‘They want to stay here, they want to be accepted’

A new documentary explores negative attitudes towards Roma living in Ireland, writes Jonathan De Burca Butler

HENRY MCKEAN is not one to do things in half measures. The Newstalk presenter has been asking awkward questions in his own inimitable style since he started with the broadcaster some 10 years ago.

In his latest radio documentary, I’m a Roma Gypsy, the 30-year-old tackles the question of this ethnic group head on.

“I always wanted to make something about the Roma because they are the true gypsies,” says McKean.

“They date back to the 14th century and travelled from India to different parts of Europe. I suppose I wanted to find out about them. Who are the Roma? And why do we hate them so much? I don’t hate them. But I think collectively, Ireland as a nation do.”

The Roma story first came to national attention in 2007 when a group of some 80 gypsies were reported living on an M50 roundabout near Ballymun in Dublin.

“They were in shacks made of old Bertie Ahern posters with that slogan ‘A lot done, more to do’,” says McKean. “Here they were, surrounded by mud and urine and these posters. It was just true poetry.”

The family in question were eventually sent back to Romania where some 600,000 Romani live.

“They’re only in Ireland because we treat them a little bit better,” says McKean. “They want to stay here, they’re trying to settle in and they want to be accepted. They feel there’s less discrimination here than in their own country.

“Back home they have no chance whatsoever. They’ve been put into communes and had their water switched off. They’re just treated like shit.”

The Roma have been persecuted throughout their history. As McKean points out, the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of them in concentration camps. As late as 1973 a policy of sterilisation was in place for Roma in Czechoslovakia. In 2010, 51 camps in France were demolished as part of a repatriation process. Throughout Europe, the Roma are treated with disdain. Those living here might say that Ireland is a little better but in his documentary McKean talks to people who would rather the Roma were not here at all.

“They actually went back to Romania and built a hotel with the money they extorted from people here,” complains one woman in the documentary. “And they’re coming here in their droves.”

There are between 5,000 and 7,000 Roma in Ireland. Whether that constitutes droves is of course dependent on a point of view. And while McKean and the Roma he interviewed admit that some in the community are involved in crime and aggressive begging, those pursuits are not exclusive to them.

“There’s no getting away from it,” says McKean. “There are families that beg but it’s only a small minority that do it — just like in the settled community. A lot of Romanians can’t get social welfare because there isn’t that agreement, that accession country agreement that Poland has where they can come here and claim social welfare. So when they come here they can’t get money from the Government. So some of them have no option but to beg.”

McKean recognises that many people find it repugnant that children are often encouraged to beg by their families. But, as he discovers in the documentary, the numbers of children involved are decreasing.

“There are charities out there such as Leanbh who go out there every day and try to basically combat child begging,” says McKean. “It could be a mother with a baby or a teenager on the street and they’re trying to break that cycle of begging and get them accommodation and into school. And it’s slowly working.”

Indeed, according to their own figures, Leanbh say that sightings of child beggars are down from 924 in 2010 to 466 in 2011. Even if the cycle is broken, however, the challenges for Roma children are enormous, with vehement racism an everyday feature of their lives.

“Of course I’m proud to be a Roma,” says fifth year student Fernando. “But discrimination is everywhere you go. In class its ‘You Gypsy, you pikey, your ma begs’. I try and let it go and go to my class.”

Although McKean witnesses much that is difficult about life as a Roma Gypsy, he also comes across plenty of joy and positivity. As well as trying traditional belly dancing with a group of Roma girls, McKean meets a musician with a dream.

“There’s one guy on it called Carol Aflat who plays accordion and has an opera voice. He really wanted to get on a reality TV show so he went back to Romania and appeared on Romania’s Got Talent with their own Romanian Ant and Dec. And he wants to get a record deal. That’s some of the positive side.”

McKean says that although the documentary was difficult to make, he has taken much from it.

“There are aggressive beggars in the street. I’ve met some of them and some of them are horrible,” he says. “But you can’t just judge the whole community and tar them with the same brush. Some of them are good family-orientated people who are friendly and good craic. They’re not just a bunch of spongers that want to ruin us and I think in the media we need to get that message across a bit more.”

* I’m a Roma Gypsy will be broadcast on Newstalk at 7am on Saturday, Mar 10, and repeated at 9am the following day


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