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'We were the First Greens': Irish Travellers, recycling and the State

Colin Clark and Micheál Ó'hAodha

Farewell to the besoms of heather and broom
Farewell to the creel and the basket
The folks of today they would far sooner pay
For a thing that's made out of plastic.

Farewell to the pony, the cob and the mare
The reins and the harness are idle
You don't need the strap when you're breaking up scrap
So farewell to the bit and the bridle.

(Verses from a traditional Irish Travellers folksong)


The Travellers' scavenging serves a valuable economic and ecological function in Irish society. Tons of steel, iron, copper, lead, and other metals would be wasted if not reclaimed in this way; the Travellers also recycle used clothing, appliances, and furniture from the middle classes to the poor (Gmelch, 1985: 70).

Though the term 'scavenging' has now been largely replaced by terms such as 'scrapping' or 'recycling', the above quote from Gmelch gives a sense of the importance that this occupation has played in the Irish Traveller economy. Likewise, the verses above from a traditional Irish Traveller folksong indicate that this relatively new industry has 'taken over' a way of life that once revolved around the buying and selling of horses and the craft economy. It is the purpose of this article to examine Traveller involvement in the Irish recycling industry in terms of how important it is at the turn of the century to both the Irish Traveller economy itself and the wider Irish settled economy. Before doing this a little needs to be said about who the Irish Travellers are and their current social and economic situation in Ireland.

Who are the Irish Travellers?

Irish Travellers (or Pavees / Minceir as they call themselves) are a relatively small indigenous ethnic minority group who have been part of Irish society for many years according to most historical sources (Fraser, 1995:296; Ní Shúinéar, 1994). Their sense of common identity, their history and their own language (referred to as Gammon, Shelta or The Cant) sets them apart from buffers (non-Travellers) in contemporary Irish society.

According to Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) figures, there are approximately 4000 Traveller families in Ireland today which makes up a total Traveller population of some 22,000 people. This represents just over 0.5% of the total national population (Ó Riain, 1997: 9). However other sources have estimated that the Irish Traveller population in Ireland could be as high as 28,000 (Liegéois and Gheorghe, 1995: 7). Such differences in estimates of Traveller populations are not unusual across Europe and often reflect prevailing political and ideological conditions and attitudes to such groups of people (Clark, 1998).

Pavee Point, one of the main non-statutory organisations working with Travellers in Ireland, has suggested that half of all Irish Travellers live in four counties: Cork (8%), Dublin (23%), Galway (11%) and Limerick (7%) (Ó Riain, 1997: 9). They also note that the Traveller population is a young and growing one; the median age for the Traveller community being 14 years of age (compared to the national figure of 27) and only 4.4% of Travellers are over the age of 55. Official figures from the mid-1980s show that the average Traveller family size consisted of 8 children, though there are signs it has decreased since this time but it is still, nonetheless, higher than the settled population (Ó Riain, 1997: 9). It is, of course, also a moving population - and not just within Ireland itself. For example, Gmelch and Gmelch (1985) have noted the cross-channel migration of Irish Travellers into Britain (and also America). They regard this process as a result of increasing urbanisation and industrial changes in Ireland back in the 1950s and as a Traveller adaptation strategy to these changed circumstances. Today, Pavee Point estimates some 15,000 Irish Travellers live in Britain and 10,000 Travellers of Irish descent live in the United States (Ó Riain, 1997: 9; McDonagh and McVeigh, 1996).

It is perhaps their nomadism, a strong cultural/family identity and their general marginalisation from mainstream society that has influenced the nature and structure of Traveller work patterns. Such work patterns have always differed significantly from those of their settled neighbours, fuelled mainly by their resistance to wage-labour (Okely, 1994). The Travellers in a way were the first 'greens' that we can speak of; they lived on their wits and like other Traveller and Gypsy groups they adapted to new employment niches in the 'mainstream' economy as and when they presented themselves (and were worth engaging in). The common feature to all the types of different occupations was that they typically revolved around nomadism and self-employment. They were a vital niche in the economy of the pre-industrialised Ireland of the 1950s as they bartered, sold and recycled items that the settled population found difficult to obtain due to the paucity of shops in rural areas. This is one Traveller's description of how his family adapted to the sudden disappearance of their traditional tinsmithing trade with the arrival of the first factory-produced goods:

'Back on the road, I began to relearn the art of making a living from it. The tinsmith's trade was dead, so that new means of making a living had to be found. My own parents tried their hand at everything possible. We, in turn and season, at every house, fair and meeting, mooched our living. Likewise, we sold halters, readers, Old Moore's Almanacs, baskets of swag and rolls of waxie [linoleum]. Throughout the country we collected rabbit skins, porter dreepers [Porter bottles], jam-jars, old tugs, horsehair, feathers, copper, brass - in fact anything saleable.' (Maher, 1972: 10).

The Travellers came to recycle everything - even the news and gossip from the different towns and villages throughout the country. Many rural Irish people looked forward to the arrival of the Travellers as a source of news in the pre-television era when there was less travel and communication systems were not what they are today. The onset of industrialisation and the mechanisation of agriculture changed the lives of the Travellers profoundly. The introduction of plastics and the mechanisation of farming damaged the rural basis of their economy. They found themselves migrating in large numbers to urban areas such as Dublin in the search for employment (Gmelch, 1985). They were quick to adapt to their new environment. The shift from horse-drawn wagons to motor vehicles gave rise to new opportunities and even greater commercial nomadism (Okely, 1980).

Although the actual occupations have changed, the skills and ways in which such activity is organised has continued to some extent, especially in the market and trading economies that many Travellers now engage in. For example, a recent study by McCarthy and McCarthy (1998: 51) found that as many as 20% of the estimated 15,000 market traders in Ireland were from a Traveller background. A small but significant minority have also established very successful businesses, especially those dealing in antiques and carpets. It must be noted however that some Travellers do find themselves dependent on social welfare and are socially excluded from the mainstream economy, as with other groups in contemporary Ireland. However, efforts are being made here to try and address the situation. For example, Ryan (1995) identified certain 'mainstream' employment fields as being potentially accessible to the Traveller community with some work on the part of the main statutory and non-statutory agencies, such as government departments, trade unions, Traveller organisations and other such bodies. Areas of employment included the health and education sectors, as well as youth and community work. Ryan (1995: 20-22) also suggested that the 'apprenticeship approach' might be one specific way of bringing Travellers into the mainstream economy, that is, 'a person working for an employer in a chosen occupation and... [learning] the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes to become a qualified craftsperson'. Of course, whether Travellers themselves would want to be part of the mainstream economy and whether the mainstream economy would want them remains to be seen.

Having examined the general background and context for Irish Travellers in terms of contemporary Irish society and their favoured economic niches, we can now move on to analyse the specific contribution that recycling has played in relation to the Irish Traveller economy. By doing this, we hope to be able to assess just how important this is to the larger Irish economy itself.

How important is recycling to the Irish economy and the Irish Traveller economy?

They'd use the site, like, for bringin' the scrap in, layvin' the scrap down, claynin' the scrap on the site and layvin' it there. Layvin' the scrap on the site 'til it's time to sell it. Well Travellers use the site as well for scrap cars, sellin' parts off them. Like houldin' when they'd have the market stuff on the site, like, they'd go from the, they'd take the stuff from the site an' go to the market and come back and sort out stuff an' bring more stuff on. Like, they do that nearly every day. Some Travellers use it, the site as well for houldin' their horses an' makin' wagons on the sites as well. ( An Irish Traveller quoted in Pavee Point, 1992: 81).

Over the past decade industry in the developed countries has greatly increased its re-use rate of residues. Today, reclamation and recycling is internationally organised by large corporations and is of considerable commercial and financial value. Many people are unaware that the reclamation industry is one of the world's top ten in terms of value, and that it employs hundreds of thousands of people. In the more industrialised countries scrap metal, for example, accounts for at least 45% of steel production with similar high figures for copper, lead, zinc and aluminium (An Foras Forbartha, 1987: 6). Considerable quantities of waste material are used by Irish industry with the major market for scrap metal being Irish Steel. Approximately 60% of the raw material for Irish Steel is sourced from scrap metal collected in Ireland, constituting 150,000 metric tonnes. Of this quantity of raw material, approximately 50% (75,000 metric tonnes) is collected and segregated by the Traveller community. The value of this scrap metal, in terms of revenue to the Irish economy is over £1.5 million (Pavee Point 1993: 16). This is not the only company that sources scrap metal collected by the Traveller community. It is estimated that on average 50% of scrap metal collected and supplied to scrap merchants for recycling is sourced, collected and transported by the Traveller community. This percentage may be significantly greater for some of the more valuable non-ferrous metals, however, statistics are unavailable.

Travellers have been in the vanguard of scrap recycling initiatives in Ireland for some years now (Pavee Point, 1993). However, their contribution to the success and viability of the recycling industry is often underestimated and unrecognised. This may be due to the nature and structure of Travelling recycling activities, which differ significantly from that of the settled community. There is a clear danger, we would argue, in this lack of recognition. Changing policies in waste management at both national and European Union levels, although based on a greater commitment to recycling, could actually threaten grass-roots Traveller recycling initiatives. However, if new policies and legislation in the area of waste management take account of the existing successful recycling operations undertaken by many Traveller families and the factors which render them successful, the future of these activities might be safe.

We must then ask why Traveller patterns of recycling are under-appreciated in Ireland? Essentially, it is because they themselves and their methods of working in the recycling industry are perceived as being 'different', archaic and statistically insignificant. From the perspective of some sections of the settled community, the recycling activities of the Traveller community can appear disorganised, unproductive and a waste of time and effort. There is a fundamental difference in approach between both communities. Flexibility and the generation of income (i.e. payment per item) is the basis of the Traveller approach to recycling. Their method of recycling is dynamic in the sense that they are able to switch from material to material depending on the market price of various materials. The move to new materials is not static because materials are often stored and then sold at a later date when the market improves. A good example of this approach is the Travellers Resource Warehouse operating in Dublin (Collins and Crowley, 1992).

In contrast, the recycling approach of the settled community tends to be more rigid and involves considerable investment in a labour force, machinery and infrastructure. It is considered to be operating and behaving in a way that any 'good' business should. However, there is little ability for individual operations to switch from one material to another; the structures do not allow for it. Traveller recycling operations are labour intensive, with many members of the extended family contributing to income generation. Like other Traveller and Gypsy communities, the Irish Travellers do not recognise the word 'retirement' (Kenrick and Clark, 1999). The labour input is not considered as a direct cost with an accompanying set hourly wage; it is considered in terms of family-based self-employment and labour input is not seen as a negative cost factor as is the case in the cost structure of recycling programmes in the settled community.

Another economic advantage inherent in the Traveller recycling approach occurs at the segregation stage. The segregation of material is not a significant cost in the Traveller recycling economy. As work-space and living space are one and the same, separate segregation facilities are not required. We would point out though that as a consequence of the inappropriate design of much official Traveller site accommodation in Ireland, the most effective synthesis between living space and work-space has yet to be achieved.

How do Travellers collect?

A significant quantity of material is sourced from door-to-door collections. Travellers go from door-to-door collecting materials in both urban and rural areas. They also gather material from sources as diverse as building sites, plumbers merchants or scrap-car yards. The large junk collection schemes organised by local authorities which occur once or twice a year in a given area are also a source of recyclable material. A wide range of materials are recycled by the Travellers from these collections including many different metals and various household items that can be repaired and resold. The Traveller community has informal arrangements with many small industries and various engineering companies throughout the country. They collect this material for resale to the scrap merchants. These arrangements are often symbiotic as the quantity of material generated by a particular firm may not be sufficient to render segregation, collection and transportation worthwhile for individual factories. However, it may be for Travellers.

This entire chain of activity creates an economic profit for three different groups; the Travellers, the scrap merchants and the producers. The profit generated by this activity generates a social surplus at all levels because wealth is being created and re-created. It is evident that the seed for this wealth creation is Traveller initiative and the harnessing of a particular niche within the recycling economy.

Despite all this the role of the Traveller community in the sphere of recycling is largely ignored at an official and policy level. Added to this fact are other more practical constraints which actually hamper their ability to continue carving out a niche for themselves in the recycling economy. These include restricted access to landfills and other sources of material supply and the refusal of certain insurance companies to insure their vehicles for such activities. Another pressing problem is the lack of storage facilities at halting sites (Collins and Crowley, 1992).

The increasing role of the European Union in shaping international waste management policy could have both hidden dangers and opportunities for that section of the Traveller community who are involved in the recycling business. In order to meet national recycling targets in Ireland, the government will have to ensure that existing recycling initiatives are maintained. If the Traveller community can ensure that the significance of its initiatives are realised, then future policy on recycling could act in its favour.

Moving On: Travellers as Traders and ways ahead for the Irish Traveller economy

Though recycling is still important to the Irish Traveller economy it is clear that this is not (and indeed never has been) the sole occupation carried out by Irish Travellers in the late 1990s. Indeed, the Traveller Economy Programme based at the Pavee Point Travellers' Centre recognises that Traveller economic adaptability and flexibility allows them to often escape the 'social exclusion' or 'sub-culture of poverty' tags which are so often randomly applied whenever the word 'Traveller' is mentioned in Irish social policy debates (McCarthy, 1972, 1994). The ways ahead for developing the Irish Traveller economy include building on existing strategies and identifying and evaluating new strategies and opportunities for developing the Traveller economy and for providing greater self-reliance. The recycling industry is just one example of this approach.

One way of developing the Traveller economy is by supporting existing innovative projects and promoting the development of additional pilot projects with a focus on economic development and employment for Travellers. Similarly, by resourcing local Traveller support groups, so that they may contribute to and benefit from area-based socio-economic development initiatives in designated areas throughout the country, a new way ahead may be possible.

Any strategy also needs to address the issue of promoting the inclusion of Travellers in area-based programmes of local socio-economic development which tackle long-term unemployment. It has to be acknowledged that long-term unemployment can be an issue which affects some individuals and families within the Traveller community. By developing resources which will assist Travellers and Traveller support groups in accessing mainstream labour force opportunities, new measures to tackle such unemployment may be forthcoming and the mainstream labour market may become more accessible.

On a different level, it is also the case that Irish Travellers and those support groups working with them must be able to contribute to the development of legislation, policy and procedures of relevance to the Traveller economy and to employment opportunities for Travellers. It is they who know best what the community desires in terms of new opportunities and what help they may need, if any, to allow them to achieve their goals.


This paper has examined the important role played by Irish Travellers in the recycling industry in Ireland. Although it is rather depressing that this Traveller contribution to the industry is negated by some sections of the settled community, businesses and the state, we see the present situation as holding some promise for the future. In Ireland, there is evidence of a new analysis of Travellers at both local and national levels amongst politicians. For example, an influential report entitled Accommodating Nomadism by the Traveller Movement (Northern Ireland) has been heard at the highest levels of government (Molloy, 1997) and a new Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act was passed in 1998. Likewise, in Northern Ireland - where Travellers constitute the second largest ethnic minority group - there has been some progressive movement on 'race relations' in recent years as well. The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order, 1997 specifically named Travellers as a group that was protected within its ambit (Noonan, 1998). There is also a new sense that previous efforts to solve the 'problem' of Travellers in Irish society were misdirected and had started from the assumption that the 'problem' was with Travellers themselves, not the racism and anti-nomadic attitudes of Irish settled society. It is now the case that ideas of social inclusion and increased Traveller participation in the mainstream economy does not have to equate with Traveller assimilation. Alongside this new approach has been an increased awareness of the role Travellers play in protecting the environment and the management of Ireland's waste - not forgetting their other valuable social and cultural contributions to Irish society (Gmelch and Langan, 1975). It is clear that a vibrant Irish Traveller economy relies on a successful Irish economy. Though they may be quite different in many ways they are nonetheless bound together; for one to be a success the other has to be playing its part as well.


* The title for this paper begins with the words of an Irish Traveller who is based in the north east of England and is engaged in the recycling economy. With fierce pride, he has long argued that the Travellers 'were the first greens' and helped promote the ecological thinking and general 'green' ethos that now pervades our culture. He also, however, remembers a time when, as he says 'to do the scrapping was for the 'tinks only - nobody else would do it as it was dirty work for the 'tinks only'. This shift in terminology, from 'scrapping' to 'recycling' and the shift in attitudes to this economic activity are quite significant and we cover this in the paper. Such sentiments are also reflected in the article written by Mary Brigid Collins and Niall Crowley (1992)


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The two websites below should be the first stop for anyone interested in the issues raised in this article. http://ireland.iol.ie/~pavee/index.htm Pavee Point Travellers' Centre Pavee Point is a partnership of Irish Travellers and settled people working together to improve the lives of Irish Travellers through working towards social justice, solidarity, socio-economic development and human rights. http://www.connect.ie/tribli/ Exchange House Travellers Service Exchange House Travellers Service is the main provider of youth, support, social and money advice services to the Travelling community in Dublin, Ireland.

Colin Clark
Department of Social Policy
Claremont Bridge Building
Claremont Road
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne

Tel: 0191-222-7494
Fax: 0191-222-7497
E-mail: colin.clark@ncl.ac.uk
Webpage: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/lists/traveller-acad/

Micheál Ó'hAodha
The Library
University of Limerick

Tel: 00353-61-202668
Fax: 00353-61-202541
E-mail: micheal.ohaodha@ul.ie

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