An ethnographic study of young Travellers’ experiences of urban space

Sindy Joyce

Posted: 28 September, 2016

Sindy Joyce is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, University of Limerick. Her research addresses the original and important question of how anti-Traveller racism shapes young people’s use of and movement through public space. Sindy will feature in RTÉ’s three-part series ‘John Connors: The Travellers’, in which actor John Connors aims to shed new light on the story of Ireland’s Travellers. Building a research team of fellow Travellers, John begins a ground-breaking research project that offers an alternative to the documented facts previously set down by `settled people’.

As a PhD researcher at the University of Limerick, my research examines how anti-Traveller racism shapes young people’s use of and movement through urban public space. I chose this topic because of my personal experiences as a Traveller who has witnessed and experienced first-hand the effects of racism and ethnicity denial upon my community. These experiences stimulated me to further my education, and deepen my understanding of the challenges Irish Travellers face to bring about change for my community. As a Traveller activist I am passionate and sincere about trying to resolve the complex issue of social inequalities that exist for Travellers. The field of Sociology provides me with the skills and knowledge to become an effective agent of change.

Irish Traveller culture has been part of Irish society for centuries; historical sources confirm a distinction between Travellers and the sedentary population (Helleiner 2003; McCann et al 1994; Fanning 2002). My research adopts an ethnographic approach to provide new insights into Traveller relations with the settled community and how these shape Travellers’ movement through the city. Specifically, this research will examine how young Irish Travellers’ (aged 14-21) movements through, access to and use of public and commercial space is impacted by their social location, with particular reference to ethnicity, youth and gender. The research adopts a qualitative ethnographic framework, with data collection encompassing qualitative focus groups, one-to-one interviews and observation. The young people participating in the study also create maps to of their town which illustrate how they view and use space.

Although still a work in progress, the research demonstrates that although Traveller ethnicity has not been recognised in Ireland, the stereotyping and stigmatising of Traveller cultural identity nonetheless influences young Travellers’ spatial encounters. Their spatial practices evidence defence mechanisms deployed in response to encounters with and expectations of hostility towards their identity as Travellers. Many young Travellers feel they cannot proudly exhibit their identity outside of the community.

I am committed to using research to document and give voice to the experiences of my community. I have always had a keen interest in the mechanisms of society, the influence of social policies and how the actions of individuals can affect society as a whole. On completion of my PhD I hope to pursue a career as a sociological researcher and activist in the field of anti-racism.

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