The hardest word
It tells about the civil activity of Jess Smith, a writer, poet, and storyteller belonging to the Gypsy Traveler community in Scotland. The goal that Jess sets for herself is nothing less than to demand the country’s first minister to apologize for the long centuries of persecution that Travelers had to suffer.
The monodrama displays both the vulnerability and the firm character of Jess. From her confession, we learn what challenges she must face while fighting steadily for her goals – against her own family, the society or the authority. Sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to maintain our dignity, she believes.
|Writer:||Richard R. O’Neill|
|Translator of the Hungarian version:||Viktória Kondi|
|Premiered:||2017 in Studio K Theatre, Budapest Hungary
(The play written by Richard R. O’Neill was first presented in 2008 in Leeds, UK with Jess Smith as performer and storyteller)
The first minister of Scotland between 2007-2014 was Alex Salmond. Jess Smith – Scottish Traveler writer and storyteller - planned to ask him for an apology. However, Richard O’Neill suggested her to do a performance about this intention instead of real-life action – as it can have a bigger impact. The play was written for this purpose. The Church of Scotland got involved in the issue when one of the priests attended the performance – this encounter was influential in the church’s approach and a first step to deal with this topic. Although the state or the first minister did not apologize, the Church of Scotland did so on 25 May 2012 and started to ensure social services for Traveler minority members. So, this play had a relevant impact on society.
It is unclear where Travelers originate from. Presumably, Traveler communities arrived in Scotland in the 12th century and since that time, they have been travelling in other parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as in Europe. Amongst the possible countries of origin, there is India, Egypt (the word Gypsy comes from Egyptian) and Hungary. Scottish Travelers traditionally speak the ‘cant’ language, a mixture of Romani, Scottish Gael and English spoken in Scotland.
According to the 2008 census of the Church of Scotland, there are 1500 Travelers living in Scotland; however, this is unlikely to be an accurate number. Travelers themselves estimate the Scottish Traveler community to be about 20 000 persons. Another survey conducted in 2000 claims that 61% of the respondents had experienced some form of discrimination during the previous year.
Only a few facts are known about the historical situation of Travelers in Scotland, though it is clear that they were discriminated against even in the Middle Ages: in 1533 King James V issued a decree banning Gypsies from Scotland.
One of the main aims of the Scottish government in the 19th century was to settle the traditionally travelling Gypsies. In 1838, the Church of Scotland tried to teach Travelers how to lead a ‘normal’ life. In the early 20th century, special, segregated schools were created for Traveler children, for example Aldour Tinker School near Pitlorchry, Perthshire. In the 1930s, 40s, 50s, the school- age children who did not go to school were separated from their families and sent to Australia or Canada. The change came in the 70s when the Church of Scotland began to promote the Traveler children’s access to education.
For understanding the situation better, it might be useful to say a few words about the difficulties of travelling life. Travelling, as a way of life, results in difficulties concerning education, healthcare, religion, banking or even voting. The state may choose between two options to overcome these problems, one of which is the above-mentioned assimilation.
The other, more positive alternative is to adopt state services to the existing culture and lifestyle instead of trying to change the community. For example, in the field of education, the Scottish Travelers Education Project may show a successful alternative: here the teachers go to the campsites of the Travelers and teach basic subjects to the children. Similarly, it was a good decision when in 1982, the Church of Scotland appointed a Traveler deaconess to the community. She worked in this position until 1998, but since that time, the community has had no religious leader.
After the Second World War, the most common Traveler jobs included fruit picking, fishing, and repairing various objects. Nowadays, Travelers often work at construction and farms.
Between 1987-1991, several regulations banned Gypsy camps from certain areas. The Traveler communities are entitled to stay only at specific sites, even though according to EJEE they shouldn’t be expelled from illegal encampments as it forms an integral part of their culture. Although local authorities maintain sites, usually, they are in very bad condition. For all these reasons, a significant proportion of the Travelers have settled or travel much less nowadays.
In 2011, the Racial Justice Group of the Church of Scotland issued a report in which they recognized the centuries- long persecution of the Travelers and the responsibility of the members of the church as individuals as they discriminated against Travelers or did not prevent others to do so. However, the Church refused the existence of institutionalized discrimination. In its report, the Church of Scotland claims to support the state recognition of Scottish Travelers as ethnic minority, and calls for more government support concerning the conservation of Traveler lifestyle and culture, improvement in the quality and accessibility of services for Travelers, among others to overcome the difficulties Travelers face when it comes to voting.
The situation of Scottish Travelers is the least positive within the UK, as both Wales and England recognized Travelers as ethnic minorities, which wasn’t the case in Scotland. In 2009, in its Racial Equality Statement, the Scottish government claims to treat Travelers as an ethnic minority even if it cannot alter the legislation. At the same time, in 2008, in the UK MacLennan vs. Gypsy Traveler Education and Information Project the court made a precedent setting decision. McLennan, a non-Traveler social worker was an employee of GTEIP and was dismissed for representing the Travelers interests against his employers’.
Aberdeen Court in its decision claimed that Travelers are an ethnic minority and as such protected under Race Relations Act (1976). In the census of 2011, Travelers were included amongst ethnic minorities for the first time. Equality Act (2010) also states that Travelers are ethnic minority and guarantees equal opportunities for them; however, their legal recognition is not complete yet.
‘… when we take part in a social experience, where we watch something together with strangers, we become active in reception forming our opinion and communication, too.’Elteonline.hu
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