The first Traveller to receive an honorary doctorate from UCC has accepted the award on behalf of her community and Ireland’s countless activists.

Traveller rights advocate, Brigid Quilligan, manager of the Kerry Traveller Health Community Development Project who played a key role in the campaign to secure official state recognition of Traveller ethnicity, was presented with an honorary doctorate of laws for her campaigning work at local, national and international level over two decades.

Professor John O’Halloran, UCC’s vice president for teaching and learning, described her as an inspirational leader: “You have worked tirelessly for women’s rights, and in particular, for access to justice for women in the Traveller community, and for the human right to health and accommodation. Through your actions you have removed an injustice for all.”

Ms Quilligan, 43, began her advocacy work aged 17 involving herself in youth politics and working for human rights at a European level. She went to college and studied French and marketing and later took a certificate and diploma in youth and community work in UCC.

As director of the Irish Traveller Movement in 2012, she represented her community during the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as part of the campaign for Traveller ethnicity, and was in the Dáil on March 1 last when the Government formally recognised Traveller ethnicity.

She said yesterday she is hugely honoured to see activism recognised: “They are honouring me as an individual but I work with hundreds of activists around the country - in my own community, and in other minority communities. This award is for me today, and it means everything to me, but I accept it for my community and for activists around the country. In the last number of years, activism has almost become a dirty word. But without activism, you get no change.”

She described the Government’s declaration in March as a landmark and said: “I think it will be a starting point for a bridge between our two communities because we have to live together on this tiny island.

But she said systemic racism — which makes Traveller access to accommodation and education difficult and access to employment almost impossible — still needs to be tackled.

Ms Quilligan was among four people honoured with honorary doctorates at UCC.

RTÉ broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan was conferred with an honorary doctorate of laws for her contribution to broadcasting and journalism over 30 years. “Miriam O’Callaghan has made an art out of holding that delicate balance between empathy and building trust, yet remaining fearlessness in asking what needs to be asked,” her citation read.

Fr Pat Ahern, founder of Siamsa Tíre in Tralee, was presented with an honorary doctorate of laws for his work and vision promoting Irish culture, and Michael Dowling, chairman of the Kerry Group Plc, and who spent almost 30 years in the Department of Agriculture, rising to the position of secretary general in 1989, was conferred with an honorary doctorate of science for his work developing Ireland’s agri-food industry.


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