Travelling People

Mission to the Travelling People

As a Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy we might ask what is Mercy? Our foundress, Catherine McAuley answers this challenge by launching out on the ocean of God's providence so that her Sisters might become a presence bringing with them the light of hope and the brightness of the Risen Christ to the marginalized and the neglected. It is in this vein that the work among the travelling people began.

Poverty takes on various forms and so does structural injustice. Poverty need not always be financial but when it's a matter of discrimination the travelling community suffer out of all proportion, to any threat they pose to the average person's sense of order and propriety.

Travellers are recognised by law, in fact, as an ethnic group with their own cultures and life styles but they are often harried from place to place at short notice because of the shortage of official sites for their trailers.

Lack of awareness and response to close-knit communities' domestic and cultural circumstances can generate fear and distrust. It is in the light of these attitudes that helpers operate, recognising that the church stands for unity across barriers of race and class.

Preparing children for Communion and Confirmation forms a very big part of the team's work and the co-operation of the parish priests is essential. Some are far from keen on travellers, usually because of some unfortunate incident in the past.

Sadly, some members of the community do behave badly, hence all are classed in the same category, whereas the majority are honest, hard-working people, with skills in demand to the extent that the men make frequent trips abroad if there is no work to be had in this country.

Thankfully more travellers' children are being conventionally educated so it tends to be the older people that we are called upon to help in the matter of reading and writing letters, making various appointments on their behalf and other bodies as necessary. So that travellers can help themselves the intent is to get more of their children into Catholic schools. Unfortunately their attendance can be poor if, during the summer months they move with their nomadic families and do not return until winter.

The team has come to terms with the fact that travelling people are not too bothered about time keeping, for their way of life, inherited over centuries, does not make for conformity. But on the whole, they show respect for one another. This is evidenced at funerals, weddings, and other special occasions - long prayerful journeys to burial grounds in this country and Ireland are the accepted norm - and "tribal" loyalties run deep.

Travellers tend to marry young and take to heart the divine command to ""increase and multiply". Consequently the team encounters some extremely young-looking grandparents and keeping up with the various generations isn't easy. Perhaps because of inter-marrying among families there are many handicapped children. The love and care shown to these by parents and brothers and sisters are most impressive.

Passports for pilgrims to Lourdes and other shrines, or to enable a man to take up a job abroad, present constant problems and many a priest in rural Ireland has been contacted for proof of marriage or birth from his church records. Each year some of the travelling people join the diocesan pilgrimages to Lourdes and some do hospital work by helping with the sick pilgrims.

Unfortunately the law no longer places upon local authorities an obligation to provide sites for travellers. Councils must be relieved because any proposal for a site near homes, invariably awakens residents to invoke the "nimby" (not in my back yard) factor.

The Church stands for unity across barriers of race and class but it also proclaims the value and the potential of each culture and every person.

As regards religion, trailers usually display a "repository shop" of statues and other pious objects witnessing to a deep faith in God, Our Lady, the Church and the Sacraments, a trait handed down within the family. The same can be said for the cells occupied by travellers in prisons and youth detention centres which the team also visits. Jailed travellers tend to bond together as a defence against the taunts - and worse - of other prisoners.

The sense of community is real. Hospitality is very good. The sick and the handicapped are nursed devotedly and hospital patients are visited constantly, often in hard-to-cope-with numbers.

Better education is most desirable. Apart from anything else it would enable travellers to fight against the many cases of harassment and injustice the team encounter, not least the lack of health care through having "no fixed abode".

Most children leave school at 11 - the boys to work with their fathers in a variety of occupations - and the girls, because of parents' distrust of sensitive subjects taught in secondary schools.

Some travellers live in houses, which can usually be identified by the perpetually open windows letting in the fresh air they and their forebears have become accustomed to. These houses and the trailers lived in by other members of the community are easily picked out - statues and other pious objects can be seen at every window.

Come the Spring the trailers are on the move, navigated by drivers perhaps unable to read but steering a course marked out by familiar pubs and churches.