I arrived to Belfast, Northern Ireland for the first time in 1982. My home was with a large Catholic family, the Groves, in Andersonstown, a working-class housing estate with strong community politics. I was a young photojournalist who really hadn’t a clue as to the depth of the sectarian struggle or history of Ireland. It took a week of persuasion on my part to convince them that I was indeed worthy of their patience and love.
Just a couple of streets up from the Grove’s house, along the side of the road was a cluster of caravans surrounded by rubbish, dogs and piles of scrap metal. Thick black smoke billowed above the campsite. Young girls and boys collected water in plastic buckets from open taps near the road. My friends explained to me that they were “Travellers” or gypsies and warned me to stay away. “They’ll take your cameras off you,” they said.
On a cold, drizzling Belfast day in May 1988, I defied the warnings, crossed the road and entered this foreign place. I first approached a group of three women sitting outside a caravan. Our mutual curiosity instantly connected us. We fell into a cautious, but none-the-less, rapid-fire conversation about who I was and why I was there. Immediately, I was surrounded by children and a barrage of questions. Even after 20 years of knowing the Travellers still strike me as poignant, humorous and annoying. “Have you met any movie stars?” “Do you believe in God?” “How much did you pay for your jeans?” “Are there cowboys and Indians in America?” “Do you know John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Dean Martin, Julia Roberts?” “Is Elvis alive?” “Are you married?”
One of the Traveller women in the widening crowd was gesturing for me to follow her. Her name was Hannah. She was married at 14-years-old to John Gavin and they have seven living children. Throughout our visit, which lasted hours, I met them all – John, Mag, Francie, Rosie, Martin, Joanna and Big Girl. They accepted my presence as though I was an unusual relative who had unexpectedly arrived from afar.
For the next 16 years, I returned to visit the Gavins. They, like many of the Travellers, moved from caravans to chalets and then to houses as the caravan sites became obsolete. I saw the years pass for the Gavins with mounting drama and anguish, often accompanied by death.
One year I arrived to find a flower in the place where Francie’s chalet had stood. It had been burned to the ground after his body was found hanging from the ceiling. Another year, I found John with four gunshot wounds in his chest. He had grown into a big, handsome man with three children and a reputation for violence and generosity. Mag and her husband, Patrick, and their gang of children, with their caravan hitched to the back of their car, moved constantly. Rosie had married a non-Traveller boy and left her family to live a settled life in a house. Martin had disappeared. Joanna eventually left a brutal marriage and spent time in a shelter with her two children. Big Girl was in hiding with her husband, Raymond, due to a family misunderstanding that had ended in death threats. After many years of trying, Hannah left John and took custody of Francie’s four sons when his wife abandoned them soon after Francie’s death. John Sr. suffered multiple strokes and would chase me off the site with any sharp object that was within his reach.
I still return to Belfast and always look for the Gavins. As of this past year, John was in prison serving a minimum 12-year sentence for arson. Mag and her husband had been through counseling together and were living in a house and trying to keep a sane life with their five children. I ran into John Sr. who had forgotten his anger at me. He threw his arms open and said, ”There’s the American” and asked me how John Wayne was doing.
I also ran into Hannah. I was looking for her new house and found her parked in front of the Leisure Center. We sat in her car filled with cigarette butts and empty cans of Red Bull. I finally asked her, after all these years, why she had welcomed me into their caravan. She patted my head and replied, “Because, my pet, you arrived on a Sunday and had long brown hair.”