Anyone old enough to have swung on ‘Beaver’s Boats’ in the late 40s/early 50s around Dublin and Dalkey in the South of Ireland, might still remembered the dark skinned couple, Maree and Patrick (known as Beaver) who owned and operated the beautifully carved and painted swingboat ride. They might also remember the scruffy, cheeky blonde kid on the bike. That was me.
Dad was a traveller, born and bred. He was a respected man among the Roma, with whom he had ties. My mum, on the other hand, was not born on the road nor was she Rom, but she looked the part with her black hair and olive skin. They had one child, and she was as blonde and blue eyed as Cinderella. The eyes later took on a green shade, the hair darkened, but in infancy she could easily have passed for one of those ‘blonde angels’ the gypsies are said to be always stealing.
However, I was a little blonde traveller and no angel. I hated wearing shoes so I stuffed the new pair mum insisted that I wear under a bush before we moved on. They were never found. I turned a brand new toy pram into a lumber wagon. I tried to escape to Narnia in a wardrobe and tipped it over (before I’d even read the books!). No one ever accused my parents of stealing me – for one thing, I was such a little monster that I could only be a traveller child in general opinion, and ‘blonde angels’ are ten a penny in Ireland. There’s no profit in stealing one when anyone can make one. Those vikings made sure no DNA went unblonded.
Of course I heard the stories. “My mum said I shouldn’t play with you because you steal children away.” My reaction to that was always, “Why? Who’d want you?” Our adults didn’t steal children, but they rarely got out of town without having to pluck their own kids out of a donnybrook with the locals. “Dirty Gypsy” was mild compared to some of the insults thrown our way. Even in my early 20s, sauntering down the road in my best coat and heels, I was accosted by a girl who spat at me and called me ‘dirty gypsy’ because she’d seen me coming out of the traveller camp.
What to make of that? I never understood it. I could read and write, I earned my own living, I was mad about clothes (although I would never have dressed like those girls on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, my dad would have killed me. But I do remember we faced a lot of prejudice and the silly myths that we had to contend with – like stealing children. Among the Rom, and many travellers, the bottom line rule was that no child would go homeless or unloved. If tragedy took one or both parents, or a struggling single mother couldn’t go on raising her child, someone else would take care of it.
Yeah, they bent the rules. They never bothered telling ‘the authorities’ who would just have taken the orphaned or abandoned children away from everything and everyone they knew and loved . The authorities never understood that the tribe simply cannot relinquish its young. It goes against every deepest instinct, which are to protect the children and keep the families together. But neither were they so jealous of ‘blonde angels’ that they just had to possess them. They had plenty of kids of their own, both dark and fair
It’s been hard to watch the hysteria building up over Maria and the Irish children, because I was little blonde gypsy too. And I’m not the only one. It showed me that these old racist views have not gone away, they have simply become buried in the psych, and all it takes is a scratch to have it erupt again, like a boil, all over the innocent. It is still there, the stupid fear drummed into settled children, “Be good or the Gypsies will take you away.”
Is that really the only weapon they could think of to discipline their children? As a card carrying little mischief maker, I was treated with amused tolerance or made to make reparation for any damage or upset my mischief caused. No one ever threatened me that ‘the authorities’ would take me away, even though that was far more likely. Shoulder to shoulder, man to man and woman to woman, that would never have been allowed to happen. Travellers and Rom love their children, and the children of their sisters and brothers of the tribe. What happened in Greece and Ireland will take a long time to heal for those families. It truly is their worst nightmare.