Travellers don’t fit in, but that’s because our society won’t let them

Travellers represent our own recent past and they won’t let us forget it. That is why we fear them, writes Victoria White
Travellers don’t fit in, but that’s because our society won’t let them

My mother’s close friend Sheila Pim was a celebrated gardener, writer of horticultural thrillers and the biographer of horticulturalist Augustine Henry.

But when I was a child she was just another posh old bat. Then she did something incredible. She got the council to build a house for Travellers in her back garden in Bray, Co Wicklow.

She didn’t walk away from an orphaned family by the name of Connors because she was a devout Christian and a woman of conscience and she knew what that meant. She also started a school for Travellers in her beautiful period house which eventually became St. Kieran’s National School for Travellers, still going strong.

My mother was horrified. She had a specially hard voice she used to warn Travellers away from our house. But she came around a bit as she got to know the kids. And what I remember most about Sheila Pim, a single woman who spent her life caring, was her luminous joy.

I tell this story now to make the point that there is only one right thing for the concerned residents of Rockville Drive to do today: that is to house the 15 Travellers left homeless after the Carrickmines inferno in their collective back garden. There is no “on the one side, on the other” as implied by members of both Government parties from the Taoiseach to local Labour Councillor Lettie McCarthy.

This morning the survivors are at the funeral of five members of another Connors family, Sylvia, Thomas, little Jim, toddler Christy and baby Mary. Tomorrow they will travel to Wexford where the fire victims will be laid to rest. They are due to return to Dublin on Sunday. Temporary accommodation must be ready for them on that acre off the Glenamuck Road. It must be ready for them even if it is not, ultimately, suitable, because Christians and people of conscience open their doors to others when they are in trouble.

For the love of God, think of little Tom Connors, only four and only out of hospital! He faces the rest of his life without his entire immediate family – though the close family ties of Traveller extended families are going to be a big help.

You’re going to say “They’re not moving into your road” and it’s true. But there is a plan for Traveller accommodation just up the road from me in Bird Avenue, Clonskeagh in Dublin 14 and I welcome it. I fear, however, that Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council will have a battle on their hands to develop it, along with the other sites nearby ear-marked in their Traveller Accommodation Plan to 2018, including the ones on Mount Anville Road, in UCD and in Stillorgan Grove.

The literature plopping onto the doormat during the last local elections told a horror story about our attitude to Travellers in this area. Fine Gael’s Josepha Madigan was the most shocking, openly objecting to the Council’s decision to locate Travellers on these sites as “a misuse of taxpayers’ resources”. Madigan’s problem seemed to be that land in the heart of middle-class South Dublin is too valuable to be used for Travellers. She promised to call for a “cost-benefit analysis” on the sites if elected, to explore selling them on the open market so that the funds could be used “to benefit every resident of our constituency, regardless of social status.” Why should doctors and lawyers not get their paws into the pot marked for Travellers, after all?

I would love to say my neighbours sent her into the wilderness, but they sent her into a council seat. I would also love to say that she was the only offender but she wasn’t. Fine Gael Councillor Barry Saul blasted off about the Mount Anville Road site, saying he had had a commitment from the Council that it would be sold and the money reinvested in the “community”. “This site overlooking Dublin Bay would be a premium site for development”.

Too good for Travellers, then. Fianna Fáil’s Gerry Horkan took a very different route to same destination - the abandonment of the Mount Anville plan – by saying the site didn’t suit accommodation for Travellers or for settled people, “positioned as it is on a hill on a bend”. Both were elected.

The political lesson is that there are no votes in housing Travellers in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. This is a lesson which Fine Gael candidates have learned well in the DLR area, as Olivia Mitchell TD made a career out of opposing Traveller accommodation. She opposed the council’s Traveller housing plan in 2000 and the next year she brought forward a Private Members’ Bill to give councils draconian powers to evict, charge and imprison Travellers using council land without permission to protect settled people from “gross disruption of their local amenities.” She produced all the arguments against Traveller accommodation we have heard in the last 10 days such as “lack of consultation” (in Blackglen Road) and “an extremely wasteful and costly way to use land” (in Ballyboden). Asked where she thought Travellers should be housed she answered: “Conventional housing in urban areas.”

Which is tantamount to saying they should stop being who they are.I’m not arguing that being recognised as an ethnic minority will solve the problems of Travellers. Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which did so much damage, was produced in the UK where Traveller “ethnicity” is recognised. Travellers are ethnically Irish. They are related to all of us who are Irish. Their “language” Gammon is English in structure with Irish words – as few of 75 of which are understood by younger Travellers. Travellers represent in many ways our own recent past and they won’t let us forget it. That is why we fear them.

There are parts of our past which you wish were no longer part of Traveller experience, such as widespread illiteracy, double the infant mortality rate, three times the stillbirth and miscarriages, and the same life expectancy as the 1940s.

There are parts from which we can learn much, such as beautiful Kelly McDonagh Mongan’s obvious pride in her approaching motherhood as she competed in the Voice of Ireland. And spiritual traditions connected to the land which see candles carried at night across the causeway to Our Lady’s Island, Wexford, every September.

“May they rest in peace, safe in the arms of Our Lady” as Joe Duffy said last week after naming the 10 fire victims in a rare moment of deep meaning on RTÉ radio.

And may their survivors live in peace, safe in the heart of our communities.

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