DUBLIN, Ireland – Despite generations of poverty and prejudice from both the government and ordinary Irish citizens, the faith of the itinerant Irish Traveller community today is strong, say local Catholic leaders.
On Saturday, a Traveller woman named Missy Collins offered her testimony at the Festival of Families at Croke Park, Dublin, during the World Meeting of Families. She told Pope Francis that Travellers are “a people who have experienced injustice and persecution and are forced often out onto the margins of society,” who found their strength in God as well as their families.
“We are proud of our heritage and culture. And proud to be Travellers,” she said.
There are about 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, about 0.7 percent of the population. In 2017, the Irish government recognized Traveller as an ethnic minority.
Travellers have a distinct cultural life with unique traditions, and many still prefer to live in caravans. Generally, Travellers marry very young – the popular television show “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” showcased the elaborate weddings of Irish Travellers. (Despite the name of the program, Irish Travellers are a different group than the Roma or English Traveller communities, and are not generally referred to as “gypsies.”)
Travellers are majority Catholic, and “strong believers,” said Margaret McDonagh, a member of the pastoral council for the Parish of the Travelling People. In their faith lives, Travellers place an emphasis on the importance of pilgrimages as well as a belief in cures.
Above all, McDonagh explained that the Travellers consider the family to be the most important thing in their lives. Typically, a Traveller would not move far away from their families.
“Families stay together and keep each other strong. In times of need, they will band together and stick by each other,” she said.
The nomadic lifestyle of the Travellers presents interesting challenges for sacraments, said Father Paul O’Driscoll, parish priest for the Parish of the Travelling People.
His parish, for instance, does not have a set church for Mass. Instead, they borrow churches throughout the Archdiocese of Dublin for liturgical celebrations.
“Our parish actually has the same footprint as the Dublin diocese,” he said. Marriage preparation classes occur in central offices, but “otherwise, we’re on the move.”
While Travellers, like people of any other ethnicity, are free to belong to their geographical parish, many prefer to worship among other Travellers, explained O’Driscoll. This is due in part to discrimination, or the families just feeling unwelcome among the “settled” people.
O’Driscoll was quick to say that this is certainly not true of all Irish parishes, but added that “sometimes, attitudes are passed on from generation to generation without much understanding.”
“Discrimination against Travellers in Ireland today is the last form of accepted discrimination,” said McDonagh. “There’s no respect.” Refusal of service to Travellers at shops and hotels has been documented in the country.
McDonagh told CNA she works with a program to teach Irish schoolchildren about the Traveller lifestyle in an effort to promote diversity and dispel stereotypes.
O’Driscoll believes the discrimination that the Travellers experience has lent itself to a deepening of their faith lives.
“Education, accommodation, employment. These are the elephants in the room for a lot of young traveller people,” he said. Travellers who attempt to “better themselves” in these areas often face prejudice, as well as internalized cultural oppression.
This vulnerability, he said, leaves Travellers with a “greater openness to the faith dimension.”