Death of the Travellers

In the early hours of the 10th of October, 2015, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a small caravan in Carrickmines, South Dublin. The blaze quickly engulfed the entire home, taking with it the lives of ten people, including four children. and a pregnant mother. The scale of the tragedy forced Ireland to introspect on its attitude to the people living there,"Travellers" - a nomadic indigenous minority that has existed on the fringes of Irish society for centuries.

Was this an avoidable disaster? Why were these people living in such cramped conditions? Were their electrics faulty, their homes not fire-proofed, their accommodation overcrowded? And underneath it all - Was the rest of society somehow responsible? The answer, it was later revealed, was no.

The fire began because of an unattended oven and what had nearly sparked a nationwide discussion on the place of travellers in modern Irish society, quickly quietened down. 'Carrickmines' joined the popular narrative as yet another senseless tragedy and the media and politicians moved on accordingly.

❝ Was Irish Society to blame for the tragedy at Carrickmines?

Within a few weeks, when the surviving family sought to relocate away from the scene of the fire they were met with strong objections from local residents and the public resigned to the fact that they too would not welcome members of the traveling community as neighbours.

Despite this however, for that short window of time the Carrickmines tragedy seemed to tap into an underlying feeling in Ireland- perhaps a sense of guilt or fear, that wider society, the 'settled' population, were somehow responsible for the deaths of the travellers- through prejudcie, or neglect or simple ambivalence. And while the resulting technical inquiry absolved Irish society's conscience for the time being, was there something more to the fears the tragedy had stoked? Did it, however briedly, reflect back something more sinister about the place of Irish travellers in modern Irish society?

One year on from the deaths in Carrickmines, we look at the data to find out.

Are Travellers dying younger?

The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) uncovered some stark statistics about the health and mortality rates of the travelling community in 2010. According to the data the Traveller population of Ireland, estimated at over 36,224, has a very different demographic to that of the 'settled' general public. Whilst the age profile of the general population is more similar to the norm of a Westernised developed county, with a relatively large numbers of middle-aged and increasing numbers of old people, 63% of Irish travellers are under 25. The Traveller population, the report said, "is more reminiscent of a...developing country, charactersied by high fertility and premature mortality."

Plot 6

The main reason, of course, for such a young majority in the traveller population is due to the high premature mortality rates amongst older age groups. The AITHS, calculating 'standarised mortality rates', found that overall the mortality rate for Travellers is 3.5 times higher that of the the general population. Even more concerning, as the below graph outlines, although female traveller deaths have decreased since the 1980's, the mortality rate for traveller men has actually increased. Neither are anywher close to the norm for the general population. Overall, travellers appear to be more at risk of dying and dying young than the rest of Ireland's population.

Causes of Death

The AITHS found that physical health problems such as heart disease, cancer and, increasingly, respiratory illneses are the biggest killers amongst the travelling community. But the AITHS also found some startling figures.

27% of deaths recorded were due to 'external causes' which includes accidents, alcohol and drug overdose, but perhaps most concerningly, suicide. The AITHS found that Traveller males especially are 6.6 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

For a community unanimous with strong male figures fulfilling masculine roles that are typically portrayed in the media, it appears there is a much deeper malaise amongst traveller men than is commonly acknowledged.

How to save Traveller's lives

Despite the bleak statistics the AITHS revealed they did find one key insight. Amongst 700 health professionals surveyed, the majority agreed on two clear points - that both the cause and solution to the high mortality rates of travellers lay in two key factors - Education and Accommodation. While education will solve poor literacy rates and lead to better healthcare, as well as potentially better opportunities and quality of life amongst travellers, in the long-run, accommodation appears to be the most accessible and easy way to provide more sanitary and healthy environements for the traveling community in the short-term.
After that, factors such as a variety of socio-economic and cultural factors were mentioned as key causes of illness, including economic disadvantages and societal discrimination. While those maladies will not easily be solved, accommmodation, the most accessible and immediate to have an impact, is perhaps the most stilted when it comes to the Irish government's approach. Funding for such projects was dramatically slashed during the recession and county and city councils around the country consistently fail to meet their targets for providing accommodation. Perhaps most shockingly, even when budgets were slashed from 40 million to 6 million between 2008 and 2012, authorities consistently underspent what little of their funding remained (as the below graph outlines)

Overall, the above data finds that Travellers are living at a developing world standard alongside Ireland's western world lifestyles. They are highly more likely to die young and startingly more likely to commit suicide. Time and again experts point to accessible solutions but government authorities are failing to deliver on even the lowered goals it has set itself, leading to a stall in the progress for travellers' lives while in some areas, it is even worsening. It appears that despite the public feeling that Irish society might wash their hands of responsibility for the Carrickmines tragedy, an even greater tragedy is occurring nationwide everyday.

Words & code by Rachel Lavin

Photography by Jenny Schwietzer