level of crime,” she said.

She said there was a strong perception that “it’s one option for a Traveller in the criminal justice system and another outcome for a non-Traveller” for similar crimes and that a different approach involving community supports could help to prevent re-offending. 

Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), told the committee that specific data on recidivism among Travellers is not available.

However general data shows “people sentenced to prison for between three and six months had the highest probability of re-offending within one year of release”.

“The highest rates of early re-offending are among those in prison for short sentences, which by definition are less serious offences,” she said.

Speakers at the committee meeting today also raised concerns about the impact on Traveller children of having a parent in prison.

“People say ‘expose young people to prison and they won’t go there’, but so many Travellers in prison have been to prison to visit their fathers and now they’re in prison,” Costello said.

“That doesn’t work, with that inter-generational [factor] you’re much more likely to end up in prison if your parents have been in prison.

irish traveller folsom prison

Maria Joyce said leaving their families and their children is a significant issue for Traveller women in prison and can create problems with access on their release.

“When you have children who may already be in care, there are additional barriers that will be created on their [the women's] release in trying to engage with their children, or if they’ve gone into care as a direct result of them going into prison,” she explained. “It’s not about ensuring the care of children but it is about ensuring contact with parents.”

Ní Chinnéide of the IPRT said the imprisonment of a parent should not be seen as “a predictor” of a child’s outcome as they will all have different responses to these types of situations.

What is common, she said, is their “experience of trauma, of separation, stigma, poverty”. Ní Chinnéide added: “We need to support those children, support them to have better outcomes in the long run.”

The committee was covered as part of an investigation called TOUGH START Noteworthy and The Journal  over the past number of months into supports – and the lack of them – for Traveller children. We can now reveal

  • Young Travellers are significantly over-represented in youth detention , making up 26% of Oberstown detainees last year, but just 1.2% of the under-18 population as a whole
  • Travellers detained in Oberstown jumped by almost 40% in 2020   
  • An Oireachtas committee heard concerns about the impact on children of having a parent in prison , particularly in relation to Traveller mothers who received prison sentences for first-time and minor offences
  • Department of Justice officials noted Travellers were “a particular challenge that requires additional action” in regards to the Youth Justice Strategy at a meeting two months prior to its publication, yet there are no Traveller-specific actions in the strategy
  • Traveller children reported experiencing discrimination from members of the gardaí and being falsely accused of crimes by members of the public
  • Children who spoke to Noteworthy also said they felt fear and anxiety around interactions with gardaí and that they believed people expect them to engage in criminal activity

In part one , Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy that “there’s ingrained institutional racism against the Traveller community” and part two  found Traveller health is ‘not being prioritised’ despite ‘shocking’ outcomes for children.  Part three revealed that ‘misuse’ of reduced school days is leaving a generation of Traveller children ‘lost’.

Increase of young Travellers in detention

There is already a disproportionate number of young Travellers in detention in Ireland and this jumped by almost 40% in 2020. 

Young people under 18 who have been sentenced or remanded by the Irish courts system are detained in Oberstown Children Detention Campus in north county Dublin. The majority detained there are boys, with only three girls (2.5%) detained last year. 

There were 24 young Travellers in Oberstown  in 2019  which made up 19% of the total number of young people detailed there. However, this increased to 32 in 2020 or 26% of the total, according to  Oberstown’s annual report . 

This is also an increase on figures reported by the snapshot reports – published with figures from the first quarter of  2017 ,  2018  and  2019 . These reported young Travellers made up 23%, 22% and 19% of the population during these respective quarters.

This is significantly higher than it should be in proportion to the number of Travellers under 18, making up just 1.2% of the general population in the last Census in 2016. 

This is also an over-representation of Travellers in the adult prison population, where it was estimated in 2017 by the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service that Travellers accounted for 10% of the male and 22% of the female prison population. 

Speaking at the Joint Oireachtas Committee, Mark Wilson, director of the Probation Service, said that Travellers represent 11.3% of people seen by the Probation Service which he said were the latest ethnicity statistics available.

Fergal Black, Director of Care and Rehabilitation in the Irish Prison Service, gave the committee figures from the last ethnicity survey. He reported that Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon had 95 people who identified as Travellers – 31% of that prison’s population, “which is an indictment of the over-representation [of Travellers] in our criminal justice system”.

Though already high, these prison system figures are most likely an under-representation “due to the lack of consistent and accurate data collection” – including ethnicity – by the Irish Prison Services, according to Pavee Point. 

Representatives from both the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service mentioned work to improve on the existing efforts at the Joint Oireachtas Committee, with Wilson stating that they have worked extensively with the Travellers in Prison Initiative “in the area of ethnic data collection” to its improve accuracy and consistency.

Experts have said a number of factors contribute to the over-representation of the Traveller community in the criminal justice system, besides the possibility of overly-punitive sentencing, including poverty, exclusion, discrimination, a lack of access to housing and educational disadvantages. These issues start for Travellers at a very early age, they said, and early intervention is needed to prevent the ongoing cycle.

A poor relationship and lack of trust between Travellers – including children – and those working in the criminal justice system is also a factor. 

‘They dislike us, I don’t know why’

Traveller children, aged 12-14, who spoke to Noteworthy reported feeling fear around interactions with gardaí and that they believe gardaí assume they will do something criminal. 

When asked what they believe gardaí think about Travellers, three of the children said “bad” at the same time.

“They dislike us, I don’t know why,” one of the girls said.

“I think most people expect us to do bad things, or make us out as bad people,” another girl said.

“The guards think, if someone robbed something, most likely it’s Travellers,” another told us. 

The children also gave several examples of being wrongfully accused of shoplifting by security guards. One boy said:

irish traveller folsom prison

One of the girls said she was with her mother at a shop when two gardaí stopped them and asked them to empty their pockets.

“It was scary,” she said. “There was nothing in our pockets. I started crying.”

She said they apologised after she became upset.

All of the children said they were afraid of gardaí and that they also notice their parents’ anxiety when they see gardaí.

“My daddy, if we’re driving past guards, he’ll turn around really quick even though we all have our belts on and he’ll say ‘put on your belts in case the guards pull us over’,” one of the boys told us.

A community worker with the group said two gardaí had come to give a talk to the children at their community centre and this had been a positive experience. However she said one of these gardaí was later called to an incident at the halting site and when the children recognised him and tried to talk to him, he “ignored them”.

The only positive example they could think of came from one of the boys, who said if he sees a garda he sometimes give them a thumbs up and “they would actually do it back 99.9% of the time”.

When asked whether they felt like the gardaí would help them if something bad happened to them or their families all of the children in the group replied “no”. They would be reluctant to even call for help, they said.

“People can be arguing and if anyone gets physical you need to call the guards so they don’t hurt each other very badly,” one girl said. “And sometimes they don’t come at all until the whole thing’s over and everyone’s back in their houses. They take their time coming anyways.”

John Paul Collins, drug and alcohol community development worker at Pavee Point, said the negative relationship between Travellers and gardaí “starts at a very young age”. 

“It has always been a negative relationship with guards back to the very start, in terms of them coming on site and incidents being overpoliced, being heavy-handed,” he said.

“It’s usually the case that they’d come in fives or tens, cars and vans, sometimes dressed in riot gear and that’s the sort of stuff young kids are seeing. That puts a block straight away to develop any relationship.

Kids are around and listening and absorbing what the guards say and what their parents and other Travellers say. What the children are seeing is only negative behaviour, the only time they see a guard on site is when incidents happen, they’re not seeing a community guard on site trying to build relationships with them.

As mentioned by the children who spoke to Noteworthy , Collins said the response can be at the other end of the spectrum with gardaí arriving late or not at all when they are called to an incident at a halting site.

irish traveller folsom prison

An Garda Síochána has made a number of policy and resourcing changes in recent years to ensure a more sensitive and considered approach to violence against women in the home. However Collins said there is “no notion of this” in responses to domestic violence calls from the Traveller community.

He said there is a genuine fear that the gardaí will “make things worse”.

“Unfortunately that has been the experience, they come in all booted up and don’t handle the situation in a positive way,” he said.

“Some have even said at incidents that it’s just part of our culture – violence and domestic violence. It’s ridiculous for someone in that profession to say something like that.”

‘Housing, poverty, mental health and trauma’

Speaking to the Oireachtas committee yesterday, Anne Costello of TPI said some of the causes of Travellers’ over-representation in prison are historic.

International research on minority ethnic groups, she said, identified causes such as the disruption of culture and traditions and a denial of identity as well as the process of stripping minorities of land, culture, language, laws and customs.

In Ireland these issues date back to the report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963 which stated that there was a “problem of the presence of itinerants in considerable numbers”. This report stated that “itinerants as a class would disappear within a generation”.

Since then, there have been many laws and policies introduced, which have had a negative impact on Travellers’ way of life and legitimate ways to make a living. And it wasn’t until 2017 that the government formally recognised travellers as an ethnic minority.

Costello also spoke of other causes such as the effects of poverty and exclusion, noting that the unemployment rate among Travellers is 80%, and 39% of Travellers are homeless or living in very overcrowded conditions

Noteworthy has extensively covered the stark outcomes facing Travellers children in health and education in the other parts of this investigative series – and will be examining housing next week. 

Women, she said, face particular issues:

“Before imprisonment they have issues with housing, poverty, mental health and trauma. We did some research with Traveller women in prison and they all faced those issues.”

Discrimination, both by State services and in the criminal justice system, is also contributing to the issue, Costello told the committee.

An ESRI report in 2017 found that Travellers are over 22 times more likely to experience discrimination in access to private services than white settled people.

An internal garda survey conducted between 2012 and 2014 found not one frontline garda had a favourable view of the Traveller community.

Discrimination was also evident among garda ethnic liaison officers – now known as diversity officers – with just 32% saying they had a good opinion of Travellers after joining the force. Before joining, 45% of these ethnic liaison officers said they had a poor or very poor opinion of the community.

An Garda Síochána did not respond to a number of questions from Noteworthy on specific measures in the Garda Youth Diversion Programme targeted at young Travellers, allegations of over-policing, and cultural awareness training provided to gardaí.

‘More work to do to prevent discrimination’

For advocates, one solution to these high detention rates in young Travellers was the State’s Youth Justice Strategy. In their submission as part of consultation last year, Pavee Point wrote that the strategy “should seek to support the families of Travellers and Roma to divert young people away from crime”. It continued:  

“Research shows strong links between youth offending and child and family welfare issues and therefore offending behaviour should not be considered in isolation.” 

Their submission called on “specific measures and initiatives for Travellers and Roma” to be included. It also quoted a European Commission Assessment of Ireland in 2016 that stated:

irish traveller folsom prison

Antiracism and cultural competency training was one action Pavee Point called for in their submission, according to Corrine Doyle, Drug and Alcohol Programme Coordinator at Pavee Point. This is important “for people working with Travellers in diversion programmes or detention centres so they have an understanding of Traveller culture and barriers faced and the additional work needed”.  

irish traveller folsom prison

In his opening statement yesterday, Fergal Black of the Irish Prison Service told the Joint Committee of “the introduction of awareness training for new prison staff on the issues arising for Travellers and areas of discrimination” over the past six years through the prison service’s partnership with the Travellers in Prison Initiative.

In the youth justice system, Pavee Point has completed some information sessions at Oberstown but Doyle said the organisation was given no additional resources for this. Given the high turnover of both staff and residents at the centre, she said this type of information programme would have to operate on a more regular basis to be effective.

“Challenging some of the bias and even unconscious bias and trying to work through that, that can’t just be done in information sessions.” 

John Paul Collins, the community development worker, said that their organisation has also delivered “anti racism and cultural competency training to garda recruits” over the years.

He said that Pavee Point has had ongoing discussions with the garda training college at Templemore and with senior gardaí, including the current Commissioner, and has stressed the need for this training to be a credited module for recruits, rather than a once-off discussion.

They should be marked on it and it should be delivered either by Traveller organisations or we’d do a training course for senior gardai to deliver it. A once-off [class] for 250 recruits doesn’t do it.

He said this type of training should be part of continuous professional development for gardaí, particularly when it comes to promotions.

Seamus Beirne, Equality, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at the Irish Prison Service, told the committee that measuring the impact of this training “can be difficult”. He added they intend to conduct a survey and monitor attitudes to help measure the impact, though this was delayed due to Covid. He added:

“There is a certain culture in Ireland, and a prison is a microcosm of the country. So, changing a culture takes a while.”

On this, Fergal Black said: “We have more work to do to prevent discrimination – that’s the honest answer.”

On training, the Travellers in Prison Initiative’s Costello concluded at the committee that it “works with some people” and they had success with probation staff. She continued:

“With other staff and other organisations, where you’ve got deeply embedded racist attitudes, the only response is zero tolerance. The prison is a very hierarchical organisation – I think it needs to come from the very top – that there will be consequences for racist behaviour. And I think that’s where you’ll see real change.”

Department aware of ‘additional action’ required

Noteworthy  sought correspondence and memos within the Department of Justice that mentioned Travellers in relation to the Youth Justice Strategy in the months leading up to its publication in April.

Just five records were found through the freedom of information (FOI) request, but from these it is clear that DOJ officials knew of the extra challenges facing young Travellers.  

In February 2021, at a meeting and presentation between DOJ officials and a person from the School of Law in UL, it was noted that “the Youth Justice Strategy will ensure a greater focus on such groups (Traveller, Roma and migrant groups), with Travellers being a particular challenge that requires additional action”.  

Yet, when the Youth Justice Strategy was published two months later, Travellers only received two mentions – both alongside a number of other groups  – and there were no Traveller-specific actions listed. 

In the ‘Disadvantage and Diversity’ section, Travellers were included in a wide-ranging group that the strategy emphasised “the need for State and State-funded services to engage effectively with”. This is the list as it is written:  

Poverty, Children and Young People in State Care, Travellers and other Ethnic Communities, Mental Health, Neuro-Diversity, Homelessness, Children of Prisoners, Childhood Trauma, Coercive Control, Addiction, Gender Differences, Disability, Differences in Maturity and Individual Learning abilities.

The only action Travellers are mentioned in, is in relation to the continued development of Garda Youth Diversion Projects, with an action to ensure these projects “reach all relevant young people in the community, including those from minority and hard-to-reach groups (such as young people of migrant background, Traveller and Roma communities)”. 

Strategy ‘quite weak in the context of Travellers’

Pavee Point’s Doyle said it was “frustrating” that the Youth Justice Strategy was “quite weak in the context of Travellers” as it did not include any initiatives targeted specifically at Travellers.  

She said that the organisation spent time on a detailed submission that called for targeted initiatives and said there is “nothing specific” in the strategy “for young Travellers, to address reoffending”. 

irish traveller folsom prison

In prisons, she said there are Traveller liaison officers and other Traveller-targeted initiatives but this is not happening in youth detention. 

“It’s seen as a one-size-fits-all,” she said, and added that Travellers often do not engage with mainstream services and programmes due to a lack of trust.  

“There are community programmes and youth services and garda youth diversion projects but within those there needs to be Traveller specific initiatives.”

Collins said Pavee Point does not want to see a segregation of services, but he said Traveller-specific initiatives should be put in place to act as “a bridge into mainstream services”. He said this would help to address poor engagement with general youth services and programmes. 

When asked why the DOJ did not include Traveller-specific actions, a spokesperson told Noteworthy that there is a specific action within the strategy “to ensure that the existing network of  Youth Diversion Projects reach all relevant young people in the community”. They added: 

There is a specific focus on minority and hard-to-reach groups including those from the Traveller Community.

The spokesperson said that “as part of a public consultation process, a number of submissions from individuals and groups, including from representatives of the Traveller Community, were received” which shaped its content. 

The team also asked if the DOJ has plans for any Traveller-specific youth justice programmes. The spokesperson said that “the immediate priority within the Strategy is the enhancement of engagement with children and young people who are most at risk of involvement in criminal activity, principally through strengthening the services available through the existing network of 105 Youth Diversion Projects.”

Youth Diversion Projects received an extra €6.7m in Budget 2022. The DOJ stated that these services will be enhanced to provide early intervention and engagement with more challenging children and young people as well as other supports. 

Pavee Point is one of the organisations to be invited to attend the Youth Justice Advisory Group, which according to one of the DOJ emails Noteworthy received through FOI “makes up part of the oversight structures” for the new strategy. The email stated:  

“The Advisory Group will include a range of state, community and expert stakeholders similar to the steering Group which has informed the development of the Strategy.” 

Other groups that the DOJ included in their list in this email were the Children’s Rights Alliance, Irish Penal Reform Trust, National Disability Authority and a representative from the Drugs Task Force.  

Doyle welcomed the fact that Pavee Point had been invited onto this group, as she is hopeful that they can lobby for some of the initiatives they suggested in their submission. However the lack of commitments in the strategy to Traveller-targeted programmes mean they will be “competing with other groups” within the wider ‘migrant and hard to reach’ group cited in the strategy. 

“It doesn’t mean these things won’t be brought in under other actions but it does dilute Traveller actions.” 

Noteworthy would like to take an in-depth look at the experience of Travellers in the wider justice system as part of our  BLIND JUSTICE project – currently over 70% funded. Find out how you can  help get it over the line >>

irish traveller folsom prison

This article is part of our  TOUGH START  investigation which is being led  by  Maria Delaney  of Noteworthy and  Michelle Hennessy  of The Journal. 

This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy  general fund  to cover additional costs.  

You can support our work by submitting  an idea , funding for a particular  proposal  or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund  HERE>>

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Irish Travellers settle discrimination case against Co Tyrone Inn

The group of family and friends visited the ryandale inn in may 2023.

The Ryandale Inn is working with the Commission to review their policies and procedures

A group of Irish Travellers who were refused service and asked to leave a Co Tyrone restaurant have settled a race discrimination case.

In a case backed by the Equality Commission, the six were awarded £24.000.

They had visited the Ryandale Inn in Moy in May 2023 where they planned to have a meal. When they attempted to order drinks at the bar, they were refused service and asked to leave.

The incident was recorded on a mobile phone and staff were made aware that they were being filmed.

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A staff member behind the bar was captured saying, “we can’t serve you”. When then asked if the reason for this was because they were Travellers, the person behind the bar replied “yes”.

Speaking for the group, Martin Cawley said they were humiliated and embarrassed: “It was so blatant, they didn’t care, they didn’t even try to hide that they were discriminating against us because we are Travellers. We felt we had no option but to challenge this, it’s not right and we should not have to accept it.

“We just wanted to have a meal together like any other group of friends.”

Mary Kitson, Senior Legal Officer, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

Mary Kitson, Senior Legal Officer with the Equality Commission, said this type of behaviour is never acceptable.

“Business owners must ensure that their staff know that it is unlawful to refuse service to someone because of their race,” she said.

“All businesses here must operate within our equality laws. It is important that we continue to challenge this type of racial prejudice.”

As part of the settlement agreement, the Ryandale Inn is working with the Commission to ensure that their policies and procedures are effective and conform with the requirements of the Race Relations Order (NI) 1997.

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Census 2022 Profile 5 - Diversity, Migration, Ethnicity, Irish Travellers & Religion

  • Irish Travellers

Census Results 2022 Branding

Census 2022 Results

This publication is part of a  series of results  from Census 2022. More thematic publications will be published throughout 2023 as outlined in the Census 2022  Publication Schedule .

The number of Irish Travellers living in the State and counted in Census 2022 was 32,949, an increase of 6% from 30,987 in the 2016 census. Irish Travellers make up less than 1% of the population so, for comparison purposes, it can be helpful to use rates per 1,000 of the population. This shows that in Census 2022, six out of 1,000 people in the State were Irish Travellers. The proportion of Irish Travellers in the population varied from county to county.

In Galway City, 21 out of every 1,000 people were Irish Travellers, in Longford, the rate was 20 per 1,000 of the population and in Offaly, it was 14 per 1,000.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown had the lowest number of Irish Travellers per 1,000 of the population with just under two Irish Travellers for every 1,000 people.

In Kildare and Dublin City, there were just under four Irish Travellers for every 1,000 people.

The Irish Traveller population increased in most counties, the largest rise being recorded in Offaly, up 30% to 1,174.

The Traveller population also increased by more than 200 in Cork (up 11% to 2,376), Fingal (up 17% to 1,545) and Tipperary (up 17% to 1,434).

There were drops in the number of Irish Travellers in some counties; the largest were recorded in Longford (down 13% to 913) and South Dublin (down 12% to 1,943).

Note: The analysis of Irish travellers is based on the usually resident population. The corresponding de facto figures in 2022 and 2016 were 33,033 and 31,075, respectively.

irish traveller folsom prison

The figure for Irish Travellers has a pyramid shape as opposed to the hourglass shape of the figure for the total population. This reflects higher fertility rates and lower average life expectancy among the Irish Traveller population than in the overall population.

Children under the age of 15 made up 36% of Irish Travellers compared with 20% of the total population. At a national level, 15% of the total population was aged 65 years and over while for Irish Travellers, the equivalent figure was just 5%.

Marital Status of Irish Travellers

Overall, 45% of Irish Travellers aged 15 years and over were single, up from 40% in 2016. The proportion of married Travellers dropped from 49% in 2016 to 44% in 2022.

Irish Traveller men were more likely to be either single (47%) or married (46%) than Irish Traveller women (42% single and 42% married).

Around 10% of Irish Traveller women were separated or divorced compared with 5% of Irish Traveller men.

Irish Traveller women were also more likely to be widowed (5%) than Irish Traveller men (2%).

Over 85% of Irish Travellers aged 15 to 24 years were single while 13% were married.

The proportion that were married increased to 49% for 25 to 34 year olds.

Among Irish Travellers aged 55 to 64 years, 14% were separated or divorced compared with 8% of Travellers aged 65 and over.

Overall, 25% of Irish Travellers aged 65 and over were widowed; the figure for Traveller women aged 65 and over was 35% and 15% for Traveller men.

Long-Lasting Conditions and Difficulties

There were 8,577 Irish Travellers who reported experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to any extent, accounting for 26% of the Traveller population. In comparison, 22% of the total population living in the State reported experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to any extent.

Breaking this down further, 15% of Irish Travellers (4,952 people) reported experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to a great extent or a lot compared with 8% of all people living in Ireland.

Another 11% of Irish Travellers (3,625 people) reported experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to some extent or a little while the comparable figure for the total population was 14%.

irish traveller folsom prison

The overall proportion of Irish Travellers experiencing a long-lasting condition or difficulty to any extent was slightly higher for men (27%) than women (25%). Looking at the total population, women (22%) were more likely to experience a long-lasting condition or difficulty to any extent than men (21%).

Of all children under the age of 15 living in the State, 4% reported experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to a great extent compared with 7% of Traveller children.

The proportion of 15 to 29 year old Irish Travellers experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to a great extent (13%) was more than twice that of all people in the same age cohort (6%).

Between the ages of 30 and 59, the proportion of the population experiencing at least one long-lasting condition or difficulty to a great extent was over three times higher for Irish Travellers (21%) than the total population (6%).

Among the older age cohorts, the differences were less pronounced, and Irish Travellers over the age of 80 were slightly less likely to experience a long-lasting condition or difficulty to any extent than would be expected in the overall population.

General Health

The question on general health shows that 22,050 Irish Travellers reported their general health as being good or very good (67%) while a further 3,899 Irish Travellers reported fair health status (12%).

There were 1,350 Irish Travellers reporting their health as bad or very bad, 4% of the Traveller population. This is twice as high as the proportion of the total population who reported their health as bad or very bad (2%).

The level of non-response in this question was quite high for Irish Travellers, at 17%, compared with 7% for the total population.

In the overall population, the proportion of people with good or very good health decreased slowly with age, up until the age of 70 when the decrease rate started to accelerate.

In the Irish Traveller population, the proportion of people with good or very good health decreased steadily with age up until the age of 70 at which point, the rate of decrease slowed down.

There were 5,427 Irish Travellers who were daily smokers in Census 2022, or 16% of the Traveller population compared with 9% of the total population.

Just under half of Irish Travellers had never smoked compared with 60% of the total population.

Some 9% of Travellers had given up smoking, compared with 19% for the total population.

Looking at smoking by age shows that one in three Irish Travellers between the ages of 25 and 54 were daily smokers.

Irish Traveller Households

There were 29,900 Irish Travellers living in private households in Census 2022. The majority were living in permanent housing, while 2,286 people were living in temporary housing units such as caravans and mobile homes.

The proportion of Irish Travellers living in private households who were living in caravans, mobile homes or other temporary accommodation was 8% in 2022, down from 12% in 2016.

In Fingal, 18% of Travellers were living in temporary accommodation, the highest proportion in the country in Census 2022.

In Dublin City, Kilkenny and Tipperary, 14% of Irish Travellers were living in temporary housing.

Household Size

There were 9,448 private households containing Irish Travellers. These households had an average size of 4 persons per household compared to an average size of 2.7 for the total population.

Irish Traveller households were largest in Leitrim, Roscommon and Kildare with an average size of 4.6 persons, followed by Clare with 4.5 persons per household.

The counties where the average size of Irish Traveller households was smallest were Dublin City with 3.5 persons per household and Louth, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Donegal (all with 3.6 persons per household).

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IMAGES

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  2. 13 Fascinating Facts, Stories, and Tales about Folsom Prison

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  4. Folsom Prison Museum

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  5. Museum captures life inside Folsom Prison

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  6. Old Folsom Prison's Front Entrance... by sweetpea72

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VIDEO

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  4. Irish travellers in prison. 🤯it's a hard life but someone's got to do it😂🤣

  5. Irish traveller funeral procession

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  11. PDF The experiences of Irish travellers in prison in England and Wales

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  12. Voices Unheard: A study of Irish Travellers in prison

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  14. Travellers in the Irish Prison System: A qualitative study

    19th May 2014. Travellers in the Irish Prison System: A qualitative study is a 76-page qualitative research report, which includes interviews with 10 former prisoners (5 female, 5 male). Download the report here. Download appendices C and D here. The findings in the report are illustrated with direct quotes, which detail:

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  16. PDF Voices Unheard

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  17. 'Unsafe' prison to be taken over permanently by Government

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  21. Irish Travellers' Access to Justice

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  22. A lifeline for Travellers in prison

    So we started the Travellers in Prison News (TIPN), a newsletter supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, now read in over 100 prisons by approximately 500 men and women. TIPN is a lively mix. It provides a platform for Travellers contributing articles, poems and drawings. It covers news relevant to Travellers, from Britain and Ireland often about ...

  23. PDF JOURNAL PRISON SERVICE

    Irish Travellers in Prison — The Unknown Prisoners Conn Mac Gabhann works for The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain and is author of Voices Unheard: A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison. 1. Mac Gabhann, C., (2011), Voices Unheard: A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison. London: Irish Chaplaincy in Britain. 2.

  24. 'Revolving door': Traveller women imprisoned for minor offences such as

    This is also an over-representation of Travellers in the adult prison population, where it was estimated in 2017 by the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service that Travellers accounted for ...

  25. Irish Travellers settle discrimination case against Co Tyrone Inn

    May 22, 2024 at 2:22PM GMT+1. A group of Irish Travellers who were refused service and asked to leave a Co Tyrone restaurant have settled a race discrimination case. In a case backed by the ...

  26. PDF People in prison: Gypsies, Romany and Travellers (2014)

    Findings paper 8 People in prison: Gypsies, Romany and Travellers. 46% reported having felt unsafe at some point (compared with 33%) and 24% at the time of the survey (compared with 13%) 36% said that they had been victimised by other prisoners (compared with 23%) and 40% by staff (compared with 27%). 1.22.

  27. PDF The Right Type of Education

    Traveller Equality Project. The Right Type of Education. A Briefing on Education and Training Provision for Gypsy and Irish Traveller Prisoners in England and Wales. "There's no use having the wrong type of education for a man who has worked 20 years on the roads…. It has to be the right type of education.".

  28. Peter Casey accused of 'stoking division' with election posters outside

    A Labour councillor in Dublin has accused European elections candidate Peter Casey of engaging in "dog whistle-type politics" after Mr Casey attached election posters to barriers outside the ...

  29. Sister of fatal M50 motorbike crash victim thanks motorists who stopped

    Derek Martin (42), a prison officer from Ballymun in Dublin, was on a motorbike that was involved in a collision with a truck on the northbound carriageway of the motorway when the incident ...

  30. Irish Travellers

    Overall, 45% of Irish Travellers aged 15 years and over were single, up from 40% in 2016. The proportion of married Travellers dropped from 49% in 2016 to 44% in 2022. Irish Traveller men were more likely to be either single (47%) or married (46%) than Irish Traveller women (42% single and 42% married). Around 10% of Irish Traveller women were ...