I’m watching a tv programme on the BBC about an Irish traveller site in Essex where residents and travellers have come to loggerheads over their encampment, much of which is illegal.
It’s clearly been going on for years and stirs up strong emotions.
I find the Irish travellers’ way of life fascinating – I don’t agree with all of it, especially their treatment of women, which for me is frankly backward. But if the women are happy with the way their lives are mapped out in that culture, well, fair enough.
I’ve encountered Irish travellers several times both privately and personally in Swindon and I’m still curious. I remember as a child in Somerset, groups of Irish travellers camping out in small coppices near our home in the traditional caravans, or wagons, with horses. I have no memory of there being any problems at all.As a journalist, I’ve encountered several impromptu encampments in Swindon and they are always, without fail, followed by complaints from residents, usually it’s claims of burglary, thieving and verbal abuse.
When I did a story about it once, a resident made lots of claims and the next day I went on to the site, with a local community police officer, to talk to the travellers. They denied all claims and were extremely friendly. The women invited us in, we had a cup of tea and it was very chatty – I felt we really had the opportunity to tell stories from both side of the fence.
As I was leaving, several vans, trucks came across the field as the men arrived. Immediately the women went inside, shut the doors and left us with the blokes. They were very friendly and I didn’t feel intimidated at all, but felt it was a strange culture which was, and is, alien to me.
Nevertheless, their word was as valid as anyone else’s and I wrote a story rebutting residents’ claims.
The day after, the original resident I’d interviewed, called me and threatened me – he felt it was totally unreasonable that I should go and see them and ask for their side of the story. They didn’t pay taxes, they didn’t contribute, so they weren’t entitled to a right of reply or a say about anything. I’m pleased to say I (reasonably) told him that I disagreed – as did my boss at the time.
Some years later, when heavily pregnant, a group of Irish travellers moved onto wasteland at the back of the housing estate where I lived at the time. Day to day there was no problem. Nothing was stolen and we lived very close.
However there were some difficult moments. I was walking around with one child and her bike and a little boy tried to take it from her – no one came to keep him in order, he clearly thought he could have the bike and there was no parent around to make him behave.
Then one day when it was very hot, there was a huge whooshing noise – out of the back window, I saw a huge tower of water, 30ft high. On the ground, the travellers’ children were screaming and laughing. They had opened the drain and used water to fill up huge water containers and just left it. The problem was that the whole estate were on water meters so we pay for what we use – none of us wanted to pay for what someone else was using, or for what was wasted. Later that day the water company came and asphalted over the water pipe.
Sometimes we fear that which we don’t understand – as a journalist I should know that better than most. But I’m sure that with tolerance, you just have to scratch under the skin to see we’re very, very similar.