Page last updated at 07:02 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 08:02 UK

Irish Travellers: 'A house is like a prison'

Training near home
"If I'm honest, it's a dump. But we're used to it," John O'Donnell

As part of a series for the World Service on Europe's nomadic communities, Katia Moskvitch of BBC Russian speaks to Irish Travellers in Britain.

Sweat dripping from his forehead, Commonwealth boxing champion John O'Donnell takes a powerful swing at a sparring partner.

The 23-year-old winner of the prestigious Commonwealth welterweight title in April is an Irish traveller, a Pavee.

His family has been living in a tiny encampment in West London for the past two decades.

The site's 20 caravans stand hidden between industrial buildings, with a railway running on one side and the Westway, one of the main routes into London, overhead.

There are no trees or grass; just a few flower pots to decorate the caravans' front porches.

Caravan life
Many Travellers say they do not want to leave their caravans

"If I'm honest, it's a dump. Obviously it would be nice to get somewhere different, away from the road and the railways. But we're used to it," Mr O'Donnell says.

But the O'Donnell family say they live there not out of a lack of housing but because it is their way of life.

Pavees are nomads and caravans have been their homes for centuries.

Irish Travellers do not look any different from the native community, but in the UK they have been recognised as an ethnic minority - with their own culture, traditions and language.

Their true origins are not exactly known, but some historians suggest they are descendants of the Irish peasants who became landless after Oliver Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland and during the potato famine of the 1840s.

Although known as Travellers these days, most prefer to settle down.

"We're just called Travellers, it's a name, nothing more," explains Mr O'Donnell. "I have never been on the road with my family."

Title winner

He started boxing when he was nine.

"It's brilliant for Travellers, to see someone achieve something and get a title. Many Travellers like boxing, but when they get to 16-17 years old, a lot of them pack it in. But now they're starting to realise you can go pro and make some money," he says.

His family and friends say discrimination prevents many Pavees making a career.

"People don't understand us. They say, oh, they're Gypsies, we don't want them. When teenagers go to a cinema, they get put out. When you go to a hospital, people don't want to know you, they want to get you in and out," says Sara, Mr O'Donnell's neighbour.

According to a Department of Health spokesman, Tony Berry, many doctors refuse to register Travellers, arguing that their encampments are not permanent.

Many members of parliament or councillors believe it's a populist issue to oppose Gypsies and Travellers' sites in their areas
Andy Slaughter MP

Because of this many Pavees do not get the medical treatment they need. It may help to explain why their average life expectancy is 10 years less than the rest of the British population.

Sara says at school Pavee children are bullied by schoolmates who ignorantly accuse them of not washing and eating off the floor.

Another neighbour, Ann, blames schools for the fact that her teenaged children cannot read or write.

But Valentin Kovalenko, an Ethnic Minority Achievement Instructor from a London schools, says that "most Irish Travellers underachieve in school because their education is fragmented."

Watching guard
Caravans are sited just metres from the Westway flyover

"Some Irish Travellers leave for summer travelling each year. Obviously, the children go with them. If a relative gets married, the entire clan will go to the wedding and the children will be out of school for weeks or even months," says Mr Kovalenko.

"A girl in her early teens is expected to help at home. If the father goes to mend a roof or clean a garden his teenage son will accompany him and miss school," he adds.

Some Traveller children may be expelled from school because of bad behaviour, he says, and some of them do not start school at the same age as other pupils.

"Traveller parents are very sensitive about how their children feel, and if the child often underachieves and is excluded from school, for them it is a real tragedy."

But, he says, a lot more Pavees go to school now than a few decades ago.


The Londoners near the Westway site seem to live happily alongside their Traveller neighbours, who have been living there legally for years, paying taxes and bills just like everyone else.

Andy Slaughter, an MP from the governing Labour Party, says that when there are problems most arise because of the housing issue.

"Where you had illegal encampments, where you had social problems or environmental problems, they're almost in every case related to the fact that there's not any provision made for Gypsies and Travellers - something that for any other part of the community would be unthinkable," says Mr Slaughter.

John O'Donnell with his Commonwealth belt (picture: Justin Mckie)
John O'Donnell hopes his success may inspire other Pavees

Although it is estimated that about 10% of Britain's 200,000 Travellers live on unauthorised sites, Mr Slaughter says the government is taking action by creating more and better sites and making sure that local councils try to find an alternative to eviction.

"There is resistance that is partly based on prejudice, sometimes from the settled community... and sometimes, quite disgracefully, [from] many members of parliament or councillors who believe it's a populist issue to oppose Gypsies and Travellers' sites in their areas," explains the MP.

Pavees would be able to resolve or at least ease the discrimination themselves, by moving into houses and thus assimilating into British settled community.

John O'Donnell has made enough money through boxing to buy a house but says that for most Travellers it is all about their family and traditions, and that he would never leave his beloved caravan.

"I'll never move into a house, I love the site. I lived in a house for a year and it wasn't for me," says the young champion.

"On the site, I can just walk out, have a chat with the lads down the road, we can walk into each other's caravans. You can't do it if you're in a house. A house is like a prison."

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