Those “dirty people” often aren’t: Our lesson from Ireland

In 2015, we were invited to friendly Dublin, Ireland to collaborate on a new project focusing on the social dimensions of water. At the time, Ireland was in the midst of a highly emotional political crisis, because people were outraged that the government had begun to charge households for water. After all, they argued, abundant water fell from the sky for free. We did the round over a week, meeting different groups of researchers at Dublin City University .

One especially interesting conversation was with health scholars Mary Rose Sweeney and Anthony Staines. We got to hear from them about the ambitious All-Ireland Traveller Health Study. Travellers are an indigenous Irish minority ethnic/cultural group living with low social status, poverty, and stigma. The study was the first comprehensive picture of Traveller health. The research study had been well received by the community, who are known for their long history of self-isolation. Some 400 Traveller women acted as peer researchers for the study. Many other participants proudly display their certificates of completion in prominent places in their homes.

Irish Traveller family on the move, 1954

Historically entrepreneurs, Travellers engaged in such activities as mending household items, the sale of recycled items and acquiring old or dead horses for slaughter. Government regulation has forced many out of these lines of work. Discrimination against travelers, such as for jobs and housing, is rife. Studies suggest they experience mistreatment because of their ethnicity at rates five times higher than African-American or Latinos in the U.S. Accordingly, many Travellers families struggling are with both unemployment and poverty. This lack of opportunity and access, combined with the Travellers’ cultural history of nomadism and separateness, means many live off-the-grid in caravans at “halting sites.” Running water, hot water, drainage, refuse and sewage collection are often in short supply. Estimates are that a quarter of Irish Travellers live without basic services.

The mainstream belief that this means that Travellers are “dirty” and “disgusting” drives discrimination against themmaking it is harder for them to make friends, find work, and attend school outside of their community boundaries. They have higher rates of depression too.

But even though many live without running water, Traveller families in fact take great pains to be well-groomed through meticulous personal hygiene and careful dress. And their homes, if typically modest, are also typically scrupulously cleaned with exactly maintained yards and carefully considered home decor.

Alex and Amber at DCU’s entrance in northern Dublin.

The case of the Travellers shows how easily hygiene stigma can label entire groups of people as “dirty” and “disgusting,” and has little to do with how much care they take to be clean. And it worsens the entire community’s access to better services, jobs, education, and quality health care, reinforcing their poverty and poor health.