Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

PAL testcard

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

I’ve written several times in the past on what it’s like to be Irish in the midst of the loose amalgamation that is the culture of videogames. I’ve tried to emphasise my surprise and suspicion that comes in hearing an Irish voice, an Irish character, in a game, and my delight in finding something I feel sincerely speaks to Irish narratives or identities.

What little cultural background I gave usually came in the form of brief anecdotes about how little we see Irish folk in games, which of course is proportionate to the country’s contribution in the grand scheme of the industry. Through negligence I withheld the more substantial context of the lack of presence of Irish identities in media beyond that of only videogames. Since today I’m writing about ethnicity and whiteness and representation, and I’m writing from a perspective that I’m increasingly learning is distinct from the bulk of my peers, this context is kind of necessary.

In the formative years of my childhood my brothers and I didn’t have access to videogames. We’d eventually get an Amstrad which turned into a Sega Megadrive and then a PlayStation, but for a long time the major source of my media entertainment was the telly. The cartoons and programs I used to watch were generally American imports, with a few English and Australian shows sprinkled between for variety, probably because they were cheap for the broadcaster to pick up.

This was back when Ireland had only the two channels of RTÉ, the national broadcaster, unless your family had the money to spring for British cable. ‘Bog 1’ and ‘Bog 2’ as they were colloquially known—bog as in ‘toilet’, bog as in ‘standard’. Not very charitable but appropriate to their content. Home-grown Irish TV came from RTÉ, was broadcast on RTÉ, and was almost entirely of pitiable quality. Compared to American shows, which were exciting and adventurous and well-produced, domestic programs were decidedly bargain-basement.

So the majority of shows I watched were American because that’s what was good and that’s what was on. There would have also been Canadian shows like ReBoot and Japanese stuff like The Transformers dubbed for American audiences, but honestly my young mind wasn’t about to tell the difference in origin.

Even from a young age I knew at the back of my mind that something was wrong with this picture. Near everything worthwhile I watched starred Americans and seemed to be about Americans and their values and their country, even if only in the subliminal sense of America being the foundational entirety of their settings and tones, with rare and dreadful exceptions.[1] My immersion in American media was so extreme that I can recall off the top of my head five American sitcoms with all-black casts from this period, but I can’t think of a single Irish character, let alone a main character, in all the TV I used to watch.

I’m stunned by the irony given I now know how hungry black people are for media representation at home in America, whereas over here they were comparatively dominating since diversity in representation can’t be universally ported between different contexts without things being lost or changed. It seems so weird in context of the discussion of racial issues in videogames nowadays but it’s true: there were more African-American characters in Irish broadcast media than there were Irish characters.[2]

Irish people were absent. Irish identities were absent. I watched these cartoons and enjoyed them, but I knew I was being somehow left out. Part of me began to fancy America as this thing to look up to, to strive for, because fuck it, being Irish made me othered. What I can articulate now is that I didn’t feel represented by these shows. I felt alienated, and over time ended up harbouring a slight sense of resentment towards Ireland and all things Irish because of this gulf in media quality and representation. I geared this resentment towards myself, too.

As it turns out this snapshot of the media landscape here wasn’t just down to the selection bias of my personal viewing habits, nor am I unique in this regard: as Ireland veered headlong into the profitable globalization of the 90’s, RTÉ, which, remember, is the country’s national broadcaster, actually aired more American programs than Irish shows.[3] We know that media representation affects the confidences of children with respect to how well and how frequently they are depicted in media. This was the knock-on effect in my experience, in how I longed for someone like me to grace the screen or save the day or just exist in a way that didn’t feel manufactured for American audiences. I wonder if it might be a factor in the Irish people’s meekness in American and European relations in recent years, as the scaffolding on which our politicians remind us how frail we are, how incompetent we are, to lull us into dependency.

Hopefully this gives you insight into why when I play something like Folklore, a JRPG set in Ireland’s own Doolin, it strikes right at my heart as something precious and wonderful and personal in a way I seldom experience. Why when I hear an Irish accent in a game or TV program it’s at first disorientating, and why I have to strain to pick up notes to decipher whether it is actually Irish or only a convincing American voice actor. Why when Americans make a claim to something of theirs as Irish, I approach with scepticism (because to many Americans being Irish is just a particular type of white American).

And why I love the Dalish.

Dragon Age's Dalish

The Dalish in Dragon Age are a race of elves who have had their land stripped from them by human colonists. The problems they face bear more than a few similarities to the historic troubles of Ireland, and of course, this is partly down to the generality with which they pose as a marginalized group suffering under colonialism. Many Jewish players see them as Jewish analogues; many black players see them as black analogues. For no small reason I see them as Irish analogues. They’re fairly overtly Celticised: if you walk into a Dalish camp you’ll hear Irish and Welsh accents—authentic accents, from what I can tell, which is a pure delight.

But moreso, I see the itinerant Dalish as analogues of Irish Travellers. Indigenous Irish people are largely divided into these two groups: settled and Travellers. The vast majority of Irish people are settled, functionally meaning they live in houses, while Travellers make up just a small percentage of the population, a little more than 20,000 heads. They have their own customs, their own language, their own values, and their own lineage. By all account they are a distinct ethnic group. But they are not recognised as such.

Settled Irish people harbour deeply ingrained prejudices against Travellers that have been influenced by the state since its formation.[4] They are demonized in the media, expelled from settlements, barred from churches and centres by local communities, refused education on the basis of discriminatory policies.[5] Doors are shut in their faces when proprietors find out the daughter to be married comes from a Traveller family.[6] Houses they’re moving into are firebombed by unhappy neighbours.[7] In an egregious case of ethnic profiling, Traveller babies as young as 16 days old are registered by the state as criminal risks.[8] State-provided halting sites, which are few and far between to begin with, often lack sanitary services most people would take for granted. Anti-Traveller sentiment is propelled by governmental policy definitively characterising their presence and culture as problematic, passing legislation which criminalise their customs, and state refusal to recognize their ethnic status. Their life expectancy is 11-15 years shorter than their settled counterparts, their child mortality rate is five times higher, and Traveller men are seven times more likely to commit suicide.[9]

Hatred of the Travelling community is so normalised that the casual bile you see in this Reddit thread can easily be taken as indicative of the general attitude. All generalizations of an entire ethnic group are presumed valid based on a few notorious anecdotes; little regard is put towards how the settled community has historically oppressed and dehumanized them and shaped the way they interact with our wider society. Institutional racism against Travellers is so deeply rooted that they are deemed Ireland’s ‘problem community’ much like how African-Americans are by white America. So here, if you can imagine this, if a Traveller and a black lad were to fight on the street, it would be the Traveller the guards pick up.

But while Irish people have gotten more adept at detecting how racism affects other people, the ideas against racism influencing us in recent years are the black and white binary of imported mainstream American TV. Which is to say, that racism is overt; that racism is something done against black people. The popular idea among American activists that you can’t be racist against white people stands strong in American contexts, whereas over here reflects the justification behind fervent anti-Traveller sentiment. Racism is accepted as a blight on Irish society, but Travellers are white so prejudices against them are not racist. Likewise, the widespread institutional discrimination against them is not racist. Outside of America, the term ‘racism’ is just as much about ethnicity and nationality as it is about skin colour.

This is likely also why the Irish state is so resistant to recognising the distinct ethnicity of Irish Travellers: to grant them that would be to allow them minority status subject to racial sensitivity and governmental protection.[10] It’s also why Dragon Age stands out, first as the one game where Travellers are even so much as referenced, and furthermore with explicit narratives of them as a profoundly marginalized minority ethnic group.

None of which is to say Ireland is cured of white supremacy. An ENAR report this March found Black Africans were more likely to be targeted by racist harassment than any other minority polled, for example, while asylum seekers are trapped into an untenable, soul-destroying stasis by tape and bureaucracy. In terms of sheer casual disdain, perhaps the major exception to guards picking up a brawling Traveller would be if their combatant were Roma, a group unfortunate enough to be victimized by both anti-Traveller discrimination and white supremacy. To the Irish, Roma are unconsciously racialised; they’re Travellers without the ‘good grace’ to be white. There was the case a couple years back of guards using racial profiling to remove a Caucasian-looking Roma child from his family on suspicion of his abduction from his ‘real’ (read: white) parents. Anti-black sentiment is still rife here; this article focuses on racism against Irish Travellers as it complicates the situation in a way that might be unusual to many readers.[11]

Poland/Ireland

All of this was on my mind during the recent discussions about diversity and representation in The Witcher 3, a Polish game which weirdly features zero people of colour. It’s a complicated topic which I can’t do justice with a small summary, so for reference Tauriq Moosa’s feature on Polygon covers this argument quite well, and Austin Walker’s posts on Giant Bomb exhibit the caution and nuance the matter warrants, given the fact that it is basically a whole bunch of non-Polish folk making declarations about the art of a culture which is significantly underrepresented in the industry in its own right.

My own perspective comes tinged with more patience and sympathy for The Witcher’s developers than I see in many American critics to whom Poland is just another faraway land of white Europeans. You may not know that Ireland has a sizeable Polish population: they’re our largest minority group; Polish is the third most spoken language on the island. Despite this they’re not well represented in the media and Irish media produced with them in mind as an audience is held in the same regard of quality as you might now expect from RTÉ.[12] Instead Poles enjoy Irish media to help them assimilate into the community, and then seek representational refuge in their own exported, transnational media.

Irish people remain more or less ignorant of Poles as a people because of how little the mainstream relates to them. For us, The Witcher 3 is a chance to glimpse into the culture and lives of the people who are our neighbours and experience a sliver of their world for a change. And it’s also a chance for Polish people here to see themselves in the mainstream as something other than a news story.

So I bristle when I see North Americans, and Americans specifically, gloss over or undermine the positive aspects of achieved representation in The Witcher 3 in order to make a valid point about its other failings. It stings to see Polish works being gently and discretely subsumed within a conglomerate Western, and generically American, game industry, as if this tremendous success for Slavic representation is played out or irrelevant. It hurts when Americans say that the white skin of the Dalish in Dragon Age is a mark against them as parables on racism, partially because this is the closest thing we have to a depiction of anti-Traveller racism, and partially because of how fiercely racism against Travellers is contested on the basis of their skin colour.

On top of that, perhaps selfishly, it hurts when Americans wave away claims of culture imperialism as an axis of consideration when discussing matters of diversity. Maybe it’s because I grew up with an over-abundance of American media in a society already devastated by Anglicization that little alarm bells sound when I see this cultural sublimation. Like how Americans infer from the fact that something is made for an international audience, that it is made for them, when American media is out-of-the-box internationalised. I don’t think Americans are as sensitive to how they are made the default, nor how they passively benefit from their cultural domination. I worry how on any given week Critical Distance is likely to have more American contributions than all other combined, despite its best efforts to be conscious of aspects of race, gender, sexuality, and more. I worry that in writing this I will be viewed as contradicting the work by African-American writers and activists, told that I should put off and wait for a time when their country isn’t shitting on them to raise the matter of anti-Traveller racism in Ireland, a time which is not forthcoming. I worry this should be a priority in my writing, a pressure in this field for the sake of my career, that others should prefer me to sideline issues of bigotry in Ireland and pretend it’s catered for by American conversations.

Sidney Fussell writes that exploring minoritised whiteness in an industry benefiting from a monolithic whiteness contributes to its overrepresentation, which is absolutely true. But it is also an industry commodifying and over-representing American perspectives, and this should also be explored critically. I hope to god—I hope to god—if videogames ever get their Into The West, if a game comes along which talks about the institutional racism facing Travellers, this community doesn’t break my heart.

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 


[1] The Planeteers visiting Northern Ireland and preventing a nuclear war between Protestants and Catholics is a notable example.

[2] Perhaps due to RTÉ picking up and broadcasting all these shows within roughly the same time span. As far as I know this was more likely a budgetary decision than an ad hoc diversity broadcasting initiative.

[3]RTÉ and the Globalisation of Irish Television, Farrel John Corcoran, Intellect books 204; page 162. (Google Books link: https://books.google.ie/books?id=EDzzyFCLrFMC&pg=PA2&lpg=PA2&dq=ireland+media+broadcasting+country+of+origin+breakdown&source=bl&ots=pRTwjD5ziR&sig=MqTOH9ALVj_xQvAXb6MJfNR0jKo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2haPVYqJF8iw7AajqqmYCw&ved=0CFYQ6AEwCTge#v=snippet&q=origin&f=false)

4 Anti-Traveller Racism ‘pervasive and deep rooted’, ENAR Ireland, July 2013 http://enarireland.org/anti-traveller-racism-pervasive-and-deep-rooted/ (Originally published on Public Service Europe)

[5] Supreme Court hears argument over Traveller’s right to attend local school, Christine Bohan, The Journal, January 2014 http://www.thejournal.ie/traveller-discrimination-supreme-court-1286202-Jan2014/

[6] ‘Humiliated’ Traveller couple win discrimination case against Dublin hotel, Breaking News.ie, December 2013 http://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/humiliated-traveller-couple-win-discrimination-case-against-dublin-hotel-616650.html

[7] Our casual racism against Travellers is one of Ireland’s last great shames, Jennifer O’Connell, The Irish Times, February 2013 http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/our-casual-racism-against-travellers-is-one-of-ireland-s-last-great-shames-1.1315730

[8] Irish Traveller Movement Statement in response to alleged Traveller profiling on the Garda PULSE system, Kerry Travellers Project, March 2014 https://kerrytravellersproject.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/irish-traveller-movement-statement-in-response-to-alleged-traveller-profiling-on-the-garda-pulse-system/

[9] Life Expectancy of Travellers Remains Low, Irish Health, September 2010 http://www.irishhealth.com/article.html?id=17830

[10] Time for Travellers to be recognised as an ethnic minority, Frances O’Rourke, The Irish Times, June 2014 http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/time-for-travellers-to-be-recognised-as-an-ethnic-minority-1.1840098

[11] As it happens, Roma were cited as the original inspiration for the Dalish by Dragon Age’s writer, David Gaider, so there’s a reason the cultural connection to Irish travellers comes through quite strongly.

[12] Broadcasting in the New Ireland, NUI Maynooth 2010, Titley, Kerr and King O’Riain; page 72 http://www.bai.ie/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/201004_nuim-culturaldiversityrpt_gt.pdf

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s