For Traveller Women In Ireland, Life Is Changing Referred to as the gypsies of Ireland, Travellers have moved in caravans and lived in roadside encampments for hundreds of years. Now, they're settling in government-created "halts." And although they have faced cultural prejudices, times are changing. Now, they are "speaking up for themselves and being heard," says Traveller Helen Connors.
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For Traveller Women In Ireland, Life Is Changing

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For Traveller Women In Ireland, Life Is Changing

For Traveller Women In Ireland, Life Is Changing

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Let's return now to our series The Hidden World of Girls - Girls and the Women They Become. The Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, take us to the foothills of the Dublin Mountains and into the secret life of Traveller girls - the Gypsies of Ireland.

Ms. HELEN CONNORS: My name is Helen Connors. I live in Hazel Hill, Dublin 24. I come from a Traveller family. Travellers got their name because we're so fond of travelling around the world in a caravan. They'd have their wagons and their horses. You'd see them along the roadside. You could be in Dublin today. You could be in Cork tomorrow. That's how Travellers got their name. We call you settled People.

Unidentified Woman: I sing a tune to the cows in meadow and Ill whistle as I walk through the rain and the snow. And my shoulders hurt from carrying this load. I want to see the fire glow.

Ms. SHIRLEY MARTIN: Travelling girls don't really mix much with settled girls; the way of living, caravans, side of roads - a kind of a come and go thing.

My name is Shirley Martin, 23 years of age, three children. My family is a Travelling family

Unidentified Woman: But with my travelling clan, Im happy as bean in can. With my traveling clan, Im happy as (unintelligible) in a pan.

Professor MARY BURKE (Irish Literature, University of Connecticut): There are similarities between Traveller and Romany Gypsy culture, but Travellers are historically nomadic indigenous Irish minority.

My name is Mary Burke. Im an associate professor of University of Connecticut in Irish Literature.

For many generations, Travellers provided services to an Ireland that was predominantly agricultural: seasonal farm labor, tin smithing, horse trading. Romanies introduced Travellers to wagons. The wagons then were overtaken by caravans, and caravans were overtaken by mobile homes. But, the vast majority of Travellers today live in houses at certain times of the year. But that doesn't mean that prejudice or identity disappear.

Ms. CONNORS: I was bullied enough, a lot in school. You're a knacker, or you were a pikey. That's all you'd hear like every day. You'd be in trouble fighting, trying to take up for yourself. I didnt learn a lot in school. If I said to teacher, I can't do this - can I have some help? I had one teacher just said to me, why would you want to know how to read and write? A Traveller won't do that much in life; you're going to go off and get married young and have loads of children. So I was just put down to the end of the class and everyone else was up on top.

Prof. BURKE: School is setup - the whole society is setup for kids who live in a house all year long. So for kids who moved around, as Traveller kids used to do, that let to a cultural attitude in Ireland that Traveller kids weren't interested in learning, couldnt learn. And that carries over into today.

Ms. MARTIN: In most Travelling families, very, very strict with girls. Some mothers and fathers is too strict, where you wouldn't be allowed to go anywhere. And you know that wasnt done the right way, there'd kind of be punishment. So this is why most Travelling girls does get married young, 'cause they want to get away from that. Travelling girls, most of them today, be like 16, 17 and 18, which will want marriage.

There's three stages in life. There Communion, Confirmation and then you get married. In Travelling girls, your wedding day is your dream. Everything has to be big. You have to have a big wedding dress, big crown, big cars, big horse and carriage.

Mr. CHALLENGE MCGUFF(ph): Im here at the Cahirmee Horse Fair. I've been coming here for the past 20 years. The horse fair, the Travellers come from all over the country and they buy and sell horses.

You'd have to be here to witness it, to see the style, the fashion of the Travelling women, yeah. Give it a couple of more hours and theyll start parading. My name is Challenge McGuff, from Cahirmee. They're flashing their style to show future husbands.

Prof. BURKE: The horse fair, it was a meeting point for families who are on the road to last the year. Everybody came to this one location; socialized, drank, sang, made matches, arranged wedding.

Ms. VIVI MCDONALD(ph): My name is Vivi McDonald(ph) and I come from Monaghan. Im 14. This is my cousin, Parad(ph), and she's wearing a shocking orange skirt, shocking orange top.

PARAD: And my cousin, Vivian, is wearing a white jean skirt with a white belly top, black gladiator shoes. She's got her belly buttons on.

Prof. BURKE: The girls travel in packs, promenading. They look very glamorous. Lot's of makeup and heels and long hair.

Ms. TERRY MCCARTHY: My name is Terry McCarthy. I got married a month ago. When I was 13, I met my husband at a festival. And the minute I met him, I knew I was in love. I got engaged when I was 15. I had a big do for that. I got married at 16. I had a lovely big, huge white dress.

Ms. CONNORS: Whatever you want on your wedding day you have to get. When I got married, I got to design me own dream dress. It had a 50-foot train. It was all diamonds and lace. Travellers, too, you have a mini-bride. That's a girl you just dress up just like yourself for the day. Your mini-bride has to look like you.

(Soundbite of a zipper)

Ms. THERESA HUGHES (Seamstress): This is a satin dress and it has sequins on the bottom of the train.

My name is Theresa Hughes. Im in the sewing business 26 years. The Travelling community, they come over, now, to us to get their outfits made. They're unbelievable for glam and for bling for these weddings.

My name is Jennifer Hughes. I do a lot of clothes for Travellers. This is a white miniskirt. I've used Elvis as an inspiration - his white Lycra suit, the flared one that he wears to his last concert.

Prof. BURKE: There is a lot of money involved in Traveller weddings, both in terms of substantial dowry payments and putting on a good show.

Rosaleen McDonagh, a contemporary Traveller activist who writes on Traveller themes, sees this wonderful ostentation thats often on show at Traveller weddings as a kind of defiant Traveller aesthetic.

As women age in Traveller culture, they gain power. They often outlive the men. They can become matriarchs in the culture, particularly if they have a large family. There's prestige attached to being the mother of many.

Mr. PAUL CONNELLY: The Travellers, when I was a kid, they used to come around our houses making pots and pans and doing odd jobs. And in return for that, they may get milk and bread and potatoes. People will not tolerate Travellers living on the side of the roads now. It's dangerous for themselves.

Im Paul Connelly, the caretaker of the Hazel Hills halting site. Country trying to set up halting sites and get them settled. Get them to live in them.

Ms. CONNORS: It's changed a lot now for Travellers - that wasnt heard years ago, but now they are. My mother and father had 17 children - nine boys and eight girls. Myself, I left school when I was 11, but then I started a trainer course where I learned how to read and write. And then I done a child care course. I passed all my exams.

Now I can read and write what I never learned in school. I learned it myself.

INSKEEP: The Hidden World of Girls was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. And you can call and tell us your story at this number: 202-408-9576.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

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