Racism is a shocking thing when it’s happening thousands of miles away.
Shocking altogether. In April 2012, widower Michael McDonagh and his five children were on the cusp of a new life. They were moving into a refurbished bungalow in Kilmacow, Co Kilkenny.
The weekend of the big move, with most of their possessions already in situ, they slept for what they thought was their last night in their old home in Mooncoin. One of the reasons they were moving from the area was that the children were being intimidated in school.
Early that Saturday morning, somebody took it on themselves to burn down the refurbished bungalow. The family lost heirlooms, communion dresses, treasured photographs, and their dreams. A few weeks later, just in case he hadn’t got the message, Mr McDonagh received a threat letting him know he should move on from Mooncoin, even if he’d nowhere to go.
“This is your last warning. You have a week-and-a-half to be out of that house. If you are not, that house will be burned to ashes, and take your tinker puppies with you. This is your last warning. Watch your back.”
Michael McDonagh was not a criminal. Gardaí in Kilkenny confirmed he was “a man of good standing”. His ‘crime’ was that he was a Traveller.
The events in the USA have prompted much breast-beating on racism in this country. Most of it has focused on individual incidents perpetrated against people of colour.
In Ireland, racism is endemic and institutionalised going back centuries. The housing of Travellers has brought out the worst of this country’s political culture and naked racism among large swathes of the population.
The month after the McDonaghs were burnt out of their new home, another Traveller family in Kilkenny was looking forward to their new life. Patrick and Brigid Carthy and their seven children were living on a halting site and had been allocated a house in the Bonnetstown area.
Then local TD, Phil Hogan, the housing minister at the time, made representations to Kilkenny County Council not to house the Carthys in their new home.
Mr Hogan’s petition was based on the fact that Patrick Carthy had grown up in the area and 20 years earlier — when he was 12 years old — his father had been involved in a dispute with another local. In effect, the housing minister was asking the council not to house Mr Carthy on the basis of the alleged sins of his father. The council complied.
Mr Hogan wrote to his constituents to deliver the good news. The following year, a recently refurbished house in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, was gutted by fire at 3am one morning. A Traveller family had been due to move in.
The previous month, local Fianna Fáil councillor Seán McEniff told a local radio station that he did not support the housing of a Traveller family in an area populated by “settled” people. He advocated creating a “an isolated community of them someplace”.
“You wouldn’t want it beside you and I wouldn’t want it beside me,” he told Ocean FM.
Two years later on October 10, 2015, an extended family of 10 Travellers died in a fire in Carrickmines, Co Dublin. The oldest was 39-year-old Jimmy Lynch, the youngest, six-month-old Mary Connors. Tara Gilbert, aged 27, who also died, was pregnant at the time.
They had been living in cramped, dangerous circumstances in a site, awaiting allocation of a proper home. The country was shocked, appalled at this needless loss of life.
There were many speeches in the Dáil. A few days later, the surviving family members, numb with bereavement, were told they were not welcome in a nearby temporary site designated by the local authority.
A blockade of the area was conducted by locals, who said they wouldn’t give an inch because something temporary would turn into a permanent outcome.
‘Sorry for your troubles, but clear off and grieve somewhere else’ appeared to be the message.
In the early hours of March 6 last year, a person or persons broke into a bungalow in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and vandalised it to the point where it was inhabitable. The recently refurbished house had been earmarked for a Traveller family. Once the damage was discovered, the local council retained security personnel to guard the property.
The common thread running through these incidents is that people in need of a home were prevented from putting a roof over their heads because they are Travellers. This is the kind of stuff that was endemic thousands of miles away in the 1960s Deep South of the USA.
Today, the great oppressed people of Ireland think it shocking that the Irish were once told they need not apply for jobs in places like London simply because of their ethnicity. They also had to endure signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” when it came to accommodation.
And yet today, beyond the expression of platitudes now and again, the same discrimination is tolerated here towards a minority group.
Politicians, for the most part, know where their bread is buttered when it comes to housing Travellers. Of course, they abhor racism and at a time like this, all politicians are eager to let the world feel their anger.
There are, however, no votes in calling out racism against Travellers.
When a politician does stand up to this form of racism, as Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny did last October, he receives a sinister message through the burning of his car outside his home.
Racism is shocking when it’s happening thousands of miles away. In recent weeks, many have been awoken to what people of colour in this country are routinely subjected to in terms of abuse. That’s shocking too.
But Travellers? Ah now, sure that’s different. That’s not racism, is it?