There is a new Rathkeale emerging from behind the headlines created by the infamous Rathkeale Rovers gang. One community worker has a vision of one community with two cultures — and it’s working. Jimmy Woulfe talks to those working on the ground to create a better image for the town by building bridges between the settled and Traveller communities
MEDIA reports around the world bristled with court reports of a gang jailed in England last week for conspiracy to plunder €70m worth of artifacts and rhino horns from British museums.
Passing sentences, Judge Murray Creed said seven of the 14 original gang members had family links to Rathkeale, Co Limerick.
The Rathkeale Rovers were back in the news big time.
Walking through the Traveller enclave of Fair Hill in Rathkeale this week, Dan Neville got agitated when I mentioned the Rathkeale Rovers and the image the gang were giving the town.
Most of the gang, he said, had no links to this country and those with family ties to the town had left years ago.
The former TD knows Rathkeale’s Traveller community better than most and always harvested a huge slice of the Rathkeale Traveller vote in Dáil elections.
“I can tell you something, the so-called Rathkeale Rovers have no fans in this town,” he said.
Stopping for a chat with one local, he was invited in for a cup of tea.
“I can go into any Traveller home in Rathkeale and always feel welcome.
“I know and respect the Traveller community and they know and respect me.”
As we moved down Main St, Dan said he would like “to open the door” and bring me into the Rathkeale he knows, or as he puts it, “the real Rathkeale”.
Away from the headlines, he said, major work is being done to build bridges between the settled and Traveller communities. The town has 1,700 residents of which about 700 are travellers.
Dan Neville is angered by the depiction of Travellers on the TV series, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
“This aspect of Traveller life has been exploited in a cheap way. They dress up and enjoy weddings like all families do. As a local politician, Travellers are not over demanding. You try to give them the same service you give everybody,” he said.
Mr Neville speaks of a new, exciting project which has taken off in the town to bring the settled and Traveller communities closer together.
It is being overseen by David Breen of West Limerick Resources, who spent four years working with Irish Aid in the Philippines.
When we meet, David talks passionately of Rath Caola Le Ceile or Rathkeale Together.
David, 63, the facilitator of Rathkeale Toghether said it has a vision of one community with two cultures.
“We see this as a movement. It is the aim to permeate into all groups, clubs, and organisaitons in the town,” he said.
Already it has brought Travellers and settled peope together to repair storm damage caused to CYMS parish hall.
It will cost around €40,000 to fix.
“Already we have raised €18,000 of which €10,000 was donated by the JP McManus Foundation. There is a very active committee and the treasurer and assistant treasurer are both from the Traveller community,” said David.
More than two years ago David came up with a plan to create a new mood of togetherness between the settled and Traveller communities.
David, a native of Wexford, said: “On two separate days we took groups of 20 away for a day to meet and talk over a meal. One group of 20 came from the settled community and the second group of 20 came from the Traveller community The idea is to develop a new relationship between two communities which live parallel to one another in the one town without a huge amount of engagement.”
During those two days each group explored and talked about the peculiar cultural differences which challenge everyday life in Rathkeale. Then both groups were brought together for an event which included a meal.
David said: “One Traveller woman remarked that if anyone had told her that she would be sitting down having lunch with members of the settled community and enjoying it, she would not have believed it.
“And recently as we have moved further on with the movement, it was remarkable to hear a member of a long established settled family saying every time he now meets members of the Traveller community in a social setting he learns something new about their life and culture.”
He said both the Catholic and Church of Ireland clergy have been enormously important to the development of the new togetherness being forged in the town. He said former parish priest of Rathkeale, Fr Phonsie Cullinan, now Bishop of Waterford, did great work along with former Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick, Trevor Williams.
As Rathkeale Together progressed Fr Gerry Reynolds and Rev Ken Newell, who were involved in the Northern Peace process, came to give a talk organised by Rathkeale Together.
While the huge job of getting the parish hall repaired continues, Rathkeale Together has been working away on several other community fronts.
“Last year the Tidy Towns committee asked all the sports, cultural, and community groups to give one evening each to help in the clean-up of the town. The Traveller community came with the biggest response and gave five nights [of help]. Something like this never happened before. We also organised summer barbecues and these were attended by more than 200 people from both communities,” David said.
“What we are doing in Rathkeale Together is when you get to know another person your humanity is revealed. What we are starting to see here in Rathkeale is the common humanity of the two communities. Presupposition and perspectives are beginning to fall away. People in the settled community see that the Traveller community have the same issues as they have.”
As we chatted in Bloomers deli and restaurant on the Main St, David looked at his watch.
“Have to go. Meeting curate Fr Willie Russell. A great community priest and hugely respected.”
Dan Neville was right. He did open a door to a Rathkeale undergoing great and exciting change.
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