Dale Farm: Who are these blokes?

By Grattan Puxon

The bloke who wanted to tear down our community centre and chapel at Dale Farm as an illegal structure is up in court now as an alleged thief and liar, one of four parliamentarians so far charged in Britain’s current furore that could see some Westminster politicians go to jail.

But then Lord Hanningfield, until this week Opposition spokesman for local government and leader of Essex County council, is an anti-Traveller Tory. Baron Hanningfield of Chelmsford had been the Queen’s Deputy Lieutenant of the county when in 2004 bailiffs and riot police stormed the Meadowlands caravan park, burning homes and evicting Travellers onto the road in freezing winter weather.

Hanningfield is presently charged with making thousands of pounds worth of false claims for overnight accommodation while allegedly being chauffer-driven home from parliament.

Yet he was furious when Essex Racial Equality Council helped Dale Farm obtain a first-ever grant and vowed he would undo the deal. He succeeded in barring Traveller Education Service teachers from stepping foot inside St Christopher’s community centre after they had been invited to tutor children there.

However, Travellers continue to use the log cabin centre and remain in residence on their land at Dale Farm, though still under imminent threat of a massive eviction operation by Basildon council, employing Constant, the notorious hard-hat bailiffs, who specialize in the ethnic cleansing of Gypsies.

Like most of his colleagues, Hanningfield has little notion of what is at stake at Dale Farm; nor that the Minceir, as Travellers are called in their own language, define themselves as a distinct ethnic group, a people separate from the settled population. Recent genetic studies have identified mutations among Minceir that are rare in the rest of the Irish population, suggesting possible descent from ancestors whose roots probably predated the arrival of the Celtic tribes.

As to Minceir language, many of its word-stems, including bloke, replaced by feen since that word was adopted into English, have been traced to Old Irish. But others, so far defying etymological analysis, could belong to an otherwise lost pre-Celtic tongue that has been partially preserved in Minceirtoiree.   Despite this evidence, Irish law continues to define the Minceir only as a social group while English law recognizes them as an ethnic group. The reason may be largely political as even nonTraveller supporters claim they could win more friends as Irish folk who took to the road in the Famine than as itinerant outsiders. For the moment this has created an unsatisfactory trade off between unachieved social acceptance and a growing aspiration to be recognized for whom they truly are. In an increasingly multi-ethnic Ireland, it’s hoped that full recognition will come soon rather than later.

Minceir Whidden and the earlier Minceir Misli have pointed out that nomadism, the most obvious characteristic of the Traveller culture, is much older than the sedentary way of life. At least one writer on Irish history, Owen McNeill, maintains that Travellers are the direct descendants of metal -workers who flourished in early Celtic and pre-Celtic times. Certainly, Irish myths and legends speak of a separate people who lived in bender-tents, as did modern Minceir up to the l960s.

Horse-drawn wagons and later trailer caravans replaced the pre-historic benders, and mobile-homes and chalets are the preferred habitat of today’s Travellers. These are the homes being defended at Dale Farm. But more than their homes, blokes like Richard Sheridan, as spokesman for the biggest Minceir community in Britain, are making a determined stand, as did their grandparents, for the right of the Minceir, now believed to number 100,00 in Britain and Ireland, and increasingly scattered across Europe and North America, to preserve an ethos that is all their own.

They fear that if not determinedly defended their culture is in danger of being undermined, if not destroyed, by gammy feens like Lord Hanningfield and local MP John Baron, another parliamentarian in trouble over large expense claims involving a house built in the greenbelt. A brutal ethnic cleansing is the immediate threat; longer-term erosion could come from forced conformity and assimilation.

9 February 2010

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