The TV programme My big fat gypsy wedding made me cringe. We cared for a large community of travelling people for many years and I felt embarrassed on their behalf. Some traveller women I spoke to felt let down by these programmes. The cold documentary eye made the lavish weddings and extraordinary dresses look absurd. They were betrayed by subtle ridicule. Was this appropriate? Did they really appreciate how they would be portrayed?
Yes, they are different. They have a very different background, history, and culture. Isolated in society they live a parallel existence, insulted, excluded, and subject to prejudice. Both mysterious and mischievous, they live life by different rules. Resilient and resourceful, I once bumped into some of my traveller patients in Berlin. They were laying tarmac, negotiating their price with the aid of a recorded message in German on a dictaphone.
The womenfolk deserve our admiration. As young girls they are bright, enthusiastic, and energetic. They attend school more than the boys but leave early and marry young. They socialise separately, and have a strong family bond. There is no sex before marriage – they live to a strict moral code. After marriage, their lives change dramatically. They are expected to support their men whatever- through ill health, alcoholism, or prison, and to move around the country where the men find work. In the past they were forbidden to use contraception and had large families. Those brave enough to take the pill had to hide it from their husbands.
When I used to visit their trailers (caravans), they were spotless even on mucky, wet sites in the middle of winter. Looking after a sick child is a challenge for any mother- try looking after a sick three year old (and two younger siblings) in a small damp trailer with no running water. These heroic young women aged before their time. Trying to access GP service was difficult too. With no permanent address, registration was a problem. Many had very basic literacy, they often didn’t know their date of birth or those of the children, and the postal service was intermittent so immunisation and recall was patchy. Multiple health problems, genetic diseases and poor life expectancy. They have a very tough life.
Fewer live in trailers now, most are settled in houses and, in many ways, life is better. But drugs are a problem and violence is increasing. Isn’t it ironic that, as they integrate with settled people, they lose the most valuable parts of their own culture and heritage and gain the worst parts of our’s? Yet, it is the women who continue beat the brunt of hardship. For many young girls, their wedding is the only opportunity to believe in fairytales.
Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ