First National Assembly on A State Apology for Travellers
(Thursday October 13th 2022 Shamrock Lodge Hotel , Athlone) Today the first ever national assembly of Travellers was convened by the Irish Traveller Movement to address a State Apology to the community in view of government practices and policies implemented over decades, such as policies which forced Travellers into housing, the separation and removal of Traveller children into care and institutions, the specific institutional abuses against Travellers in Mother and Baby Homes, County Homes, Industrial Schools and Laundries, the establishment of Traveller segregated schools and classes, and the treatment of children in those settings.
The event which took place at the Irish Traveller Movement AGM and Conference with participants from the national network of local Traveller organisations, responded to Traveller’s calls for the State to atone for centuries old laws and practices which curtailed or prevented Travellers right to a way of life, and culminated in the 1963 Commission of Itinerancy Report. The Commission’s objective was to enquire ‘into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants’ and ‘to promote their absorption into the general community’. Following the Report Irish governments worked off principles of assimilation, absorption and rehabilitation, and created the conditions for how Travellers were treated socially, culturally, economically and politically across all the institutions of the State and which is linked to long-term systemic exclusion and discrimination.
Members of the Irish Traveller Movement were unanimous in the need for a campaign for an Apology which will form one of 5 strategic goals of the Movement over the next five years and according to Bernard Joyce Director ‘Today marks an important milestone for our community given the difficulty of moving forward without truth and reconciliation and acknowledgement by the state of its treatment of Irish Travellers and the profound harm and neglect caused. State recognition of our ethnic minority status in 2017 was an historic day tirelessly campaigned for, which built expectation, but fell short of a state apology and recognition of the significant hurt and trauma caused to our people on this island for decades. State sponsored Traveller segregation in education and forced assimilation, like other indigenous minorities across the world, tells us that our culture and way of life was thought of as inferior. Our story as Irish Travellers, and this part of Irish history, has not been told, our voices unheard and undocumented, today marks a milestone to change that, so that we can move forward as a community and that our lives matter’.
In 1961, two years prior to Irelands’ Commission a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers was held in Canberra, Australia who agreed on the policy of assimilation of Australian aborigines , speaking at the opening session Sissy Austin, a Gunditjmara, Keerray Wurrung, Peek Wurrung, Djab Wurrung First Nations woman and a community advocate for grassroots change said; “Truth telling and acknowledging past injustices is key to the healing of a country” “A country that sweeps injustices against its own people under the carpet is an unhealthy country, not only unhealthy for those directly impacted, but unhealthy for those who make choices to live with no integrity” ” Saying sorry is a step in a healing journey. Here in Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd responded to the long overdue calls for a national apology to the Stolen Generation. My father is a member of the Stolen Generation and always says that the apology was a step in his healing journey”
A panel of Traveller activists Catherine Joyce, Oein de Bhairduin, Trish Reilly Nolan and Helena Power spoke to the assembled audience on the topics of what an apology would look like as an acknowledgement of the injustices committed, the institutions involved and what corrective and restorative actions would make that apology meaningful.
Preceding the Commission of Itinerancy 1963 (1) The School Attendance Bill, 1942 reflected government thinking at the time. It was passed by the Dåil and Senate and ‘required vagrants to register of their families and of the education received by their children at local Garda stations. It prescribed the periods of attendance at school, powers of arrest for the Gardai, powers of committal of children to industrial schools and so on. The Bill also had a section empowering the Minister for Education to decide whether a child was receiving a suitable education in a manner other than school or a recognised school. This section was considered by the Supreme Court to be repugnant to the Constitution and the Bill was not signed by the President and none of its provisions became law.
The overall recommendation in the subsequent 1963 Report: stated ‘All efforts directed at improving the lot of the itinerants and at dealing with the problems created by them and all schemes drawn up for these purposes should always have—as their aim the eventual absorption of the itinerants into the general community’. The Commission also considered educational policy saying ‘(it) ‘can only be successful if it is one which aims at catering for those who have been induced to leave the wandering life and for those who are likely to do so’ It found only 160 students were enrolled nationally at the time, a 20% drop in the previous two decades, yet one recommendation was ‘only a very elementary course should be attempted in arithmetic’, despite evidence from teachers working with Traveller children , of equal ability. It set the standard of low expectations for Travellers. It made several recommendations for additional resourcing to support Traveller children in education, but failure of government investment, and bias in practice, has remained a dominant threat.
In another government policy, the 1970 Report on Educational Facilities for the Children of Itinerants it stated that ‘the educational needs of itinerant children are similar to those of backward children, generally aggravated by social disabilities and a vagrant way of life’(2) and recommended that special educational provision be made for Traveller children at primary level which led to the establishment of five special Traveller schools and the creation of special Traveller classes in mainstream schools. The implementation of these policies and practices caused irrevocable damage across generations of Travellers, who left school early unable to read and write, and who were belittled in the practice of many of those schools and educators, as being less than and othered, resulting in chronically low education outcomes and poor life opportunities.
The threat of institutional care: The Report noted that ‘a separation of parents and children would result in the children growing up outside the itinerant life and that thus in one generation the itinerants as a class would disappear’. This the Commission stated, was a matter they had received many requests on. While it was not formalized as a recommendation, State services and church authorities intervened in many Travellers families where children were forcibly removed into care, when their accommodation and other matters were considered by those services to justify their actions, causing decades long hurt and trauma for people affected. Many Travellers in institutional care settings were singled out, discriminated against and subjected to greater mistreatment than others.
In Australia the child removal policy resulted in between one in ten and one in three, Indigenous Australian children being forcibly taken from their families and communities by state government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments between 1910 and 1970, in different regions. This is known as The Stolen Generations (also known as Stolen Children)
Ireland’s damning 1963 Report showed strong similarities with assimilationist policies used against indigenous and nomadic peoples elsewhere – such as the aboriginal people in Australia, Canada, and other parts of Europe, like the Sami People of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia
Sissy Austin is a Gunditjmara, Keerray Wurrung, Peek Wurrung, Djab Wurrung First Nations woman and a community advocate for grassroots change. Sissy has established a strong reputation and high degree of respect in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities for her courageous truth telling and advocacy. Sissy is currently employed as Senator Lidia Thorpe’s First Nations Campaign Lead and Women’s Health Grampians First Nations Strategic Advisor for Health Equality. She previously worked in the family violence sector at a First Nations family violence legal service; advocating for women’s safety and for first nations children to stay with family and Oxfam Australia advocating for the rights of First Nations young people.
Sissy was an elected member to the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria but stood off the assembly due to the Government destroying sacred women’s country. Sissy volunteers her time and experience in many grassroots campaigns including Grandmothers Against Removals, Fight to Protect Djab Wurrung Country and large rallies including the recent Abolish the Monarchy rally. She has been published in several national newspapers and other publications, raising awareness of racism, damaging child protection policies, the ongoing impacts of colonization and trauma and the importance of connection to country. Sissy believes strongly in the power of influencing change through story-telling, lived experience and generational knowledge.
Catherine Joyce (chair) a leading human rights activist and campaigner for over 30year, and People of the Year Award recipient 1991. She is currently the manager of Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group.
Oein de Bhairduin is a writer, activist and educator with a passion for preserving Traveller culture, tales, language and heritage. He is the current Traveller Cultural Collections Officer at the National Museum of Ireland.
Trish Reilly Nolan is a celebrated singer song writer based in Athlone. In 2016, she set up the Irish Traveller Creative as a creative space for Travellers. Her song Broken Lines reflects on the removal of Traveller children into care and institutions.
Helena Power, a Traveller woman from Urlingford, north Kilkenny, is an activist and Community Development Officer with the Kilkenny Traveller Community Movement and a board member of the Irish Traveller Movement.
1. 1963 Commission of Itinerancy Report.(2 parts)
For further media information or to arrange an interview please contact Jacinta Brack, firstname.lastname@example.org or at 087 27 44791