Irish Travellers and Prison: Discrimination, Education, and Lateral Violence

by Martina Madden

Martina Madden is Communications and Social Policy Advocate of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.


Irish Travellers are underrepresented in all of the categories we associate with status and success in our society. They are barely visible in positions of power, (despite the appointment of Eileen Flynn, an Irish Traveller, to the Seanad in 2020[1]) and their education rates are dismally low, with the majority of Traveller men having just received primary-level schooling.[2]

One area where they are overrepresented is in our prisons. Travellers comprise less than 0.7 per cent of the population of the Republic of Ireland but make up 10 per cent of the general prison population and 15 per cent of the female prisoner population.[3] We, as a society, should be deeply concerned about these figures, and about the contributory factors involved.

The framing of Travellers as disruptive criminals, in our media and in our collective consciousness provides us with an excuse to justify their exclusion from society and the discrimination they endure. It scapegoats a vulnerable group who are trying to survive in a system where the odds are stacked against them and blames the entirety of that cohort for the actions of a few. When we examine the historical and existing barriers to full participation in society that exist for Travellers and the injustice of their exclusion, it is our mainstream, settled, majority population that emerges as culpable of wrongdoing, which is resulting in grievous harms being inflicted on the lives of members of the Traveller community.


Travellers are loose threads in the fabric of Irish society. They exist at the edges rather than being interwoven into the whole. This is often excused by settled people as being their choice, and even their fault. We have all heard about, and read about in the media, Travellers’ propensity to crime and disruption. But what we don’t hear about is Travellers’ struggles to exist and find their place in a society that was designed for a settled lifestyle. We also don’t hear much about the loss of their unique culture and heritage, including traditional modes of making a living.

The unpalatable fact, which many of us in mainstream society struggle to accept, is that Travellers are the victims of grave systemic injustices, and the effects of these prevail. Decades of institutional discrimination, and social exclusion, have resulted in disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and ill health (both physical and mental), as well as low levels of educational achievement. The experience of Irish Travellers starkly contrasts with the broader narrative of Irish prosperity and social progression since Independence in 1922, and they remain one of the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups in Ireland. The impact of this on their lives is stark: suicide rates among this community are six times higher than in the general population and their life expectancy remains much lower.[4]


For this essay I spoke to two Traveller men in their 40s, Patrick* and William*, both of whom were sent to prison in their twenties. They both have overcome significant challenges and today have rewarding careers in the social care sector, where they provide guidance and support to young Traveller men. Their personal narratives help to illuminate the level of injustice this group faces, how high the barriers to inclusion in our society are, and the impossibility – as a member of a marginalised group – of breaching them, without adequate and sustained assistance. The overrepresentation of Travellers in our prison and crime statistics indicate an issue that is broader and more complex than it is represented by our media and by the establishment. It reveals the personal and societal impact of poverty and exclusion and the inherent injustice in our policing[5]and penal system,[6] as well as a community that is visibly in need of understanding and support.


Irish Travellers were formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group by the State in March 2017.[7]  This was the result of years of campaigning for their unique cultural identity to be acknowledged and was welcomed by Traveller advocacy groups. It was an event that had huge symbolic importance, but it did little to reverse the harms that had been done before.

The Irish State’s discrimination against Travellers is longstanding. The Commission on Itinerancy Report 1963, identified “the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants” [as Travellers were then called]. It not only failed to acknowledge Traveller ethnicity and nomadism but threatened to assimilate and absorb them into wider society as the “final solution” to everyone’s problems. This inherently racist and misguided strategy failed on many counts but it provided a precedent that “established policy relating to Travellers for the next twenty years”. This included criminalising their nomadic way of life (by outlawing the ability to park their trailers on agricultural land), and began a process of legitimising hostility and discrimination against Travellers from the settled community.[8]

Travellers have for centuries supported themselves through their traditional occupations of tin smithing, seasonal agricultural work, and horse trading. But the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of Ireland, with its shift towards a service-based, high-tech economy has made many of these occupations obsolete. The need for a formal education to access opportunities in this modern system has been a challenge for Travellers, whose rates of literacy and educational attainment are low, in part due to a peripatetic lifestyle and their experience of prejudice and bullying in the school system. Entrenched social prejudice towards them effectively excludes Travellers from obtaining any job in the mainstream workforce, leaving them disproportionately affected by unemployment, poverty, mental health issues and homelessness.


Patrick is a 40-year-old Traveller man who was born in Ireland but lived with his family in England until his mid-teens, when he left school. He showed promise as a boxer, making it to the all-Ireland finals twice, at age 17 and 18. Unfortunately he did not win the title at either match. A loss at this level was hard on his self-esteem, which was already shaky. Leaving school early had left him with no qualifications. This, and the blatant discrimination he experienced from employers who did not want a Traveller working for them, made finding a job impossible. After a row with his mother, Patrick moved to a halting site where he began to hang out with other young men who were also unemployed, bored and disillusioned by the discrimination they endured and the social inequality they witnessed. He began to take drugs and to get involved in crime. The breakup of his marriage which resulted in his wife and children moving to England exacerbated his drug use and depression. In and out of prison, he was at a loss to find a way to move forward and change his life. Thanks to his own determination, and to organisations that provided him with the mental health and addiction supports as well as secure housing, he is now about to complete a BA in Community Youth Work and is hoping that his story will be an inspiration for other young Travellers who are struggling.[9]


William is a Traveller in his late 30s. His family moved between Ireland and the UK for most of his childhood and he continued to move between both places in early adulthood. He left school at 11 without being able to read or write, only much later being diagnosed as dyslexic. He began to earn money by washing car windows at traffic lights and moved onto trading from stalls on the street, but was in trouble with the police for minor offences. In his late teens he got pulled into a long-standing family feud which escalated over a period of years into serious violence, which resulted in him being imprisoned for 14 years. While imprisoned, he learned to read and write. In addition to his determination to learn, William also volunteered for the Samaritans, providing a listening ear to other prisoners. He also became involved in the Red Cross and got a job in the mess kitchen as a chef. William is grateful to the teachers in Mountjoy for their encouragement and support. Since leaving prison he has found employment providing support for younger Travellers, something that he could not have done without an education.[10]


Higher education is a prerequisite for almost every job these days. Applicants are expected to have a Leaving Certificate at least, and increasingly to have a degree, even if its subject matter does not relate to the job itself. This is challenging for the Traveller population, who often leave school early. This can be because the family is moving but often it is because of bullying and exclusion within the school system. The bullying can come from teachers, or from other students. Both men I spoke to for this essay had their own experiences with this.

William recounted his experience of not being supported at school:

“Well, I never really got in to school. I was, was always getting suspended. Like I was dyslexic. So I spent most of my time in Mr Golden’s office looking at a wall [laughs] for obviously disrupting class and things like that. Which I did because I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t got a clue and I couldn’t read and write. And then you had kids… kind of… you had a bit of racism and [in England] it wasn’t as bad as here, but there was still some.” [11]

Patrick agreed that racism against Travellers was not as bad in English schools as in Ireland; his schooling ended when the family moved back to Ireland in his early teens. He explained that one often overlooked reason why Traveller children leave school early is that their parents are afraid that they are being treated as badly as they were during their own schooldays.

“Their mothers probably know what’s going on in the schools and they know that they’re not getting cared for. They probably remember back when they were going to school, the mothers, and thinking what it was like for them … And they’re thinking … my daughter’s better off out of there now. Maybe … she’s getting bullied in the class, so maybe we’re better off taking her out.”[12]

Unfortunately, those mothers are probably right. In Irish schools, shunning Travellers is not something that is consigned to the past. William said of his 15-year-old daughter:

“My daughter’s friends in the school are all foreign. The foreign girls have no problem talking to her … but the Irish girls mostly don’t talk to her. So, she doesn’t make much of an effort herself. She’ll admit that’s because she just has that fear. She expects it. You know what I mean?”[13]

The phenomenon of early school-leaving affects the treatment of Travellers while they are in school. Patrick said: “The teachers don’t really give a hundred percent to Travellers because they assume that Travellers are going to leave school early, because that’s the history of Travellers … So the teachers don’t really put a lot of attention into them.”[14]

This is an injustice for every Traveller child, but it is particularly hard on the ones who need additional supports, as William did. Children who struggle in to learn foundational skills of reading and writing in primary education, are at a huge disadvantage in secondary school. William reports that in his work as he hears of many Traveller children who are “completely lost”. This is an experience that resonates with him as it is what he went through himself as a dyslexic child.[15]


The lack of qualifications or higher education among Travellers is an obvious disadvantage in the job market. But they also face discrimination when seeking employment, which is unrelated to their education levels. Patrick recalls going for several jobs in his youth, only to be rebuffed when he arrived at the interview. He said “You could tell by them when you’d walk in. You’d know. You’re a Traveller… you’re not getting a job. [And you would be] right about it. So when you’re going through that for a while, you just, you know… [give up], and then you’re just at home.”[16]

Patrick reflected on how the lack of a job or anything meaningful to do affected his confidence and left him at a loose end and made it extremely difficult to keep his drinking and drug-taking under control. He said: “[E]ven when you’d want to stop taking, when you’d want to stop drinking and when you’d take a break, there’d be absolutely nothing else to do. There was no work. There’s no other options. I mean, I could be bored. You’d be bored … Because there’s not… there was nothing to do, you know?”[17]

This lack of direction, as well as a sense of hopelessness about his own options led him down a path of joining in with others from the site he lived on in petty theft and burglary. “There doesn’t seem to be any kind of… nothing going forward for you. No development in your life. You’re looking at fellows coming in the odd time driving a really nice car, a really nice van. And you want to get that van, you know, and you say, how am I going to, get money? How am I going to survive? Like how am I going to improve my life? You know? So a few of my cousins broke off, going off robbing and that, and they were coming back sometimes with some money and they driving nice cars and… So I just decided, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that as well, you know?”[18]

It shouldn’t come as a shock that when we as a society treat people as if they don’t matter and consign them to lives of poverty and exclusion, they sometimes react by taking something from us. If the game is rigged anyway, there’s little to gain by playing by the rules. But despite the initial rewards, Patrick’s new direction didn’t end well for him and he ended up in and out of prison.

His addictions spiralled out of control too when, a few years later, his marriage broke up and his wife left Ireland for the UK, taking their children with her. He said: “I’d follow her back and forth a few times, but it wasn’t working out. And I, I kept coming back on my own and then when I come back I’m really depressed, you know. And then I started taking prescription tablets and I ended up getting strung out on them.”[19]

As someone who couldn’t read or write, it was difficult for William to find a regular job, but he tried to earn a living using his wits. He washed car windows at traffic lights and was a street trader. He recalls police discrimination against Travellers and how he – like other Travellers – was singled out by the police/Gardaí for checks on his vehicle, to be fingerprinted (illegally) and to be questioned about his actions while just going about his day.

His work with Traveller youth has shown him that it is still very difficult for a Traveller to find a job in Ireland today:

“What I’m hearing back from these groups I’m working with discrimination is the biggest thing. A little bit less for the young group in Dublin seemingly, compared to everyone else. But in the smaller towns [they] can’t get jobs… all jobs they’re getting is cleaning jobs or if they’re hiding their identity. And then when they’re hiding it, they hear all this negative stuff about Travellers. Especially if they’re working in public, like say public service shops or things like that. So they might not realise they’re Traveller, but if they’ve a kind of distinctive Traveller name…  they’re in a bit more trouble.”[20]


The sociological concept of lateral violence refers to acts of aggression, harassment, or harm inflicted by members of a marginalised or oppressed group on each other, rather than on their oppressors. It has been observed and studied in various contexts, including among indigenous communities including the Aboriginal people of Australia, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities and in certain socioeconomic groups.[21]

Lateral violence, in the context of Irish Travellers, can be viewed as a manifestation of the trauma experienced as a result of losing their traditional identity and way of life, as well as their alienation from mainstream society. The frustration, anger, and despair that arise from being oppressed are redirected towards peers or individuals within their own community, rather than towards the larger systems or structures of power that are the sources of oppression, e.g. the government, the education system, the Gardaí and the criminal justice system.

William said of the lateral violence theory: “I think it’s very relevant to Travellers. So like the group who’s kind of marginalised and isolated from the rest of society and then I think obviously they internalised that anger and that kind of feud with each other.”[22]

He also demonstrated how the laws which made nomadism illegal as well as the futility of depending on the Gardaí for justice contribute to the problem:  “I think as well since Travellers are not allowed to move around the way they used to. So if you were on the receiving end of something, you could move away and you could, that’s a good place. Try and escape and now you can’t… Because Guards don’t do nothing. Guards will tear you out of your car for having no insurance, no license or that. But if your house is smashed up or your car smashed up or some of your family’s being caught up, what did you do? They’re more interested. What did you do to escalate? What did you do? Didn’t happen for nothing. So if you’re a victim of crime, they want to know what you’ve done to provoke that aside. That’s more their concern.”[23]

The intransigence of the Gardaí as well as a lack of faith in fair treatment by the wider justice system make it feel inevitable that Travellers will be forced to take matters into their own hands, despite a reluctance to do so. William said: “… sometimes people in in families, it just might be totally against their nature to be get involved in violence or be involved in that type of thing. But they can’t get away from it because they feel like they’ve nowhere to turn. Do you know what I mean?” He added that it can be a “no win” situation where a refusal to be involved in defending your own family can leave you isolated and vulnerable.[24]

It should be noted that violence in the Traveller community is an issue that receives a disproportionate amount of media attention, and is not typical of the vast majority of Travellers. William was clear that although the circumstances surrounding him in his youth were not great, he takes responsibility for his actions. What we are exploring here are the reasons why it occurs. Addressing the systemic oppression that Travellers experience, as well as improving access to education, health supports, and the restoration of their cultural identity and pride would help to provide the community with the tools needed to foster unity.


Both Patrick and William have been through a lot, not least by enduring imprisonment, but their stories are ones with happy endings. They are both employed in meaningful jobs, helping to create a better future for younger Travellers and are living stable fulfilling lives. But their success is not just due to their own determination and hard work. It is also because of the supports they received along the way – supports that they should have had access to in the first place.

During William’s time in prison, he finally got the educational support he needed. It’s hard to disagree with his statement:  “It’s sad I had to go to prison to get an education.” Had he been given the help he needed in school, his life might have turned out differently. Patrick also found stability and treatment for addiction after his time in prison, when housing with supports was provided by an NGO, giving him the foundation he needed to rebuild his life. What would his story have been had he been helped to find rewarding employment, somewhere safe to live and mental health supports when he was a teenager?

Of course, no amount of support and guidance can help Travellers to overcome the brutality of living with the stigma and discrimination that is still endemic in Ireland. It is the systems, institutions and society that needs to change, not the groups which are enduring harms because of them. Travellers can and do campaign for these changes but it is the mainstream, settled majority which must take action to implement them.


In scapegoating Irish Travellers for problems which are the effect of decades of exclusion and oppression, we harm ourselves as a society as well as continuing to harm them. The exclusion of this indigenous minority also deprives us of the richness that their unique culture and history can contribute to our collective Irish heritage. The Traveller community provides us with a mirror reflecting back to us what is happening in wider society. The problems of exclusion, inequality and injustice apply to us all, but they are most acute at the margins, where our policymakers and our society has kept Travellers. We must stop blaming the mirror – the Irish Traveller community – for what it shows and start facing the realities we’ve been too willing to ignore.

By embracing diversity, demanding fairness in allocation of resources and tackling the inherent racism against Travellers that we are still far too willing to participate in or turn a blind eye to, we can create an actual inclusive society where everyone can thrive.


*For reasons of privacy William and Patrick have asked that their surnames be omitted.
[1] ‘Eileen Flynn’ (Oireachtas, 29 June 2020),
[2] ‘Census of Population 2016 – Profile 8 Irish Travellers, Ethnicity and Religion’ (Central Statistics Office of Ireland, 2016),
[3] Conor Gallager, ‘Travellers Significantly Over-Represented in Irish Prisons, UN Committee Told’, The Irish Times, accessed 13 May 2023,
[4] ‘Travellers and Suicide: Facts and Figures’ (Pavee Point, 2010),
[5] Conor Gallager, ‘Gardaí Have Negative View of Travellers, Survey Finds’, The Irish Times, 20 August 2023,
[6] Michelle Hennessy, ‘Blind Justice: How Prison Is Leaving Travellers Isolated and Traumatised’, The Journal, 31 October 2022,,because%20of%20who%20she%20was.
[7] Marie O’Halloran and Michael O’Regan, ‘Travellers Formally Recognised as an Ethnic Minority’, The Irish Times, 1 March 2017,
[9] Martina Madden, Interview with Patrick*, In-person, 14 October 2022.
[10] Martina Madden, Interview with William*, In-person, 21 October 2022.
[11] Madden.
[12] Madden, Interview with Patrick*.
[13] Madden, Interview with William*.
[14] Madden, Interview with Patrick*.
[15] Madden, Interview with William*.
[16] Madden, Interview with Patrick*.
[17] Madden.
[18] Madden.
[19] Madden.
[20] Madden, Interview with William*.
[21] Theoni Whyman et al., ‘Lateral Violence in Indigenous Peoples’, Australian Psychologist 56, no. 1 (2021): 1–14,
[22] Madden, Interview with William*.
[23] Madden.
[24] Madden.