Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Ireland : Travellers

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Ireland : Travellers, June 2008, available at: [accessed 21 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated June 2008


There were 23,681 Travellers recorded in the 2002 Census, 21,549 (91%) of whom identified themselves as Roman Catholic. The number of Travellers is almost certainly higher than the census figure, most estimates giving up to 30,000. Travellers are indigenous to Ireland. Although they are present throughout the island, about half live in or near the main cities of Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork. Only a minority of Travellers pursue their traditional crafts and services and retain economic independence in an urban economy.

Historical context

There are two main theories as to the origin of the Travellers. The first considers them descendants of itinerant metal workers and trades people from pre-Celtic times; the second that they are descendants of people driven to the roads during times of economic and political turbulence from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The latter is rejected by the Travellers and NGOs supporting them. It also appears to be discredited by records of Irish Travellers in England in the twelfth century and laws passed against them there in the fifteenth century.

Other theories of Traveller origins are that they were Druidic poets or dispossessed Irish nobility from the early Middle Ages. Travellers are often considered to be Roma/Gypsies, but their origins, culture, language and religion are different. They were present in Ireland before the Roma. They have a strong tradition of Roman Catholicism, which is part of the culture, not an adjunct to an earlier religion as with the Roma. The vocabulary of the Traveller language, Shelta (also known as Sheldru, Gammon or the Cant), is based on Irish with the syntax based on English. It contains some elements of Romany. But it is a 'cant', or codified language, developed as a secret means of communication for the community. Celtic and Romany experts assert that Shelta has existed since the thirteenth century.

In 1834, before the Great Famine of 1845-9, there were more than 2 million people on the roads of Ireland, among whom Travellers formed a distinct and recognizable group. Travellers migrated to the United States in the early nineteenth century. Mass emigration to England and Scotland was noted from 1880.

The traditional occupations of the Travellers were metal working, craftwork, scrap metal dealing, antique and bric-a- bric dealing, horse and other trading, entertaining and seasonal agricultural labour. Nomadic Travellers made a good living in the 1950s and early 1960s, although their way of life was physically harsh, according to the findings of the 1963 report of the First Government Commission on Itinerancy. Settled Travellers were less able to make a living, the report found. The Commission treated nomadism as a problem to be resolved through enforced settlement and assimilation of Travellers into mainstream society. Itinerant Settlement Committees were set up in every local authority in 1969. Local authorities closed traditional Traveller sites and set up 'halting sites', to which Travellers were directed while they waited for permanent social housing. The sites were often inadequately provided with services, but the Travellers were blamed for wanting to live in unsanitary conditions. Special education, housing and welfare programmes were provided for Travellers, without taking their culture into account. Their own efforts at improving their lot were suppressed. Most notably, the first Traveller primary school in Dublin was bulldozed by the Dublin Corporation in 1964. The settlement programme largely failed to improve conditions for the Travellers and destroyed the independence of many of them. At the same time, resentment from local communities and violent attacks on Travellers increased.

The 1983 report of the Travelling People Review Body rejected the policy of settlement and assimilation. Although the Review Body acknowledged that prejudice and harassment towards Travellers were problems, it stated that 'there is no evidence of discrimination against Travellers in the granting of social welfare assistance and in gaining enrolment in local primary and second level schools'. The report recognized 'many instances of bias against Travellers in the allocation of tenancies of local authority houses', but pointed out that local authorities had to contend with 'considerable local opposition'.

Although the report argued against any specific legislation to protect Travellers against discrimination, the 1988 Housing Act, 1991 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act and the 1993 Unfair Dismissals (Amendment) Act all make specific mention of Travellers.

The government's Task Force report on the Travelling community in 1995 set out to address Traveller issues from a human rights perspective. Membership of the Traveller community was identified as one of the nine grounds of discrimination under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. The 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act set up the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee and required local authorities to resolve Traveller housing and other problems. However, the 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act made trespass, previously a civil offence, into a criminal offence, thus criminalizing the Travellers' traditional nomadic way of life. The High Level Group, set up within the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion in 2003 to ensure better integration of services to Travellers, does not include any member of the Traveller community.

Current issues

In a public attitudes survey published by the government's 'Know Racism' campaign in February 2004 72 per cent of respondents agreed that the settled community do not want members of the Traveller community living amongst them, while 48 per cent did not consider that Travellers make a positive contribution to Irish society.

Despite the 1991 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, various local politicians indulged in violent words and invective against Travellers at public meetings and in speaking to the media in the 1990s. More recently, media reports and local politicians portrayed Travellers as criminals and the entire community as condoning crime.

The NCCRI (National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism) Racist Incidents Reporting Procedure has documented incidents of racially motivated attacks, harassment and verbal abuse directed at the Traveller community. In person-to-person contact and in the media Travellers are often called cheats and criminals, and it is assumed that they choose to live in dirty conditions.

In 2003 the Equality Tribunal judged 68 cases of discrimination against the Traveller community, two regarding employment and the rest regarding the provision of goods and services. Many of the latter concerned refusal of service in licensed premises.

According to national statistics, the Travellers are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Ireland. Basic health is well below the national average, housing and basic services to accommodation are generally poor, illiteracy and the drop- out rate from school are high. Although some Travellers continue to make a good living from scrap metal, other waste recycling trades and other self-employment, very few are engaged in mainstream employment and the majority are dependent on welfare.

Local authorities have been slow to meet their obligations for housing Travellers. Of the 2,000 Traveller-specific housing units and 900 standard and group housing units that were meant to have been provided from 1995 to 2000, only 251 Traveller-specific units and 757 houses had been provided by 2004.

The Irish Travellers Movement (ITM) noted that in 2004, 601 families were living in unauthorized sites; 549 were sharing accommodation in overcrowded conditions and 328 families were living in temporary accommodation.

Concerns have been expressed about the inadequate funding of Traveller pre-school education. Nearly all Traveller children are enrolled in primary schools, but they often encounter racism and there is only one Traveller-only primary school. Less than half the relevant age group (46%) attend secondary school and the drop-out rate at this level is high. Almost two-thirds of all Traveller children leave education before the legal minimum age of 15 compared with 15 per cent for the general population. There is a wide range of adult and further education available to Travellers. However, this sometimes encourages Traveller children to leave school early. Also, the level of achievement of Travellers attending further education is relatively low. Few Travellers, probably less than 20 per cent, enrol in higher education.

The low level of educational qualification, a preference for self-employment, restrictions on nomadic living and discrimination by employers have left most Traveller families dependent on welfare.

Traveller women live 13 years less and Traveller men 10 years less than the general population. Infant mortality is three times the national average. Substandard accommodation and poverty are the main contributing factors to this poor state of health, but 17 per cent of Travellers found discrimination in registering with a doctor.

In June 2008, the ITM decided to petition the Department of Justice for official recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority. Leaders of the ITM were of the view that recognition would help the group to secure its rights, gain recognition from Irish society, and boost Traveller self-confidence in dealing with settled communities. The petition was expected to be delivered within months, and the ITM was hopeful that the move would have the backing of human rights groups and such bodies as the NCCRI, the Equality Authority, and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld