Review: Sindy Joyce and Thomas McCarthy on Irish Traveller Culture, Atchin Tan, Glastonbury Festival 2023

Found in the Theatre And Circus field, Atchin Tan, Romanes for ‘The Stopping Place’ is named after the now virtually non-existent traditional stopping places across the country, where Gypsies and Travellers would stop to rest for a few days.

The Atchin Tan is the focal point for a Traveller Awareness Campaign, where there are living examples of Travellers’ moving homes – a horse-drawn wagon, Romany caravan, Traveller truck and more – as well as talks, music, storytelling and an information tent. In its second year at the festival, Atchin Tan is running a series of Fireside Conversations, although this one is held not around the fire but inside a small tent due to the challenging sound bleed from The Gateway stage opposite the area.

The Human Rights Defender (HRD), sociologist and member of President Michael D Higgins Council of State, Dr Sindy Joyce and Thomas McCarthy, the singer and storyteller, sit down to talk about Irish Traveller Culture. Both are members of the Irish Travelling community and their discussion provides an incredibly insightful look at the culture of the community. It feels a shame that taking place huddled in a small tent – there are big things here that deserve a bigger platform, which feels part of the points Joyce and McCarthy make.

Joyce and McCarthy are perfectly paired in the conversation; Joyce’s cool analysis of the facts and deconstruction of false narratives sit alongside McCarthy’s passionate and sometimes emotional recounting of his experiences. It is no wonder that he says, ‘It wears you down, it gets to you’ – you can see why.

Some of the conversation is genuinely shocking, with the audience audibly reacting to those moments. Six out of ten stopping sites have no running water while over 69 million of funding earmarked for Traveller housing went unspent in Ireland. Joyce tells us that is not a one-off, and the problem is that in the Irish political system, there are more people who are anti-Traveller than are pro-Traveller.

McCarthy describes the experiences of what he categorises as apartheid – schools he has visited as a storyteller only to find Travellers segregated. McCarthy says that to an Englishman his house is his castle but to a Traveller it is just four walls. The relation with the land is different – while in Ireland land is something to own to a Traveller it is important but in a different.

For Irish Travellers who aren’t religious songs are like prayers, McCarthy says and when the conversation has ended McCarthy performs a stunning sean nos version of Green Brooms to bring the session to a close. It is a beautiful end – and while the audience has been moved, it has also been left with problems to grapple with and a call to arms from Joyce and McCarthy ringing in their ears.

Sindy Joyce and Thomas McCarthy on Irish Traveller Culture was at Glastonbury Festival 2023

*This article was updated on 29 June to correct the reference to unspent funding.