Irish Travellers still fighting to be equal citizens in a more inclusive Ireland

In the year that the same-sex marriage referendum was overwhelmingly passed, campaigning Irish Travellers say despite changes they are still fighting to be fully recognised as equal citizens of a more inclusive Ireland, writes Joyce Fegan.
Irish Travellers still fighting to be equal citizens in a more inclusive Ireland

MISSIE COLLINS is the type of woman who’d have given Margaret Thatcher a decent run for her money.

Missie is a matriarch, she’s utterly formidable and she’d be welcomed on to any committee, the length and breadth of this country. But she’s not.

She’s a Traveller, so her powers of negotiation are confined to the realms of the community, which she was born into.

There’s a place in Finglas, in west Dublin called Avila Park. Its well-kept nature would put many Irish housing estates to shame. The inside of some of the homes there wouldn’t look out of place on an interior design show.

“Our homes are our castles,” says Missie. Avila Park is the biggest Traveller group housing scheme in Ireland. It was established in 1969, when 10 small units were built. Now 52 homes stand here, many of them thanks to Missie’s campaigning.

Many of them, however, as is typical across the Travelling community, have mobile homes standing right next to them, within an inch.

This isn’t to show off a trophy caravan, as is the common myth in the settled community. These highly flammable and cold-in-the-winter units are there as a result of overcrowding.

“We have overcrowding on sites at the minute. That’s why our [caravan] is out. When you mention Carrickmines it annoys people very much because there are lands out there they can nominate and put families there that are in desperate need,” says Michael Collins, Missie’s son-in-law.

“Travellers want to be in a formal group somewhere, so they can comfort one another, it’s an essential we have to have. It’s seen here very clear and not just Avila Park, a lot of the estates surrounding, will have mobile units.

“Specific Traveller accommodation — it’s nearly unheard of now, it’s not respected now, through the Government, they don’t want to recognise it,” he adds.

Family is very important to the Travelling community, explain Missie and Michael. The generations want to stay together and so when a young couple marry they move out of the family home into one of these units close by.

“If one of those went up — the devastation. Everybody has overcrowding. I think under two minutes, a mobile unit, if it gets the right fire, it’s gone completely. They’re not built for this purpose.

“What happened in Carrickmines has happened loads of times. I cannot understand why they will not name a piece of land for the serious overcrowding. We’ve highlighted this for over 15 years,” says Michael.

Michael Collins at a grotto he built at the estate he lives in at Avila Park, Cappagh, in Finglas. Picture: Colin Keegan
Michael Collins at a grotto he built at the estate he lives in at Avila Park, Cappagh, in Finglas. Picture: Colin Keegan

Missie was born in Westmeath. She was one of 12 children and moved with her entire family to England in the ’60s. She herself married over there and gave birth to each of her eight children in England too, but home was never far from her heart and she returned here in the ’90s, where she began campaigning for the houses that now make up Avila Park.

She initially lived in a small wooden chalet with three rooms. “I went on the committee and I campaigned for where I’m living. At the time, the man [a politician] I was dealing with, I demanded for houses to be built, I went off to ministers and everything.

“He didn’t know whether I came from the sky or where I’d come from. He said to me one day, he said, ‘do you know Missie you’re a tough woman at the beginning but you were tough for your rights...’ He would approach me if there was anything else going on [afterwards],” she says.

Nowadays, this 52-strong housing estate and its many inhabitants are “well-got” in the Finglas community.

Missie has a strong Catholic faith, one she shares with many people from the settled community around her.

“I love this area, where we’re living, I get on well with the settled population, I went on pilgrimages with them. I went all over on pilgrimages with them — down the country to Mount Mellerary, Holy Cross Abbey, to Knock, to everywhere and no better women — we’ll have a sing-song coming home on the bus and everything,” she explains.

Michael feels the same. His children go to the local schools. Like the rest of his immaculate house, the teenage boys’ bedrooms are pristine.

“Through the whole community of Finglas, we’re very well-connected, through the schools, we’ve a very good relationship with the teachers, we fit in very well in the community, for participating in day-to-day life. And you’re known, you’d get the handshake and the hello from the people passing, you’d see people you hadn’t seen in a while,” he says.

But sometimes they don’t get the welcome of the world, when they arrive in various places around the country. Missie tells of a recent experience, but doesn’t mention the town or the shop, even off the record.

“Myself and my granddaughter went down the country there about three weeks ago and we were doing a bit of shopping and, we were discriminated against, followed around the shops.

“I could see that it was there. My granddaughter got very unsettled in herself and I said, ‘what we’ve got, we’ve got the receipts for them, we’ve done nothing.’ It’s daily with a Traveller — you know?

“The daily struggle is — I am a woman, I am discriminated against because I am a woman, but double discriminated because I’m a Traveller woman — oh it’s very thick,” explains Missie, whose skin is thicker still.

Missie makes the tea for her guests and her son-in-law. Her son-in-law asks her to. She brews it because she’ll just do a better job at it, not because she’s fitting into a gender stereotype. She’s a feminist, but doesn’t use the word.

“It was always the woman that has to brew. Years ago, the man always got the first of the food and everything. The man was always served first, they got their tea, their breakfast, they got whatever was there, they got their food first. That has changed a lot now,” she says.

She’s quick to point out that she did not follow suit and that this dynamic is not confined to the Travelling community.

“I never did it but [with] my parents and my grandparents you would have seen it, with a lot of settled people as well you know, it did happen. The man was at the chief of the table and he got his first and everything, but it has changed with the generations.

“If the men are hungry now they get up and make their own. It’d be the same about the children, that they’d give the helping hand, that if the children had to be collected from school they’d go and do that. A lot of that stuff has changed,” says Missie.

This isn’t lip service. Michael gets up later to fix the dinner. This time Missie doesn’t move.

Above all else here, family is what is most important to them. They want their family around them, as close as possible.

“I remember when I was a little girl and my mother would be going in to have the babies and my granny was always there and if it wasn’t my granny, it’d be an aunt of mine. No matter where you go, family is so important,” says Missie.

Michael has his own grandchild now too, and family is equally as important to him.

“The immediate family around them is very important at all times. They look after them. You probably have family members, who know a lot of settled people who would love to see their loved ones going out abroad and making a new life for themselves...

“That’s not a thing Travellers do. They won’t let that happen for some reason and if they could put a stop to it they would,” he says.

“Families are very tight-knit and that. There’s no release on the family members. They prefer to have them around them. In the community I lived in, we have no one who really went away for a job experience,” he adds.

While Carrickmines is the topic of the day this Christmas time, the campaigning Missie wants to point out a separate issue within her community — suicide.

“Within the Travelling community, there are about 40,000 Travellers in Ireland — that’s from one end of it to the other, Northern Ireland as well.

“It’s seven times higher within the Travelling man than what it is in the settled population, suicide is very high in Travellers now.

“And it’s mainly due to living conditions, discrimination, poor education and unemployment, there are no jobs out there for them. The amount of young men who are after taking their own life is unbelievable, so I have to highlight that,” says Missie.

Whatever your outlook, in equal Ireland, where same-sex marriage has been legalised, being mindful of discrimination against any man, woman or child might make for an even better 2016. It costs nothing but it might very well save a life.

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