ALMOST by definition, travellers live on the margins - despite the fact that three-quarters of Irish Travellers live in houses. Unemployment among travellers is five times the national average, and more than half of them leave school at or before the age of 15. Traveller men are seven times more likely than men in the general population to take their own lives.
These are not my statistics – they are published by Pavee Point, a travellers’ rights organisation. They paint a picture of a community that has always been ghettoised by the rest of us. We live, by and large, in fear of Travellers.
That’s why it’s possible for two things to happen simultaneously in Ireland. On the one hand there is an outpouring of grief around the country, and especially within a neighbourhood, at the devastating deaths of adults and children in a horrible and all-consuming fire. On the other hand people can set their faces against Travellers continuing to live in the community.
Of course we can all tut-tut about this. But that’s not honest either. Travellers are “the other” – we’ve all grown up with myths and fables about the Travelling community, and they’ve always been on the outside. We don’t see them as an ethnic minority, but rather as a group of people who are forever causing trouble, and whose presence in our community has never been welcome.
I remember last year – I wrote about it here – visiting a Traveller settlement just outside Kilkenny, (called Saint Catherine’s, or sometimes the Wetlands). It looked, and felt, like a ghetto, surrounded on three sides by a high stone wall. It was damp, dirty and miserable. The mothers who lived there spend their entire lives trying against insurmountable odds to raise children in hygiene and cleanliness. Most had no running water, and sewage frequently backed up into their homes. And yet the homes were immaculately clean inside.
Up to 30 children lived on that site. This was an official site, and the families who lived there were local authority tenants, just like tens of thousands of other local authority tenants throughout Ireland. But I don’t believe any other local authority tenants would be asked to live in the conditions that these families lived in.
The children I met that day were just like any other children. Except they were beautiful singers, and at least one of them is a member of the Irish women’s senior boxing team, alongside Katie Taylor, with high hopes of representing her country in Rio de Janeiro.
You couldn’t in any sense describe these as children without potential. But there is no doubt whatever that that potential is trapped by being seen as part of the other.
Every society has a gift for othering. We brand people by colour, by sexual orientation, by ethnic origin. And once we label them, we can casually and silently discriminate against them. And we find it easy to justify that – usually by referring to the behaviour of the other.
It’s harder to do that when you meet people face to face. I’ve met many Travellers over the years in my day-to-day work, and oddly enough, they’re ordinary people. If you see a Traveller kid in a playgroup, you won’t be able to tell them apart from any of the other kids. If you meet a Traveller mum as part of a parent and toddler group, you won’t be able to distinguish her from any of the other mums. It’s only when you see where they live that you realise it’s ok to have a bunch of attitudes about them.
I have a gut feeling that if I was born into a community that had always lived on the margins, and had always been discriminated against; if I hadn’t been valued in school and no-one ever had any expectations of me, I’d grow up alienated and hostile to the world around me. I’d find it really hard to respect people who never had any respect for me.
And that is true of a great many travellers – especially young men – I’ve met. It’s part of the self-fulfilling prophecy about Travellers. There are aspects of the male Traveller culture – principally its frequent violence – that I have a lot of trouble with. But it’s too easy to brand all Travellers the same, to disrespect them because of who they are, and then wonder why they have so little respect for us. I know one Traveller community in Dublin where nearby residents routinely dumped their rubbish at the entrance to the Traveller estate, and then added their voices to complaints about dirty Travellers.
Over the weekend I posted on Facebook that if all else failed, Farmleigh House could be used to offer temporary shelter to the traumatised and bereaved families of Carrickmines. It wasn’t an entirely serious suggestion, but on the other hand, why not? It is owned by the state and used to accommodate guests of the state. Why couldn’t it be put at the disposal of people who need temporary succour while their longer-term needs are being addressed?
When the state talks about addressing those longer-terms needs, it generally means replacing a rotting portable building with a newer one. Last May the Government published its allocation for housing for Traveller people – the princely sum of €4.3 million for this year.
Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, incidentally, where the Carrickmines site is located, was given a zero allocation, so clearly there were no plans for improvement prior to the tragedy. (Kilkenny County Council was allocated around half a million to upgrade St Catherine’s. Even though that would hardly make a dent in the appalling conditions in which those families live, it will be fascinating to see if the money is even spent by year end.)
Pavee Point has started a campaign this weekend for the establishment of a dedicated Traveller Agency to drive improvements in traveller accommodation and to implement existing government policy in relation to traveller education, health and employment.
Such an agency would introduce a core element of accountability into the business of implementing policy, rather than the entirely fragmented and unaccountable approach we take now. For instance, in the greater scheme of things, €4.3 million is not a lot of money. But it spreads very thin indeed when it’s allocated across 31 different local authorities.
Pavee Point’s other demand is for legal recognition of their ethnicity. It that would ensure that public policy in future, in so far as it related to issues of discrimination, would always have to include the place of Travellers.
Recognition and respect for a unique ethnic origin is a step towards greater equality. It would enable the debate about Travellers to be moved to a different level. Yes, we could demand as part of that debate that they take their responsibilities seriously.
But couldn’t we start with the children? We all accept that every child has the right to an education and to decent healthcare, to warmth and to play. If we want that for our own children, we have to ensure that Traveller children have exactly those rights too. If they did (and they don’t right now), you’d never know where that might lead.
I know of one estate where nearby residents dumped rubbish at the entrance to a Traveller site