Travelling with the Chaplain on the move

Travelling with the Chaplain on the move Members of the Travelling community pictured with Fr Tom Naughton on pilgrimage.
Personal Profile
Colm Fitzpatrick writes about how we can learn from the Travelling community


Most priests spend their time ministering to their parish communities and those on the margins, but as chaplain for the Travelling community in Ireland, Fr Tom Naughton has truly taken this vocation of outreach to heart. The Limerick-born priest who was ordained in the diocese of Cloyne in 2001 is on a mission to ensure that Travelling groups encounter the Faith and are properly respected as members of Irish society.

The role of chaplain to this community, Fr Tom explains, has strong historical roots and came into existence to cater for the spiritual needs of Travellers who were constantly moving from place to place.

“Originally it was for anyone who might be nomadic who mightn’t be of any fixed abode. So that was the original idea of having a chaplain far back so that if they were getting married, if there were any particular needs that they had in the spiritual or pastoral area, there would be a chaplain available to them – they would have a contact they could come to,” Fr Tom says.

Nowadays, he says the Travelling community has changed significantly as most of them would be “pretty settled” in particular places and are no longer roaming around. Explaining specifically what his duties are, Fr Tom says that he tries his best to visit various Travelling groups in dioceses, adding that there are plenty of groups who are members of youth travel associations and so he tries to get to know them. Alongside his pastoral role, he also organises Masses, Confessions and pilgrimages, like journeying up Croagh Patrick or going to Mass rocks.


“It’s almost like it’s a reminder of the time when they were nomadic. You know, you were going up and you might have Mass in a holy well, you might climb Croagh Patrick, you might even go to a Marian Shrine – so my whole thing is to not so much go and tell travelling people what sort of expression or format of religiosity they should be following but rather staying open to what they would want and if it is possible to accommodate that,” he says.

Initially developing a relationship with the Travelling community was not a point of tension or anxiousness for Fr Tom, given that he “sort of knew a lot of Travellers growing up” and also went to school with them, so it was “natural” for him to fit into this type of work. Since then, Fr Tom says he has developed a “great grá and a great love” for the Travelling culture, particularly because of their piety and unwavering devotion to the Faith.

“This is the thing that impresses me most in the Faith aspect – the deep respect it has for the things of God,” he says, stressing that the community have the ability to see beyond the personality of priests, and appreciate the important, sacramental role they carry out. This perception, he adds, also extends to the youth who have adapted the Faith from older generations, and are able to appreciate the sacred.

This deep devotion to God, Fr Tom suggests, could be one outlet by which the rest of society can begin to develop bonds with the Travelling community, and so break down barriers that ultimately cause conflict and discrimination.

“I do think from the point of view of Faith that we should be sort of moving towards more integration and towards understanding one another. And I think those sorts of things could help break down prejudice and break down discrimination which quite frankly is still present,” he says.

This goal is no trivial task given that a study on behalf of the Irish Human Rights Equality Mission (IHREC) last year showed that Travellers are almost 10 times more likely to deal with instances of discrimination than white Irish members of the general population.

This number shoots up to 22 when Irish Travellers avail of private services, particularly shops, restaurants and pubs. However, Fr Tom says that the move of the Government to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group has given them self-confidence, and it is important that representatives of Ireland have given them the recognition they deserve.

In spite of this “step forward”, Fr Tom still believes it’s not just up to the Government to create better structures for integration but society as a whole has to play a role if real change can happen. In doing so, this current social divide can be bridged so that tangible, constructive developments can take place between communities.

“I think around that, there should be more effort made to have more activities be it with young Travellers and young settled people as well as older people.

“There would be activities organised in order to bring them together and in order for them to do things together – be it simply social gatherings and outings so that genuine understanding of each other could take place.

“Without genuine understanding, ignorance and prejudice could prevail.”