Shuttle Knit began when Sister Catriona Geraghty invited Traveller women into her home in the Ballyguile council estate in Wicklow in the mid-1990s. This group identified a need for training and development opportunities for Traveller women in the area. They developed and received EU funding for training. From this experience, Shuttle Knit was founded by a partnership of Traveller and settled women as a Company Limited by Guarantee, with a board of directors, in 2001.
“We, Traveller Women, have many skills, like knitting and sewing. We learned to knit from our mothers and grandmothers, and continue to do so today, although now with hand machines.”
Travellers, like other nomadic people across Europe, have faced centuries of personal and systemic discrimination. Government policies have always tried to ‘settle’ them, effectively disregarding and criminalising their culture and way of life. These policies have had adverse effects on their lives. The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010 found that only 4.8% of Travellers in the Republic of Ireland were employed or self-employed. Nine out of 10 employers said they would not hire a Traveller. One in three Traveller women (32.7%) are solely responsible for looking after the home and family, nearly twice the rate of the general population. Now, in Ireland, 50% of Travellers do not live beyond the age of 39. It was not always like this.
Traditionally, Traveller women worked within the Traveller economy as part of the family unit involved in income generation. This included selling door to door and at markets, fairs etc. however recent legislation (e.g. the causal trading act 1995 & the Market Trading Act) has seen this severely in decline with little or no other opportunities within the labour market replacing it. This has left many Traveller women unemployed and living on social welfare.
“I love seeing someone wearing a shawl that we make. I am proud of being a Traveller, but I don’t want to advertise it either. It’s hard.”
Shuttle Knit employs 12 women knitters part-time and 2 job sharing Managers. These staffing positions are part-funded by the Government (Department of Rural and Community Development through Pobal’s Community Services Programme). Employees are part of the local Travelling Community in Wicklow, and in some cases from the same family (two mother-daughter pairs). We are very fortunate to be located in the CEART building in Wicklow, which is owned by Wicklow Travellers Group. CEART means ‘correct’ or ‘right’, and also refers to a cart or wagon, and the building is in the shape of a wagon wheel. CEART also stands for Centre for Equality and Resource for Travellers. The location is very much part of the community, and thus feels like a ‘safe space’ where everyone is welcome.
In March 2017, the Irish Government officially recognised Travellers as an ethnic minority, and thus protected from discrimination according to human rights law, at least in principle. In 2019, the Irish Government set up a Joint Oireachtas Committee and issued a report on “Key Issues Affecting the Travelling Community”. And in 2020, Senator Eileen Flynn became the first Traveller to serve in the Irish government.