Living without the state in Britain today: the case of the Irish Travellers

Living without the state in Britain today: the case of the Irish Travellers

Libertarian Alliance, June 2013

Let us begin by defining terms. I am not talking about Romani Gypsies. Nor am I talking about New Age Travellers. Rather, I am talking about the distinct ethnic group present in the UK as well as in the USA – and rather obviously in Ireland itself – that defines itself as Minceir, or Pavees or an Lucht Siúil. In as much as anything is generally known about this community within the wider public, we have Channel 4 and its documentaries to thank. Even though these present a somewhat sensationalized and doubtless inaccurate view of Traveller life, and have given rise to complaints from Travellers themselves, they nevertheless are enough to enable us to understand some basic precepts of this extremely close-knit people whose society is otherwise impenetrable to outsiders.

Why should libertarians be interested in Irish Travellers? For the simple reason that when in the UK, Irish Travellers demonstrate how a life may be lived within a voluntary society that has minimal interface with the state. In addition, their life illustrates what happens when a community decides consciously to live by and to perpetuate a set of traditions and a strong ethnic identity that persists for many generations, and that shows little sign of adaptation to wider norms or assimilation into the broader mass of society. When libertarian utopians talk about the communal purchase of a plot of land, the establishing of roots and the inculcation of particular values into a future community, they should be looking to Irish Travellers both as a rare example of success in maintaining a separate way of life alongside mainstream society and also as a warning of some of the difficulties that are likely to be encountered.

The nature of Traveller life is not entirely itinerant, but certainly involves more movement and less permanence than most of the population. The caravan or mobile home is the usual dwelling-place, and although some Travellers own land, they mostly rely on the diminishing pool of public, council-run land and arrangements with private landowners. These can result in a semi-permanent settlement where residents may remain for part of every year, for several years at a time or simply for a few weeks or months. Often this is not a matter of choice; many Traveller encampments are illegal or rest upon the decisions of others as to their maintenance or eviction. Traveller caravans are often substantial dwellings, furnished to a high specification and whose cleanliness and standard of good order is a source of great pride.

To grow up in Traveller society is to be part of an enclosed community. The majority of Travellers are Roman Catholics, but in addition there is a strong moral basis for their society, known as the Travellers’ Code. Men and women have clearly defined roles; men undertake work outside the home while women have responsibility for the home and children. With sex before marriage frowned upon, most Travellers are expected to marry while they are still teenagers, and divorce is similarly taboo. The birth rate is extremely high, with large extended clans very common, but life expectancy for both children and adults is very low – partly because of genetic and related causes that are brought about by the closed nature of Traveller society, and partly because the nature of Traveller life involves exposure to more than the usual range of accident-based and other risks to life. While Travellers will have recourse to doctors when needed, there is also a strong emphasis on faith healing and self-reliance.

Education usually ends at age sixteen or so if it has continued that far; male Travellers are then needed to work and female Travellers to marry and have children. The nature of male work is invariably of a kind that produces cash in hand results, be it dog or horse trading or scrap metal dealing. Travellers do not generally use banks and are extremely wary about discussing their financial position, which may involve a highly irregular income; nevertheless some are undoubtedly materially wealthy. It goes without saying that the tax authorities find this situation a challenge.

Conflict resolution is one of the most prominent features of Traveller life, where feuds between families may continue for generations. The police or legal authorities are outside the Traveller code. A dispute is resolved by means of a bare-knuckle fist fight between the two men concerned (what occurs in disputes between women I have not been able to discover) with the participants required to shake hands to conclude the fight. A feature of most such contests, as well as enthusiastic betting, is that the fighters will usually have a second who prevails upon them to end the fight by shaking hands almost as soon as it has begun. While such fights can be bloody contests, it seems rare that serious or permanent injury results. They are a major source of cultural entertainment for Travellers.

As well as this overt violence, there is also misery behind closed doors. Alcohol abuse seems common, and domestic violence is also present, though again the Code means that it goes unreported and unresolved. Some of the “courtship” behaviour depicted in Traveller documentaries would be considered sexual harassment or sexual assault by mainstream society. Yet it would again be a breach of the Code for Travellers to consider involving non-Travellers in addressing this. Britain’s growing army of social workers also seem largely to leave Travellers to their own devices.

If Travellers leave their community, it seems that they find it difficult if not impossible to be accepted back into it should they wish to return. There are Travellers who marry outsiders, and others who leave to pursue education or careers. But Traveller identity depends upon a strict definition of membership whereby anything external is treated first and foremost as a threat and those who are not Travellers are regarded as inferior to those who are. In a rare court case last year, four Travellers were found guilty of keeping destitute men they had picked up off the streets in conditions that amounted to slavery, with violence and threats used to keep them in line.

More telling, though, was that such measures were not always necessary, since the victims “were controlled in such a way that in many cases they could not see it. They became conditioned to do what the defendants wanted.” It is this hidden hand that seems to run through much of Traveller life. There is no policeman that imposes the Traveller Code. In a fist fight, there is no reason why the victory should be to the just rather than the mighty. No-one compels a Traveller to stay in a caravan and work a precarious job in what may often be conditions inferior to a council flat with state benefits. And yet the majority of Travellers prefer their existence within the traditions and norms of their people to the available alternatives.

All this poses some interesting questions. Much of Traveller society is based not on explicit coercion but on the strength of tradition, group identity and shared morals. There is no centralization; no state or quasi-state; no government. Property is owned privately and material goods are a source of great pride. The hierarchy of society consists simply of three strata, listed in diminishing order of importance: the Traveller community at large, the family and the individual.

In a Britain that is increasingly atomized and where the reach of the state is growing rather than receding, the Travellers seem to have found a modus vivendi that maintains their identity and way of life while limiting the encroachment of the outside world. Their example is one that all libertarian theorists should study carefully. Their freedom may in many ways be a dystopian one, but it is freedom nonetheless, and as such it is surely the principal reason why Travellers choose to maintain their way of life.