Travelling through history

Travelling people’s long-time role in the life of the Liberties is at risk of being erased

The Travelling community have lived nomadically in Ireland for centuries. Moving from region to region all over the country, it is estimated that travelling families and their “long shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions” make up for about 0.7% of the national population, according to the Irish Traveller Movement.  

The indigenous Irish but ethnically different group were recognised by the Irish government as an ethnic minority in 2017, following almost 25 years of campaigning. Such recognition is all very well in theory, but in practice, the community has faced repression: in the last 20 years, a lot of it has been based on a law passed to outlaw illegal Traveller encampments. 

The ‘tough new’ legislation, which was passed by a vote of 107 to 17 TDs in March 2002, allowed gardaí to demand names, arrest trespassers without a warrant, and remove caravans or equipment and charge for their return.

Wooden gavel – Image by Tinger Injury Law Firm. Image sourced: Unsplash 

Travellers and their supporters said it aimed to make the Travellers way of life illegal.  

Oscar Ó Broin, who has been involved in Traveller education, says “the bill was introduced essentially to get rid of the Traveller culture and way of life.

“There is a negative public perception of investing in Traveller services in this country, and this has seen an increase in many Traveller families settling in houses or permanent places of living,” he said. “Traveller families are not settled by choice, they’re forcibly settled,” he added.  

Even where they are being ‘settled’, Travellers often have no choice but to “up and leave” an area due to lack of safety and regulation. This can be seen in instances such as in Galway, just two years ago when a house intended for Travellers was set on fire just before their move-in date.  

Unfortunately, this would not be the first time that Traveller communities have had to abandon their place of residence or settle elsewhere. 

Pim Street, Street Sign. Image by Taylor Mooney 

Often the standard of living in Dublin’s halting sites was so poor, in some instances, with no water and rodent infestations. Just as often, government officials demolished Traveller sites with the promise of improved rebuilds in place — yet these areas remain empty today. 

Kathleen Farrell, a resident of Dublin 8, told The Liberty about what she remembers of the halting sites at St. James’s Gate, just off Pim Street, which were demolished several years ago.  

Google Earth location of old halting sites behind Pim Street. Image by Google Earth.

“I passed by the site every day for years,” said Farrell.

“The Traveller families were part of the area at that stage. The children used to play with the kids at the flats and they had good interaction with the people.  

“I believe the site was meant to be demolished and re-built for any Traveller families that wanted to settle there, but that was at least eight or nine years ago, and that didn’t happen. The site wasn’t very sanitary either,” she said. 

Poor sanitation was not uncommon among halting sites in Ireland. In 1991, a number of voluntary organisations working with Travellers in the Dublin area came together to express their concern about the appalling living conditions of hundreds of Traveller families and the lack of sufficient properly serviced sites. The findings of this project were published here

“There were so many families living there at the time and the place was in a bad way. I remember them saying they had no toilets, no running water, and I think there was an epidemic of rats at one time,” said Farrell. 

Today’s entrance to the once Pim Street halting site. Image by Taylor Mooney 

Despite the conditions of the halting sites in its later years, this area and the memory of the Traveller community still stand with many locals today. 

“I knew some of the families that lived there in the halting site across from the Canal Pub,  they used to shop in our shop,” said Noel Fleming, owner and manager of Noel’s, Liberty subs deli. 

“The children went to school with the kids here at St. James’s and a lot of them [older Travellers] would drink in the Canal Bar just across the way,” said Farrell.  

“There was never any trouble,” she added. 

Local man Gerard O’Reilly told The Liberty that his childhood memories of the Pim Street halting site were not quite so friendly. 

“I know a girl that was bit by one of the dogs that lived on the site,” he said.

“There were two or three dogs that they kept out at the front, big dogs. You’d stay well clear of that area when you were younger,” he added. 

O’Reilly said locals believed the site was demolished and closed up “because Guinness and Diageo decided they want to build a big hotel here – the site was knocked down when we were kids.”  

Current works near the old Pim Street halting site. Image by Taylor Mooney 

Before the halting site was demolished, the Travellers left a mark on the community.

 Many Traveller children attended St James’s school, making their Holy Communion alongside other residents of Dublin 8, Farrell said.  

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