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President launches new exhibition exploring Traveller life and traditions

Travellers’ Journey is the NMI’s most significant exhibition to date focussed on Traveller culture and has been co-curated with Traveller organisations in the west of Ireland.


Singer Bernard Lawrence performed for President Higgins and Sabina Higgins at the launch of Travellers' Journey. Photo: Keith Heneghan

A new exhibition exploring Traveller life and traditions in the west of Ireland has opened at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) - Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, County Mayo.

Travellers’ Journey is the NMI’s most significant exhibition to date focussed on Traveller culture and has been co-curated with Traveller organisations in the west of Ireland.

President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, a long-time advocate for Travellers’ rights and distinct ethnic minority status, performed the official opening in Turlough Park on Tuesday afternoon (July 10th).

Travellers’ Journey features objects, images and films that explore various elements of Traveller life, including craft and skills, home and nomadism, faith, belief and language.

Tinsmith made objects in the new temporary exhibition Travellers' Journey. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Some of the key objects on display include a jacket worn by boxer Francis Barrett at the 1996 Summer Olympics; a model barrel top wagon; a tie belonging to Martin Ward, Tuam’s first Traveller mayor;  beady pockets traditionally worn by Traveller women; and artworks by Leeane McDonagh.

The exhibition space itself has been architecturally designed to evoke a sense of journeying into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar, with dark exterior passageways leading to subtly illuminated internal compartments containing the exhibits. The graphics are strongly people-focussed to bring an added sense of intimacy to the exhibition.
President Higgins viewing Travellers' Journey with curator Rosa Meehan at the official launch on Tuesday. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Speaking at the launch, President Higgins described the exhibition as a celebration of the "unique culture of the Traveller community and the role that culture has played in the shared memory of a nation."

"We see the tools used to repair essential household objects, the flowers and craftwork sold from door to door, the pipes and fiddles that brought music and dance into homes across the country, the barrel top caravans which were once such a familiar sight on Irish roads, facilitating the nomadic lifestyle of the travelling community, many of whom offered seasonal labour to grateful farmers.

"We see, all around us, material reminders of a time when travellers were welcomed into the homes of Ireland, their culture respected, their talents appreciated," said President Higgins.

"This exhibition is a great celebration of Traveller heritage, but it is also a sobering reminder of how far we strayed from that time when members of the Travelling community were distinct but equal members of Irish society.

"Today, as we honour and mark the Travelling community’s journey let us resolve that it will, in future, be a shared journey for all Irish citizens during which we will ensure that none are excluded, denied a voice in society or access to vital services or exposed to unfair and ill-informed prejudice or discrimination."

Welcoming the new exhibition, Director of the NMI, Lynn Scarff said "diversity and accessibility" is a key value of the NMI.

"Through our programming, we seek to emphasise and explore the richness of Irish life across cultures and ethnicities," explained Ms Scarff.

“We wish to thank our curatorial partners in the Traveller community who have worked collaboratively with our team to bring this important exhibition to life," she continued. 

Director of the NMI Lynn Scarff (left) and chair of the board of the museum, Catherine Heaney, welcome President Higgins to Turlough Park. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Representing the co-curators of the exhibition, Kathleen Ward, of the Western Regional Traveller Health Network, said it was "a very proud day" to see ordinary Traveller life, cultures and traditions represented in the National Museum of Ireland.

Representing the co-curators of Travellers' Journey, Kathleen Ward of the Western Regional Traveller Health Network, makes a presentation to President Higgins and Sabina Higgins. Photo: Keith Heneghan

“We hope this exhibition provides an opportunity for the whole community - not just the Traveller community - to engage with and celebrate this history," said Ms Ward. 

"It took a long time for Travellers to be recognised as a distinct ethnic minority in Ireland so we are playing catch up in many ways but this is a huge step in the right direction in bringing about positive change in the visibility of Traveller culture and how it is viewed and appreciated.”

Rosa Meehan, NMI curator of the exhibiton said Travellers' Journey is the NMI’s first major exhibition on Traveller culture.

"It is a very timely project, coming just over a year since the State’s acknowledgment of Traveller ethnicity," said Ms Meehan.

"The exhibition celebrates the unique experiences of Ireland’s largest indigenous ethnic group and offers a space for Travellers and non-Travellers alike to explore the shared history, language and value system of Traveller culture, with a particular focus on Traveller life and traditions in the West of Ireland."

The exhibition continues until May 2019.