In lieu of a coda: Irish Travellers in science and society

Sometimes political developments overtake research publications in positive ways. Since my paper discussing the genomic analysis of Irish Travellers and its public presentation in the TV documentary Blood of the Travellers was published online in November 2016, (now just out in print) the Irish government has officially recognised Irish Traveller ethnicity.

When I was writing that paper the ethnic recognition of Irish Traveller ethnicity was still being both recommended and resisted. But the moves towards this official recognition that have been evident over the past year have now come to fruition. In that paper I explore the complex political implications of ideas of genomic and cultural similarity and difference in relation to national belonging. I set the scene for a discussion of the documentary and these wider issues by outlining the then delayed implementation of the parliamentary committee recommendation for ethnic recognition. My opening thus captured a stage in this process that moved forward to the announcement in March 2017 by the then, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, that Irish Travellers are formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group within the State.

This is a hugely positive development and the outcome of a long and hard fought campaign by Irish Travellers. Anti-Traveller attitudes, practices of discrimination and patterns of inequality still persist, but ethnic recognition, as Travellers have long argued, is immensely important for Traveller pride, agency and identity, and for fostering wider social change.

There has been another notable development in the entangled culture, politics and science of exploring ethnic origins via genomics that I address in my paper. This is less a significant shift in a longer process towards a policy change and more of the full working through and publication of already previewed preliminary research. The genomic analysis of the genetic similarity and difference of Irish Travellers to the wider Irish population that was presented initially in the Blood of the Travellers was published as a scientific paper in February 2017. Though this is a much fuller report on the data and analysis its conclusions and the wider issues it raises are not new.

The authors argue that their analysis of the patterns of variation among what they described as their Irish Traveller, European Roma, settled Irish, British, European or world-wide samples, suggest that Irish Travellers are not genetically linked to European Roma. The preliminary analysis presented in the Blood of the Travellers is confirmed in their results: Irish Travellers have an Irish ancestral origin but became a distinct group in Ireland before the Irish Famine of the 1840s. But the paper is also more direct in terms of its account of genetic sub-groups among Irish Travellers. These, the authors argue, reflect different sociolinguistic groups among Travellers. They also identify several Irish Travellers among their sample with settled Irish and British ancestry.

These ‘genomic insights’ are, as usual, presented as contributing to biomedicine and social history. However, and also as usual, they raise complex issues that I explore more fully in considering the Blood of the Travellers documentary. They include the potency of scientific accounts of origins and ethnic difference in relation to the wider politics of national belonging; the delicate relationship between the potential insight offered by genomic accounts of origins for a minority ethnic but indigenous group, and the effect of displacing or devaluing existing cultural and social accounts of Traveller history; the problem of defining group identity through genomic similarity even if shared ancestry is an important but more fluid marker of shared identity; the risks of defining groups and sub-groups genetically while also, unsurprisingly, finding evidence of mixed ancestries, in terms of who is defined genetically and socially as belonging or not belonging in those groups.

Genomic accounts of difference and similarity can be used in different ways, both to affirm and demean difference, or to celebrate sameness and deny ethnic difference. But this does not absolve scientists, or those that disseminate and deploy their work, from responsibility for their contribution to the problem of defining belonging in terms of shared ancestry both within minority ethnic groups and within the nation.