Traveller Horses, Local Authorities and Public Policy in Contemporary Ireland

By Conway, Brian P. | Nomadic Peoples, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Traveller Horses, Local Authorities and Public Policy in Contemporary Ireland


Conway, Brian P., Nomadic Peoples


Summary

The practice of keeping horses is a central part of Irish Traveller culture although it does not figure very large in the literature on Irish Travellers. In recent years, this practice has become a locus of policy intervention. The use of the Control of Horses Act, 1996, as a solution to the wandering horse problem threatens to devalue the horse-keeping tradition and marginalize Travellers from mainstream settled society.

Introduction

The purpose of this article (1) is to critically examine public policy with respect to the control of 'wandering horses' owned by Travellers (2) in Ireland, a topic that has received little scholarly attention. While horses are often mentioned or alluded to in key anthropological works or depicted in photographic images in them, rarely is this feature of Traveller culture interrogated in a systematic way with the result that our understanding of it is somewhat limited. For example, Gmelch (1977) devotes just three pages to a discussion of horses while in Helleiner (2000) horses are mentioned only rarely. In McCann, O Siochain and Ruane (1994) there is an occasional reference to horses. The work of Saris et al. (2000) is one of the few scholarly articles that directly bears on the issue of Traveller horses but this important piece of anthropological research is limited to the experiences of one high-poverty urban community in Dublin.

Thus, the present paper attempts to contribute to our understanding of Irish Travellers by examining current policy and practice with respect to Traveller horses. The paper explores the implications of public policy for Traveller culture and specifies the contribution anthropologists and sociologists can make to current thinking and policy decisions about this important, though often neglected, dimension of Irish Traveller culture. This analysis draws on the author's personal experience working as a housing liaison officer in a local authority housing setting in a midland town in Ireland over an 18-month period, work which was concerned with the day-to-day management of local authority housing estates. The article claims that public policy fails to deal adequately with the underlying condition that creates the wandering horse problem in the first place--the lack of adequate grazing land for Travellers living in local authority-provided housing and halting sites. Moreover, I argue that public policy with respect to Traveller horses, as reflected in the provisions of the Control of Horses Act, 1996, (henceforth, 'The Act') relating to the licensing, seizure and detention of horses, threatens to devalue Traveller culture and marginalize Travellers from mainstream sedentary society.

To provide a context for the paper, I begin by exploring change and continuity in the place of horses in Traveller culture. This is followed by a description and analysis of the two principal policy responses to the wandering horse problem--the Control of Horses Act, 1996. and youth horse projects, with a particular focus on the Act. The final section of the article sheds some light on the policy implications of this analysis and the linkage between policy and culture.

The Place of Horses in Irish Traveller Culture: Continuity and Change

Travellers are Ireland's indigenous 'Other'. They share the same skin colour as white settled people and are not easily identifiable as Travellers on the basis of physical features alone. Yet, Travellers are considered as outsiders in their own society or, as Mac Laughlin puts it, they are at best considered as:

   An incongruous social residue from a pre-modern past, a people to be
   paternalistically admired for their determination to remain doggedly
   true to an unconventional lifestyle in a rapidly changing and
   increasingly materialistic and 'settled' society. (Mac Laughlin
   1995: 10)

One feature of that lifestyle that is viewed as unconventional and increasingly as uncivilized in contemporary consumer-oriented Ireland is the practice of keeping horses. …

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