On the 8th April, International Traveller and Roma Day is celebrated. In 2019, this event arises in the context of preparation for European Union parliamentary elections on 23rd to 26th May; but what does the day mean to the ordinary person on the street?
What is the significance of the date, 8th April?
Grattan Puxon is probably the best source to tell of the origins of the significance of the 8th April for International Traveller and Roma Day. He is a founder of the Gypsy Council UK in 1966 which followed a period of his work in Dublin a few years earlier. Before “activism” was a popular word, Grattan struggled to improve the lives of Irish Travellers and Gypsies in Britain by his work as an ally in developing a movement to achieve their civil rights. In an interview in the Roma Archive website, he recalls the first World Romani Congress. Thomas Acton has provided the context in his article, Beginnings and Growth of transnational Movements of Roma to achieve Civil Rights after the Holocaust, which provides further detail.
After World War II and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel, Vajda Voevod and other Romani intellectuals, who were living in Paris, worked to seek reparation for crimes against their people and to work for a better future. In 1961, together with Vanko and Léulea Rouda, they founded the Communauté Mondiale Gitane (CMG), probably the first international Romani organisation. In 1964, Voevod visited London and the Irish Traveller struggle in Dublin led by Joe Donoghue and Grattan Puxon and recruited them to the CMG. However, on 26th February 1965, the French government dissolved the CMG. Following a dispute with Voevod, Vanko and Léulea Rouda started a new organisation, the Comité International Tzigane (CIT) and began to reach out to Roma cultural organisations in Eastern Europe. After a couple of years, the name was changed to the Comité International Rom (CIR).
The leadership of the CIR was in Paris and Vanko Rouda was focussed on the organisation being recognised by the Council of Europe and UNESCO but he was making very little progress. Meanwhile the members were focussing on their local situations. Grattan Puxon had persuaded the U.K. Gypsy Council that hosting a Congress would be in their interests. He organised a large cultural festival for Easter Monday on Hampstead Heath. Then he invited the Paris committee members and affiliated organisations to hold a preparatory meeting on a World Romani Congress immediately before, at Chelsfield School. Vanko Rouda accepted the invitation. Then, Grattan announced that given the response so great with representatives coming from Czechoslovakia, Finland, Norway, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Spain and Yugoslavia that there was no alternative but to declare this event the First World Romani Congress. The CIR committee agreed and the open-air musical festival on Hampstead Heath on Easter Monday became an event in world history on 8th April 1971.
Who are these Gypsies?
The members of the Congress adopted the term “Roma” for the diverse groups who attended the first meeting. The map indicates the distribution of Romani people throughout Europe.
The Romanichal Gypsies or Travellers in England, South Wales and Scottish Borders, Lowland Scottish Gypsies or Travellers constitute more than one group, known as “gypsies”, who are recorded in Britain as early as the 12th century and in the 16th century. Welsh Kale are extremely closely related to the communities above and to Norwegian & Swedish Romanisæl (Tater) Gypsies or Travellers and Finnish Kale.
European Roma are descended from the same people as British Romany Gypsies and from Central and Eastern Europe. Many of these people have, and continue, to experience persecution and they are refugees and asylum seekers. They are distinct from the UK’s Gypsy community and there is limited interaction between the two.
However, there are other groups who are not shown on the map who are not Roma; Dutch Travellers in Holland, indigenous Norwegian Travellers whose language is “Rodi”and the Minceir in Ireland among others. These are not to be confused with Romani groups in these countries.
Irish Travellers have been involved in the development of the“Roma” struggle but they are not Roma or Romani Gypsies. They are of Celtic descent and speak Cant/Gammon. There is a large established Irish Traveller community living permanently in the UK, some travel from or back to Ireland for part of the year. There is no evidence to support that the origins of the Irish Travellers as displaced settled people during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 1650’s or during the Famines of 1741 or the 1840’s. These theories underpinned the predominant view that they were impoverished settled people who were reduced to an itinerant way of life. The members of the Traveller community know themselves as ‘Pavee’ or ‘Minceir’ or the ‘Travelling People’ ((Irish: an lucht siúil).
The Roma and Sinti were the main targets of genocide by the Nazis during World War II.
What is the purpose of International Traveller and Roma Day?
As on the occasion of the first congress meeting, the day is a celebration of Traveller and Roma culture as the struggle for the civil rights continues. The International Day for Travellers and Roma is about celebrating the culture of these people, our neighbours but it is an opportunity to recognise our neighbours for who they really are and the contribution they make to our wider societies.
Settela Steinbach (1934-1944). Her father was a trader and violinist, her mother ran the household in their wagon. The ‘girl with the headscarf’ became a symbol of the persecution of the Jews. In the early 1990s, a Dutch journalist discovered that she was not Jewish but Sinti.
Jeannie Robertson (1908-1975) was a Scottish Traveller although born in the city, spent much of her youth travelling with her people, and learned many of her songs at their camp-fires.
Contemporary stories are to be celebrated too. According to the Census 2016, there are 31,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland. Thomas McCarthy describes himself as “Irish Traveller, Singer, Story teller” on his website. Also with approximately 5000 Roma living in in the Republic of Ireland. Pavee Point published a Needs Analysis in January 2018 which gives stark information alongside some personal profiles which introduces this community to the wider Irish society.
Are you prepared for the forthcoming elections?
In a recent speech the launch of the Jean Monnet Centre , President Higgins welcomed the Centre’s mission statement is “to re-engage the street and advance a critical debate on the future of Europe”. He added,
A new mind for Europe is required, which requires a casting aside of failing assumptions within inadequate models. It requires new symmetries between the social, the economic, the cultural and the ethical.
This statement applies to more than a new political economy. The election for the presidency was marred by “old thinking” and what the European Parliament has identified as “antigypsyism”. Commenting on a reference paper that aims to build an alliance against antigypsyism , Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Roma Initiatives Office of Open Society Foundations continues the struggle for civil rights saying,
This paper continues the decades-long attempt to describe the centuries-long problem of antigypsyism. It emphasizes the institutional neglect of responsibility to fight it. A next step would be to explore how institutions enforce and grow antigypsyism. Now, when the xenophobic populists threatening the EU are clearly using antigypsyism for electoral gains, the rest of the European politicians cannot afford to keep ignoring it. They must confront it once and for all.
As the elections for local government and the European parliament approach, the International Traveller and Roma Day is an opportunity to get to know our neighbour and learn to become an ally.