Photographer Mary Turner has spent years documenting a tightknit, reclusive community of Irish Travellers. Fueled by curiosity about how they were living their lives, she continues to document them to this day. Turner recounted her experience working on the project to In Sight below.
On Oct. 19, 2011, the British government began the mass eviction of 86 families of Irish Traveller heritage from their homes on a former scrap yard known as Dale Farm in Southeast England. Although the Travellers owned the land, the surrounding community would not tolerate their presence, and after a long legal battle they were eventually refused government permission to stay. The result was the largest eviction in U.K. history.
On a bleak day in January 2009, I first approached the disputed site in Essex. The site had long been the subject of a land dispute between the Traveller families, the Sheridans, who were living on the converted scrap yard, and Basildon Council. As it was not far from where I grew up, I decided to go along and see if I could meet the families and perhaps come away with a few photographs.
Looking back, it was as ignominious a start as I could possibly have hoped to make. I parked my car at the end of the winding, potholed road to the site and walked nervously up to the first lane of trailers. I stood in the rain and looked around at row upon row of closed trailer doors, a small group of children playing with stones in a yard and an elderly man eyeballing me as I tried to look casually as though I belonged there. Within less than 10 minutes, I was retreating hastily to my car followed furiously by a pack of possessed dogs. By the time I got home, I had promised myself I was never going back to Dale Farm.
But I did go back. Again and again. And over the next few years, that scene was to become as familiar to me as my own home.
It was a long road getting to know the deeply private families at Dale Farm. With good reason, they are deeply mistrustful of the settled community, especially those carrying cameras or notebooks. So for months my camera lay untouched as I sat in their busy trailers drinking tea, reading letters for the largely illiterate community, helping to make doctor’s appointments and decoding complex eviction notices from the local council.
But somewhere along the line, I was fortunate enough to meet Barbara and Jean Sheridan, two extraordinary women who have allowed me to document their lives and that of their families as they grow up.
Gradually, as the weeks turned into months, the Dale Farm Travellers stopped being my subjects and became my friends, and the minutiae of their everyday lives lost its novelty and became part of the fabric of my own life. I will never be able to speak for them as a Traveller, but as our lives have become peculiarly entwined, I have taken part in and photographed their eviction, communions, weddings, hope, grief and happiness.
There have been countless moments that you could not make up — the day they tried to get me to buy a Shetland pony on the Internet, the day they did my makeup “Traveller style.” It has never been less than entertaining.
I have been witness to the gradual introduction of more regular schooling, cellphones and the use of the Internet and Facebook into the lives of a largely illiterate community. These things are beginning to change their lives forever.
Although the eviction of Dale Farm reached its peak over a period of a few months in 2011, it was in fact the culmination of years of legal argument and a long battle over the property. The first Irish Travellers had moved onto the site in the early 2000s when they bought the yards from its owner, Raymond Bocking, who was running a scrap yard on the site for the Basildon Council.
Within a short time, more Sheridan family members arrived, thinking they had found a place to stay with their family members. But the surrounding settled community was becoming increasingly unhappy with the presence of a large number of Travellers living nearby. Gradually, over the years, the local people and the Sheridan families of Dale Farm became embroiled in the bitter battle that led, ultimately, to the devastating mass eviction in October and November 2011.
As eviction loomed, the deeply private community became a media sensation, with journalists arriving from all over the world to see it. As the Travellers’ final summer on the site turned to autumn, a group of young activists determined to halt the eviction set up a camp on the site, with eager journalists trying to infiltrate the group and find out its battle plans.
Meanwhile the Sheridans tried to get on with their lives. They are the most resilient people I have ever known. Although they were not used to such attention or such unusual people on their doorstep, and were nervous about the publicity, they welcomed the activists and their support. In private, though, they confessed that it all seemed a bit strange. They called them “the hippies people” as they watched them pitching tents and singing around campfires.
On Oct. 19, 2011, the eviction began at 5 a.m. Riot police poured down the hill behind the site and broke through the activists’ meager defenses within minutes, and then into Dale Farm. Photographers and camera crews rushed to the site as the Travellers opened the doors of their trailers in their pajamas and started to watch the destruction of their homes. I can still hear Nora’s voice as, pushed up against their long riot shields, she shouted over and over: “My home, this is my home; get away from my home.” And tiny Michelle Sheridan standing in her dressing gown in front of a group of riot police, their helmets and shields assembled, mobbed by news photographers, and saying through her tears, “You young men should all be ashamed of yourselves; your mothers would be ashamed of you all.”
The eviction of Dale Farm had begun. Over the coming days and weeks, police were a constant presence at the site. Bailiffs patrolled the yards and dug up the land around us. I stood and watched as Jeany’s mobile home, where her family had known so many happy times and where I had taken the first photograph that I was remotely happy with, way back in 2009, was loaded up onto a pickup truck and taken away to be disposed of. By the end of November 2011, there was nothing left of Dale Farm.
After Dale Farm
It seemed back in 2011 that no one believed the Dale Farm families really had nowhere else to go. But I knew them, as I know them now, and I have seen that this is the reality of their situation as the years pass.
In the first few weeks after the eviction, the Travellers pulled their trailers onto the road outside their old home and began attaching generators to get them through the winter. A year on, most were still there, parked on the potholed lane I had first run down years ago, chased by a pack of dogs.
Barbara and her small family are still there to this day. Sometimes when there is space in a family member’s yard on the legal side at the front of Dale Farm, which always existed, she is able to rent what they call a “camping closet” there, a yard to park her trailer on for a while.
Barbara is fortunate in this respect, at least. It means that her three sons, John, Richard and Dennis, still attend Crays Hill school, just down the road from Dale Farm. But for Jean, who had to move on, this was not the case.
Jean and her children, like many of the families, eventually decided that they could not live on the road at Dale Farm forever and set out to try to find permanent places to stay.
It is neither practical nor legal for modern Travellers to live permanently on the roadside. Jean talks constantly of how she wants her children to be educated. In 2011, she spoke to me about her hopes for her children’s future.
“I grew up on the side of the road. But I want for my Viviana what I hadn’t got. I want her to learn how to read and write. There is no such thing as living on the side of the road anymore. It’s different. Everything is Internets now and computers and texting, and everything like that. In probably another 10 years down the line, it’s going to be even more advanced. Everything is going to be computers and chips and that sort of thing. So you can’t live on the road. You’ve got to look into things from your children’s point of view.”
But Jean’s children — Viviana, John (“Button”), Richard and David — have been forced to do precisely that. Jean has never found anywhere permanent for her small family to live, and every couple of weeks she is forced to look for new places to stop. She and her family are traveling in France, where I have plans to visit them in the coming months to see the children who I have known for so long, and who are now becoming adults.
Staying with them on their journey around the United Kingdom or in temporarily rented yards, constantly hawking for work and looking for a place where they might be at last able to stay, I have witnessed firsthand their struggle.
Barbara once told me: “We learned to live with prejudice long ago; that’s part of our life. We’ve been prejudiced against, no one wanted us all our lives and that’s it. ‘Gypsies on the side of the road! Pikeys on the end of the street! Move ’em on.’ We take prejudice as a compliment.”
I’m not sure I really understood it until after the eviction from Dale Farm. Now, I have overheard prejudicial talk in local pubs, been turned away with them and eyeballed in public places, and felt the humiliation as police arrive in the lay-bys and public parks to explain that they are sorry, but that after a week more the families will have to move on. It is a constantly uneasy life.
But I have also been witness to what was always, to me, the important story of the Dale Farm Travellers. Not the eviction, but the warmth and humanity of this unique community, what we have in common and not what separates us. When I have felt like an outsider in my own world, the routinely ostracized Dale Farm families have shown me rare friendship and kindness. When I have been flat broke and moved into a new and shabby flat, they brought me a new duvet, pans and a kettle, and when I need a laugh, there is quite simply no one better to be with.
As I watch the children from Dale Farm grow up and away from the trauma of their eviction and face the challenges of Traveller life in the fast-moving modern world, my photographs are becoming an extensive archive of the lives of this much-derided community and, for me personally, a document of friendships that have changed my life.
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