As I mentioned in my previous post (Irish Travellers who No Longer Travel), the Irish Travellers had been nomadic for generations, traveling the countryside in horse-drawn carts and wagons, presumably because of the limited demand for work at any one place. Now, facing pressure from the government, they have mostly settled in halting sites, areas of concrete slabs where they can locate their caravans.
This lifestyle change did not come easily, particularly for the men who found themselves with very little to do. The unemployment rate is high in the Travellers’ community, and the suicide rate is said to be seven times higher than in the population in general. The one thing that seems to provide the men life satisfaction is to be able to keep horses.
Horses have long been integral to Irish Travellers’ life and culture. Not only were horses the Traveller’s primary means of transportation, but they were also an additional way to make a little money when sold at horse fairs. Though no longer a means of transportation, horses are still being traded at the numerous fairs held all over the country. The Travellers also enjoy racing their horses using a two-wheeled cart called a sulky (as in harness racing). There have been calls in recent years by politicians and animal welfare groups to introduce a complete ban on sulky racing, which the Travellers’ community is fighting vigorously.
But keeping a horse in today’s civilization can be challenging. Make-shift stables are built at halting sites, and adjacent fields can provide grazing, though renting a field is expensive. Yet, the Travellers dearly want to maintain that part of their culture and share this passion with their sons. (Dealing with the horses still seems primarily a male activity in the Traveller’s community.)
Most boys are given a miniature pony which they learn to ride as early as age two. They are also responsible for taking care of their animal, so when you visit a halting site, it is common to see young boys busy feeding, washing, and grooming their animals and sometimes taking them for a ride, just as their fathers do. Their pride in their horses is obvious, but it made it even more salient for me when a young man kept asking me to see the photos I had taken of him and his horse and rejecting every one of them as “no good”. Asking him what he did not like, he volunteered that he was happy with his appearance but thought his horse’s image was not sufficiently flattering.
It appears that a strong bond between the Travellers and their horses is a part of their life to which they will strongly cling. As Ned, the father of nine beautiful children told me, “We are not traveling anymore, but we are still Travellers, and we need our horses. It gives us something to do.” And it gives meaning to their lives.
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