Irish travellers take direct action – Bill Connolly

Syndicalist Workers Federation report from 1964 on the Irish Traveller community in Cherry Orchard, Dublin, taking matters into their own hands to provide a school for their children.

Tinker is an archaic term for an itinerant tinsmith who mends household utensils. Traveller or Irish Traveller is now the preferred term. "Tinker" is included in the text below for historical accuracy.

Submitted by Fozzie on February 24, 2022

The tinkers of Ireland (known officially as itinerants) have much in common with gypsies, principally their nomad-type of existence. To some people theirs seems a romantic, carefree life, while to others they are shiftless, lazy and dishonest. The falseness of both images was perfectly, demonstrated by the campaign recently waged in Dublin by the Itinerant Action Group, to secure for their children a decent education. It showed them in a truer light as loving parents and resourceful, responsible, citizens, and was a classical justification of the Syndicalist philosophy of direct action.

The difficulties encountered by nomadic or itinerant peoples, in the effort to live their type of life, arise from the enclosure of land and the development of large urban agglomerations, with their stifling bye-laws on the one hand, and the pressure towards conformity and integration by bureaucracies, which hate what they don't control, on the other.

In Ireland the problems became so acute that the State set up a commission to examine the tinkers' plight. For three years they waited anxiously to hear what would be done to educate their children. Towards the end of last year, the Report was published. The education situation, it said, was desperate and immediate action was essential. The sparks of hope were soon quenched. Official reaction to the official report—Nothing could be done for at least two years. The tinkers had waited years for the Commission, then three more while it gathered facts, but now another two (at least!) was just too much.

However, their innate instinct for self-reliance prevented despair. The Itinerant Action Group was formed and announced its intention of building a school on an unoccupied Corporation1 site. The result was an immediate and enthusiastic reaction from a dozen quarters—a contracting firm offered free materials, teachers offered their services on a rota basis, a soldier made a set of classroom furniture, two doctors offered a clinic service, subscriptions were sent to supply books and meals. Tinkers from all over Ireland converged on Dublin with their children.

On Monday, December 30, Peadar O'Donnell, one of Ireland's best-known writers and a veteran socialist, performed a simple opening ceremony. The ramshackle wooden building contained 50 eager children and there was an atmosphere of enthusiastic determination. However, the heavy hand of officialdom was soon to cast its shadow. Dublin Corporation served a week's notice of eviction, threatening prosecution for trespass, etc.

The dignified reaction of the tinkers and their determination earned them increasing public support and help. When the week was up the perplexed Corporation dithered uncertainly for another day, then sent along, a squad of workers, backed up by police and officials, to carry out the demolition of the little schoolhouse. The tinkers put a picket round the site, appealed to the workers not to pass it, and pledged that whatever happened they would not offer any violence or resistance. The workers refused to pass, but there was some doubt how long they could sustain this gesture without losing their jobs, so the tinkers announced they would move, but in their own time. Some hours later they withdrew in orderly fashion to another corporation site and. settled down again, stating, "We will stay here until we are moved on again. We will not resist, but we will camp in one site after another until the government do something about the Itinerants' Commission."

Throughout all this the school continued to function and the children showed an eagerness for knowledge. The Corporation alternated between indecision and dire threat. The tinkers staged protest demonstrations and when again evicted they marched their caravans across the centre of Dublin to a new site. Support was now pledged from the civil liberties organisation and student bodies.

At length the Action Group decided to bring matters to a climax by staying put and letting the Corporation carry out its plans to destroy their school. A contingent of 30 workmen was sent to do the dirty work. Almost half of them refused to obey their orders and were promised Union support. The rest found themselves obstructed by students and members of the public, who lay across their path in protest. Eventually, with the help of police reinforcements, they broke through the barricade of caravans and bodies and finished their task. By this time, however, the campaign had focussed public attention on the tinkers' position and won great sympathy for them.

One of the campaigners on behalf of the itinerants. 25 year-old pacifist Grattan Puxon2 , is now remanded on bail in the sum of £500, charged under Section 30 of the Offences against the State Act with possession of explosives—a trumped-up charge, in an effort to discredit the Itinerant Action Group.

A protest demonstration and march, in support of the itinerants and Grattan Puxon, organised by the Syndicalist Workers Federation, was held from Hyde Park to the Irish Embassy in London Sunday, April 26, supported by the Irish Socialist Republican League.

  • 1Dublin Corporation – they local government administrative body for the city of Dublin.
  • 2Puxton would go on to be a lifelong supporter of travellers. There is more on his arrest and detainment here