Patrick Nevin-Nan Joyce Monologue
Artist: Patrick Nevin
Remembering Nan Joyce, Traveller Rights Activist
By Patrick Nevin
I was ten years old in 1982 when I first heard the name Nan Joyce. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. On the news, on the television and the radio. My mother and father talked about her and so did anyone that arrived at the house. It seemed to me that this Nan Joyce, that everyone was talking about was either some film star or a criminal. But no, I soon discovered that she was a Traveller and the reason that she was all over the news was that she was running in the General Election in 1982.
Looking back now this kind of coverage would be beneficial to the perspective candidate. However, on this occasion it was not. The news was not that Nan was a woman running for election, which was rare enough, no it was that Nan was a Traveller and a Traveller Woman at that. This wasn’t just rare, this had never been done in the history of the Irish settled/sedentary state. Who was this Tinker/Traveller woman? Where did she think she was? Did she really believe for one minute that she would be elected? This was the kind of conversation that I was listening to from my own family and my settled friends. And yes, she didn’t get elected to the Dáil, my parents and their friends were right. But she did get more votes than any other independent candidate, and that was something to give hope.
My parents and their friends were extremely proud of Nan Joyce, but what they were expressing at the time was that it didn’t matter how well or good Nan was as an activist for Traveller rights or human rights, the settled/sedentary constituents were never going to elect her, she wasn’t one of them and the people that she was campaigning on were never seen as part of the Irish state. But that wasn’t the end of Nan Joyce or her efforts to bring the plight of the Traveller community to the powers and the public airwaves to be.
Nan was a woman ahead of her time. She was an agitator, activist, community worker and she knew that if she didn’t take a stand for her community in Tallaght/SDCC against racists, and a State that panders to them, then no one else would. She did all this with just the basic levels of literacy, no resources, no historical political history, no social capitol, no finances. Her resources were a handful of settled/sedentary sympathisers who saw what was happening to Travellers in Ireland since the foundation of the Irish settled/sedentary state. Patricia McCarthy was one of them. She was a dear friend of Nan, and she supported Nan and her fellow Travellers in their endeavours to create a fair and equal Ireland for Travellers. Patricia was there working with Travellers and fighting the good fight long before it became acceptable to talk about equality and racism. She didn’t have to; it didn’t affect her. She chose to get involved, because she believed in true human rights and equality for all.
Over the following years I kept my eyes and ears open and listening to what Nan might be doing and I became more aware of the situation of Travellers in the Irish sedentary/settled state. The unofficial apartheid system that existed. The official cultural erosion policy that existed. The brutal segregation policies that were propagated. The forced assimilation policy that was inforce since the foundation of the state. The destruction of traditional camp sites. The denial of the Traveller language and culture. The attacks on Traveller encampments by State and by vigilantes using the cover of paramilitary groups to instil fear. The State using all its resources to inflict as much cultural destruction as possible, while claiming to be working in the best interests of Travellers.
If Nan was alive today, she would see how the language that was often used against Tinker/Travellers and is now the language used against refugees, asylum seekers, and New Communities to Ireland. Almost forty years after Nan came on to our TV screens and pointed out the brutal treatment of Travellers in Irish society, we are being told racism is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland.
Various social commentators state, ‘this is not who we are as a people, we Irish are a welcoming people,’ One recently upset, worried, horrified high profile leader of Irish society recently felt that there were new traces of racism in Ireland. Nan would laugh at this hypocrisy. This willingness to completely ignore 100 years of ‘othering,’ and anti-Traveller sentiment by the Irish State and its various institutions, well the best one might say it is an insult, the worst one can say is that it was a state sponsored cultural denial and erosion strategy that has created a type of Irish caste system, where the Traveller community are the untouchables.
Nan Joyce and her legacy of fighting for a fair and equal Ireland for Travellers continues today.
Patrick Nevin has been greatly inspired by the Black Civil Rights movement in America, and by people like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Ghandi. But his biggest inspiration was Nan Joyce, the traveller activist and first traveller woman to run for public office. Joyce worked to improve the lives of Irish Travellers across Ireland and suffered great injustices and was not given the respect due to someone running for public office because she was a traveller. Patrick’s own lived experience of racial discrimination and inequality were a big part of inspiring him to do the work that he does today.
In 2017 the Irish state officially recognised Traveller ethnicity. This is an important step however, there is still so much that needs to be done. The travelling community faces structural, social, and legal discrimination. Patrick and the Tallaght Travellers’ Project advocate the rights of travellers every day.
Patrick Nevin is the manager of Tallaght Travellers Community Development Project, a community development and human rights organisation working with travellers in the Tallaght area in South County Dublin, Ireland. He began his career in 1991, working with people with disabilities, but soon transitioned to traveller rights work which he has been working in for the last 20 years.