Photo book depicts Irish Travellers’ history in Hackney

PUBLISHED: 14:46 09 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:53 09 July 2013

Photo by Colin O'Brien

Photo by Colin O'Brien


Irish Travellers were delighted to see pictures of themselves as children taken 26 years ago in London Fields at the launch of a photo book focusing on their community.

Photo by Colin O'BrienPhoto by Colin O'Brien

Amateur photographer Colin O’Brien originally captured the images of the youngsters in unauthorised camps in London Fields in 1987.

He had been roaming around with his camera photographing a deserted warehouse when he happened to stumble on the children playing in a camp in Martello Street.

“I took pictures and the parents weren’t too worried. I gave them Polaroid photos and their parents joined in with the exercise,” said Mr O’Brien who is now retired.

“Their mothers were dressing them up in their Sunday best and shunting them back for the photographer.

Photo by Colin O'BrienPhoto by Colin O'Brien

“I didn’t really pose them but they seemed to strike these amazing poses, they were giving each other hugs. Obviously living cheek by jowl in a caravan and travelling all the time brought them much closer as a community.

“They were more grown-up than children of that age normally are.”

Mr O’Brien returned every weekend over the course of three weeks but by the fourth week they had gone.

“I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was – after all, this is what travellers do, they move on.

Travellers come to view the pictures of themselves as children in London FieldsTravellers come to view the pictures of themselves as children in London Fields

“I had no way of contacting them but I was left with an amazing set of pictures.

“It was an interesting experience and I’ve never done anything quite like it since.”

He rediscovered the photos recently and was persuaded to put them into a book by blog writer, The Gentle Author from Spitalfields, who published it.

Gill Brown, from the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, based in Westgate Street, London Fields, then helped pinpoint three of the travellers photographed.

Colin O'Brien's photoColin O'Brien's photo

They now live on council-run traveller sites in Hackney and on Wednesday came along to the book’s launch at the E5 Bakehouse close to where it all began.

Ms Brown said: “What was so rewarding for them was that it rooted their history firmly in Hackney. They were born and brought up in Hackney and they feel it’s a validation of their roots.

“Traveller families camped in and around Hackney and the Marshes for many years.

“These days it is harder to travel as there are few stopping places and families have been forced into houses where they don’t want to be, isolated and away from their families.”

See the photo gallery of Mr O’Brien’s photos on the right hand side.

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