by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
October 1, 2002
RUSH TO JUDGE, RUSH TO DEFEND by Constance Daley
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- In Mishawaka, Ind., last month, there was an act of great anger, great violence, against a 4-year-old child as her mother smacked her around, pulled her hair and pummeled her as the child sat in a car seat in the back of an SUV. The 30 seconds on videotape stirred every heart in every culture around the world.
Who was this woman? At first glance, I thought she was a candidate for the Jerry Springer Show, where misfits crush anything and everything in their way. Later, I learned she and her husband are from a community called Irish Travelers that is known for its itinerant lifestyle. Her husband does paving work and the family travels with him around the country.
What's this? Irish Travelers? They say it as if it's the Ancient Order of Hibernians. How could I reach this age as a staunch Irish American, defending my heritage, loving my home here without ever having heard of Irish Travelers?
Yet, it's true. My husband said they travel from place to place taking jobs and then moving on. I took that to mean something like migrant workers, honorably moving with the sun to harvest the crops ... as opposed to Gypsies moving out of storefront digs not so honorably in their pre-dawn exodus - one step ahead of the sheriff.
Or, so we believed. I don't know of anyone who befriended the Gypsies, although I do know of some who had their fortunes told. New York was not as multicultural in the 40s as it is today and they didn't blend in very well.
The reputation that preceded them and then followed them was always the same: scam artists, con artists. I'm ashamed to say I can't give you one example of this. About the only thing I remember being said is that they "sneaked" away just when school started; under state law, their children would have to attend.
They lived their lives, they had their culture, they laughed, they sang, they played their guitars, made crepe-paper roses, strung beads, told fortunes and then moved on to greener pastures - if I can use that old metaphor in the asphalt jungle.
I didn't know it then, but I was learning about nomads without realizing how many societies coexist with such cultures amid their own. India? Yes. Africa? Of course. Arabia? Most definitely. But Mishap, Ind.? And, an SUV, mind you, not a horse or a camel!
For a culture that's been around a thousand years, constituting over one percent of the population of Ireland (where, admittedly, they don't make them feel too welcome, helping them to emigrate without the proverbial "red tape") they've kept a very low profile. (I was amused to find that Irish Travelers are second only to the Amish in felony convictions.) And, if they are not made welcome, I feel it's for reasons not unlike those we gave for ignoring the Gypsies.
Their numbers increase. In 1995, the latest statistics, there were 23,000 people in the 26 Counties and another 1,600 in Northern Ireland. They estimate there are some 15,000 Irish Travelers in Britain and another 7,000 in the United States. Despite the Irish in their name, they do not go to New York or Boston, long the Irish enclaves in America.
According to Richard J. Waters, who's related to Irish Travelers on his mother's side: "There are those who say that they (or perhaps we) are none but scam-artists and thieves. I say not; that I have been privileged to be kin to a clan of hard workers and survivors, by and large an honorable people." After reading through his pages and perusing other historic and legendary data, I feel I can offer an informed opinion on the subject.
Waters asks: "Are there grifters among us? Yes. But there are many among you who may also be justly called 'criminal.' Surely not all or even most of you, however. Nor most of us either."
From what I've read, the Irish Travelers prefer to be recognized as a distinct ethnic group with their own traditions and customs. People do not accept them as such. Instead, they are an embarrassment, a problem, rather than people who are being denied their civil rights.
I've learned that children of the Travelers are segregated in school. No Irish Traveler can get into a pub and they're often refused service at stores. That's racism every bit as ugly as what we're still working on in this country. Only now, with some articulate, educated, politically-savvy Travelers speaking out and calling for respect and recognition as a minority ethnic group, is there the possibility of change. Of course, these demands aren't going over very well and more severe racism is being launched against them.
If it weren't so serious it would be funny. In a society where people enjoy being "settled" the Travelers are looked down upon as different. Now, the Travelers are demanding their right to be different as long as they are not considered inferior.
At the arraignment, all of the woman's family was present: parents, husband, sisters and others. The family structure is firm; the little girl is in good and loving hands. No one knows more than her mother what a monstrous act this was. She's filled with shame and remorse and understands the consequences of "losing it," as she claims she did that day in the parking lot.
I don't know her. And, I don't know her people, her culture, or anything more than I read in the paper. I don't know how she'll respond to other accusations about her life.
But, I know this: The woman is being judged by self-righteous people, many of whom are also guilty of "losing it," who have then felt the same guilt and remorse for striking a child - but since no one saw it, did it really happen?
It really happened in Mishawaka, Ind., and the distressing images are forever captured on videotape. But don't ask me to judge her.