The History of Education Provision for Travellers in Ireland up to 1988

If [Traveller] children must be educated, it should be unnecessary to adopt the methods of the robber Procrustes. Reformers must seek, not to adapt the [Travellers] to an imperfect educational system which happens to exist, but to remould that system to fit the manner of the life of the [Travellers] (Binns, 1990, p. 254).

These words of wisdom come from an anonymous contributor to the 1908 Journal of Gypsy Lore. They express an opinion far ahead of its time; that the procrustean policy of forcing Travellers to adopt the educational norms of society was wrong and that the educational norms should adapt to include Travellers.

The following essay will consider the historical development of government policy in Ireland in embracing Traveller children into the primary school education system from the 1908 Children’s Act up to the results of the 1988 results of the survey by the Primary School Inspectorate of Traveller Participation in Education.

The essay will predominantly deal with the history of slow progression from a faux-interest in the welfare of Traveller children, loaded with anti-Traveller sentiment, to a policy of gradual educational integration. The sociological and philosophical frameworks which underpinned (and were, in most cases, wholly absent from) each policy will also be discussed in detail.

The Travelling People

The origin of a homogenous group of people that could be identified as the ancestors of modern day Irish Travellers is a source of great debate. References to terms such as tynkere in official documents from 1175 suggest that their existence has been established for nearly a millennium (Gmelch, 1985, p. 10). One of the most important figures in the historiography of early Irish history, Eoin MacNeill, suggested that Travellers are descended from Pre-Christian ‘rivet-makers’ who had been a privileged social class in pre-Gaelic Ireland (MacNeill, 1968, p. 34). Other anthropological scholars suggest that the majority of Travellers are descended from ‘Irish peasants forced onto the roads, most significantly as a result of the Great Famine’ (ní Shuinéar, 2004, p. 16). Whatever their anthropological origin, towards the latter half of the nineteenth century there were groups of people in Ireland, usually family units, who wandered from place to place, that subsisted on casual labour and begging and spoke unique cants such as Shelta (Gmelch, 1985, p. 11).

Jim Mac Laughlin states that the true linking of Travellers to a kind of oriental ‘other’ came in the latter half of the nineteenth century when there was a ‘denigration of nomadism in bourgeois nationalist discourse’ (Mac Laughlin, 1995, p. 1). A glance into the archives of Ireland’s regional newspapers from the middle of that century confirms the seeding of an antagonistic relationship between the Travelling and sedentary communities. For instance, the presiding judge of Kilkenny Petty Sessions court suggested, to roars of laughter from the gallery, that four ‘tinkers’ would be fine attractions for the gawking public in Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition (Connacht Telegraph, 1851).` It should come as no surprise, in light of this developing schism in Ireland that Travellers did not engage with the education system that was developing from the 1830s on.

Whether or not Edward Stanley considered Travellers part of the ‘poorer classes of the community’ he mentioned in his eponymous letter to the Duke of Leinster, there is little evidence to suggest that Travellers engaged in any way with the burgeoning National School system.

An Invisible People

The first true state intervention in the education of Travellers came with the 1908 Children’s Act. This act stated that ‘If a person habitually wanders from place to place and takes with him any child above the age of five, he shall…be liable to a fine not exceeding twenty shillings…and be deemed unfit to have care of the child’ (Binns, 1990, p. 254). This act, voted on and passed by a Westminster government, had little impact on Travellers in Ireland. The relative invisibility of Irish Travellers to the bourgeois cadre of Irish Nationalists was likely nothing compared to the lack of awareness Westminster MPs had for the ‘wandering vagrant class’. As Jane Helleiner points out this ‘relative lack of intervention may be attributed in part to the fact that colonial authorities were too preoccupied with the broader “Irish Question” to focus specifically on Travellers (Helleiner, 1998, p. 52). In other words, successive British governments had enough on their legislative plates with an island that was heaving with separatism and flirted with civil war on more than one occasion.

But even in Britain itself, the Children’s Act did little to entice Traveller and Gypsy children into school. As Dennis Binns points out the roll books of many British schools did contain the names of Travellers and Gypsies in the early twentieth century, ‘but these were usually during the winter months when they were not required to assist their parents in fruit and vegetable picking’ (Binns, 1990, p. 254). With regards educational provision for Travellers, the formative years of an independent Irish legislature brought about little change. There remained a great reluctance to face the continuing absence of Traveller children from the education system. The all-encompassing wording of the 1926 School Attendance Act was very clear in its terms;

The parent of every child to whom this Act applies shall, unless there is a reasonable excuse for not so doing, cause the child to attend a national or other suitable school on every day on which such school is open for secular instruction (emphasis added) (School Attendance Act, 1926).

However, Travellers were unofficially considered outside the remit of this legislation due to their perceived illegitimacy in the new Irish state. Consequently, district justices simply overlooked cases of Traveller absence from school (Bhreatnach, 2006, p. 83).

Towards the 1940s the state’s flippant attitude towards Traveller education began to change. However, policy change was less driven around what Milton Friedman would call ‘the paternal concern for children’ (Friedman, 1982, p. 86) and more accurately could be viewed as a barely veiled attempt to end the Traveller way of life altogether. During The Emergency, anti-Traveller discourse began to manifest itself in Dáil Éireann. As Helleiner points out, prominent critics of the Traveller way of life began to ‘draw links between Traveller children’s non-attendance at school and Traveller criminality’ (Helleiner, 1988, p. 53). Eamonn O’Neill T.D pointed out to the Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland T.D, ‘that the children of [Travellers] do not attend school and grow up illiterate, learning nothing but the elements of crime to which their conditions make them easy addicts’ (Dáil Debate, 19 Sept. 1944). O’Neill asks Boland if ‘he will introduce legislation to check these evils as the present laws do not seem adequate to deal with them effectively’ (Dáil Debate, 19 Sept. 1944). Boland’s response summed up the almost laissez faire attitude of the Fianna Fáil government of the day;

It is extremely difficult to enforce the School Attendance Act in respect of the children of [Travellers] on account of the manner in which they move around the country. The question of introducing legislation to amend the School Attendance Act is a matter for the Minister for Education (Dáil Debate, 19 Sept. 1944).

In fact, the Minister for Education, Thomas Derrig T.D, had made an asserted effort in 1942 to amend the 1926 Act to tackle the problem of Traveller absenteeism. By disguising themselves as a government that was genuinely concerned for the welfare of Traveller children, Derrig was able to bring to the table a bill that would have empowered the state authorities to thoroughly and forcefully dismantle Traveller culture under the guise of a drive for Traveller education. Some of the measures included in the bill called for Traveller parents to register their children at local Garda stations and that anyone not in compliance with the legislation would have been fined or even imprisoned with their children being removed from their custody and placed into industrial schools (Bhreatnach, 2006, p. 84). In the end, Traveller families were spared heavy encroachment upon their way of life as the bill was deemed unconstitutional as it interfered with parents right to determine the children’s education, a right enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann (Bhreatnach, 2006, p. 85).

Their Itinerant Habits

There were no further attempts on behalf of the government to forcefully bring Traveller children into the educational fold up until the 1960s. In the intervening years there remained a significant reluctance on the judiciary’s part to convict travellers in accordance with the 1926 School Attendance Act, in part due to the fact that there would have been huge opposition from ratepayers to supporting Traveller children in institutional homes (Helleiner, 1998, p. 54). But in June 1960 the Fianna Fáil government responded to increasing pressure from T.Ds to take some action on the growing Traveller ‘problem’. Three years after the establishment of a Commission on Itinerancy a report was published which would establish a new, but far from desired, era of Irish state involvement with the Travelling community.

The Commission itself consisted of eleven people from positions of power in the state and accepted advice from organisations such as the Irish Farmer’s Association, the Irish Creameries Milk Suppliers Association, Macra na Feirme and Macra na Tíre, all agrarian organisations that, as the Irish Traveller Movement rightly point out, were likely to have their own nefarious agenda regarding Travellers (Irish Traveller Movement, 2013, p. 3). The Commission’s terms of reference were clear;

To enquire into the problem arising for the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers [and] to promote their absorption into the general community…pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantages to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits (emphasis added) (Commission on Itinerancy, 1963, p. 11).

The Commission’s findings on Traveller participation in school were damning. Only 160 students were enrolled in schools across the country (Commission on Itinerancy, 1963, p. 64), a 20% drop from figures given by Thomas Derrig almost twenty years prior (Bhreatnach, 2006, p. 84). The Commission set very low expectations upon what Traveller children could hope to achieve in education. For instance, one of their recommendations is that only a very elementary course should be attempted in arithmetic (Commission on Itinerancy, 1963, p. 69). This goes against the basic tenet of modern educational psychology that low expectations will yield very poor outcomes.

The recommendations would have led to the fostering of the ‘Matthew Effect’ with regards Traveller education; settled students would begin their education with an advantage and would make above average progress whilst Traveller children would begin at a disadvantage and would fall even further behind (Frederickson & Cline, 2009, p. 193). In keeping with the Commission’s overarching policy of Traveller assimilation and absorption into the ‘normal’ community the report states that ‘an educational policy for itinerants 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’ (Commission on Itinerancy, 1963, p. 69). Whilst the Commission did consider the draconian measures that were wrapped up in Derrig’s 1942 Bill ‘too drastic’, they do suggest 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 (Commission on Itinerancy, 1963, p. 69). As the Irish Traveller Movement suggest, the mere consideration of such a policy is tantamount to ‘an explicit perusal of a policy of cultural genocide’ (Irish Traveller Movement, 2013, p. 6).

The assimilationist strategy adopted to deal with Traveller education, and indeed all dimensions of Traveller life, as outlined in the Commission’s report has been viewed as a consequence of ‘the erroneous characterisation of [Travellers] as a sub-cultural group, marginalised by self-imposed poverty and deprivation (emphasis added) (Ryan, 1998, p. 162). Anne Ryan suggests that Ireland’s assumed monoculturalism in the 1960s was borne out of a functionalist perspective on education whereby the shared value system of DeValera’s Ireland was transmitted through the educational apparatus of the state (Ryan, 1998, p. 162). Far from recognising the Traveller way of life as being culturally separate to the majority, the Irish government was classifying the Traveller way of life as an anachronism, a troublesome blot upon the makeup of Irish culture.

Educational Apartheid

The Commission’s Report had little tangible effect on Traveller education in the short term. But the sentiments expressed in the Report were rehashed, almost verbatim, in the 1970 Report on Educational Facilities for the Children of Itinerants. This report was a continuation of a legacy of insensitive and unimaginative approaches to Traveller education. Travellers were viewed as socially disadvantaged members of society as opposed to a separate ethnic group. The Report 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’ (Department of Education, p. 45). The Report 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. (Department of Education and Science, 2002, p. 11). The establishment of Traveller primary schools and special class provision could be viewed as the most successful steps towards bringing Traveller children into the formal education system hitherto. However, the segregation within schools of Traveller children from their settled peers merely propagated divisions within wider society. Furthermore, the quality of education within special classes was deemed inappropriate and ineffective. In an interview with Pavee Point, a Traveller, who attended school in the 1970s, laments the ‘special class’ she found herself in;

Why I didn’t learn to read and write at school because the teachers put all the Traveller children into what they called the special class. There were children between the ages of six years old and fourteen…We’re put in one big room and told to play a board game or draw a picture (Pavee Point, 2006, p. 1).

Despite not having the same issues of segregation, the education that students received in the 1970s in special Traveller schools, such as St. Kieran’s in Bray, also left much to be desired. In his excellent anthropological research into Irish Travellers, George Gmelch describes the story of Alice Browne. Alice had been a student in St. Kieran’s and was viewed as a shining example of the fledgling school’s capability for quality education. She was enrolled into First Year in a Rathfarnham secondary school. The Traveller community in Rathfarnham were critical of her progression into the mainstream school, suggesting that she was only doing well as she was in St. Kieran’s. Sure enough, the gaps in Alice’s education were found out in the first few weeks of term. Alice was forced to drop out and the entire family ‘shifted’ to Northern Ireland to avoid any embarrassment (Gmelch, p. 108). It is difficult to quantify how many Traveller students in the 1970s may have experienced similar gulfs in education when integrating into mainstream secondary schools but it is reasonable to assume that Alice was not the only one who experienced such difficulties. Oftentimes, the Traveller students that could get within the walls of their local Primary School to avail of the special provision were the lucky ones. Sile Nunan points out how school authorities were implicit in a policy of making Travellers ‘invisible’; not recognising Travellers’ halting site addresses as being within a school’s catchment area (Nunan, 1993, pp 66-67). Religious orders had to eventually step in and organise buses to their own schools so that Travellers could receive some modicum of learning. But the stark realities of enrolment difficulties could be perceived from the bus window with the number of schools that might be passed by on the way to the accommodating religious school.

Towards Parity

The Traveller children of the 1970s and 1980s were truly the first generations of Travellers to engage with formal education and their pioneer status brought about its own set of difficulties, namely the attitude of these children’s parents towards education. Ó Nualláin and Forde point out that Traveller parents who never attended school ‘have little understanding of the value of education or the importance of early educational activities…[and] under these circumstances, it is understandable that these children would sometimes be ridiculed at home by their parents for their school activities, and it is equally understandable that many parents would not have the incentive to ensure their children’s full attendance at school (Ó Nualláin & Forde, 1992, p. 73).

And despite the constitutional allowance for Traveller parents to determine the extent to which their children receive education, basic educational philosophy dictates that ‘there is simply no room for the idea that one person has a right to control the destiny of another, even if the former is a parent of the latter’ (Curren, 2009, pp 47-48). To bridge the ideological gap between Traveller parents and educational providers the Visiting Teacher Service (VTS) was launched in Galway in 1980 (Department of Education and Science, 2002, p. 11). The remit of the VTS was to ‘bridge the gap between the culture of the home and the culture of the school’ (Nunan, 1993, p. 70). The scheme was a great success and in 1982 it was rolled out in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The contribution of the VTS to Traveller education has been praised by the Department of Education and Traveller groups alike. The Irish Traveller Movement praised the VTS as reaching out to the ‘most marginalised and nomadic of families and supported Travellers in completing school (Irish Traveller Movement, 2011, p. 3).1 The success of the VTS and the introduction of state-subsidised transport for Traveller children greatly increased Traveller participation in school throughout the 1970s.

As Sile Nunan outlines, over time ‘parents gained more direct insight into the workings of school and teachers gained more expertise in teaching Traveller children’ (Nunan, 1993, p. 70). Slowly the norms and values of Traveller society began to adapt to the reality that in the long term, ‘education offers [them] the best hope of improving their situation (Ó Nualláin & Forde, 1992, p. 65). However, the separatist nature of this education was upsetting many Traveller parents. There was a very true perception amongst Travellers that the education their children were receiving in either special schools or classes was not on a par with mainstream schooling. The experience of separation in school was ‘perpetuating the social inequalities’ that Travellers experienced in all facets of their lives (Nunan, 1993, p. 71). It was a desire to overcome this problem which led to another shifting of Traveller education policy in the 1980s whereby segregated provision would be phased out in favour of integrated provision (Department of Education and Science, 2005, p. 2).

The VTS and the teachers of Travellers in special schools and classes all lent their experience to inform the policy of integration. The policy was given official ‘teeth’ in the 1995 Task Force Report on the Travelling Community which stated that ‘all Travellers do not share the same educational needs and, while special provisions may be required to meet the varied educational needs, access to mainstream provision must be regarded as the norm for Travellers…Travellers must not be segregated’ (Task Force on the Travelling Community, 1995, p. 50). Government policy on Traveller education was finally beginning to resemble the two pillars of Friedman’s rationale for government intervention in education; the fostering of a good ‘neighbourhood effect’ and a paternalistic concern for all children (Friedman, 1982, pp 85-87). Eighty years after the introduction of the 1908 Children’s Act, the Primary School Inspectorate carried out a survey on Traveller participation in education. It stated that 4,000 Traveller children were attending primary school. Therefore, on the basis of my calculations from the 1986 Census, I estimate that almost 75% of all Traveller children of primary school age were enrolled (Barry & Daly, 1988, pp 12-13). Even when one takes into consideration the 59% rise in Traveller population between 1974 and 1983 (Gmelch, 1985, p. 165), the fact that three quarters of Traveller children aged from five to fourteen were in formal education represents a vast sea-change from the situation in the 1940s and 1950s. However, the legacy of segregation had not yet evaporated; 30% of Traveller pupils were still in special classes (Department of Education and Science, 2005, p. 2). 35% of those in mainstream classes were withdrawn for additional support (Department of Education and Science, 2005, p. 2). This figure seems to support Anne Ryan’s claim that the extent to which a ‘different’ Traveller identity had been embraced in the education system was limited to ‘an over-emphasis on remediation programmes based on unsupported assertions of pathological disorder’ (Ryan, 1998, p. 163). The challenges of the early years of integration are manifest in these figures; only 35% of Traveller students being fully integrated into mainstream education by 1988. Such challenges remain to this day concerning issues of interculturalism and Traveller ethnicity. The relationship between the Traveller child and the classroom in the eighty years after the Children’s Act changed from one of mutual distrust to reluctant embrace. The early years of the Irish Free State were marked by a complete reluctance to engage with the Travelling community in any way.

As their rural way of life began to collapse around them, and they migrated to the urban centres of Ireland, Travellers education forced its way on to the national agenda. After years of ill-thought out educational segregation Traveller children were finally embraced into mainstream classrooms. The results of the 1988 survey show that whilst the policy of integration was not fully complete, the evolving educational policy which began with the Report on Educational Facilities for the Children of Itinerants had achieved its aim of rising to satisfactory levels the enrolment of Traveller children into primary schools.


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 25th January, 2011

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