Family, freedom, fights and fear.
Roma and Traveller prisoners in Wales have described their lives, traditions and culture for the first time in a book hailed as the “finest book of Traveller lives” ever told by Travellers .
“On Road” describes hunting animals, looking for work, horse fairs and the strict ban on sex before marriage, among other things.
Inmates reveal their experiences
The joy of living outside is described alongside prejudice from people including police, teachers and landowners.
The writers, all going under first names only, are inmates, or recently released from G4S-run HMP Parc.
Billy describes an idyllic childhood travelling.
“How can I describe it for you non-travellers to understand? Imagine changing your back garden every few weeks. I liked to explore, as most kids do, and I loved finding something new every time I went out to play,” he writes.
Martin, who came to Cardiff “the day Princess Diana died” recalls growing up with a darker side when he was segregated at a school.
“We were living in Belfast. The year was 1987 and I was about seven or eight years old. It was the first time I went to school. I remember thinking it was really cool because the teacher decided on one class for the travellers and I would get to be with my brothers, sisters and cousins.
“Now I’m an adult I look back at that time and realise there was nothing cool about it. It was actually my first introduction to discrimination.”
‘Very strict rules’ over sex before marriage
Describing the “very strict rules” against sex before marriage in the Gypsy community he goes on: “Young men and girls are not allowed to be alone with each other before marriage. This is how it is. It is considered disrespectful to even talk about any sexual nature.”
The writers describe how the honour culture of fighting is used to settle disputes and how some are amateur fighters.
Paddy, who boxed from childhood, writes: “I’ve had amateur fights in Wales, 20 matches altogether at middleweight. I’ve had five wins by points,10 knock-outs and five defeats against me.
“We have always been taught by the King Traveller of the families, always to shake hands after a fight and never hold grudges.”
Anthony describes violence from the police in the 1960s and how gypsy and traveller children were warned to beware the “gorjas” (non-gypsies) when he grew up in the 1970s, because the authorities sometimes took them into care just for being travellers.
Renovated a historic wooden Gypsy caravan
“We were led to believe gorjas were bad people that would take us away – just like gorjas parents would say to their kids – the gypsies will rob and take you away if you are naughty – our parents would say the same about gorjas.”
The book describes how one gypsy renovated a historic wooden Gypsy caravan for a council worker whose family had given up life on the road generations ago, attending horse fairs and waking up to eggs and bacon sizzling on an outdoor fire as well as telling how a fear and mistrust of authority is in-built after a history of prejudice.
Dr Conn Mac Gabhann, manager for the Traveller Equality Project at the Irish Chaplaincy of Britain, writes in the foreword that it is “the finest collection of Traveller lives told by Travellers”.
The book was compiled by prisoners with help from Parc’s Community lead Phil Forder as part of the prisons Hay in the Parc literary festival run for the last eight years to coincide with the Hay festival .
* On Road can be read online or down loaded here