'State' continues to be a 'cold house' for Irish Travellers

"Traveller Boys with wagon mural". A picture from 1980 by Brian Palm.
"Traveller Boys with wagon mural". A picture from 1980 by Brian Palm.

Schoolboy, Paddy Flynn, has brought Traveller issues very much to the fore in recent weeks. In this edited extract from his PhD project, Trinity student and author Frankie Gaffney, argues the Irish 'state' has and continues to be a 'cold house' for Irish Travellers and it is time to remedy that before making any exhortations to pride in our nation. 

IN June of 2015 six Irish students were killed when a balcony they were partying on collapsed in the university town of Berkeley California. It is suspected that poor construction and / or maintenance was at least partly to blame.

Just a few months later, ten Irish Travellers perished in a horrific fire. Overcrowding and inadequate provision of Traveller housing has been cited as a contributory cause of the death toll. Five of those who died were children under the age of ten.

Few can really argue there were glaring discrepancies in our reaction to these two tragedies.

A New York Times piece about the Berkeley tragedy made reference to bad behaviour and drunkenness among Irish J-1 students. It was slammed for insensitivity, and provoked a massive outcry from a variety of public figures.

Officialdom was not silent either — the Irish Ambassador to the USA wrote to the paper and registered a complaint. The article even prompted a vitriolic condemnation from former President Mary McAleese.

Nobody was as enthusiastic in eulogising the victims of the Carrickmines fire, however.

The high-powered public figures who condemned coverage of the Berkeley tragedy (in the strongest possible terms) weren’t to be heard so robustly defending the Travelling community when they were grossly slandered by many across the media and social media following Carrickmines.

“Shame on you”, McAleese, scolded the NY Times in outrage after the Berkeley incident—but much worse than media denigration would face the grieving Carrickmines families and survivors.

The Travelling community not only had to contend with vicious slurs, but in a disgusting and despicable development there were actual protests to prevent the survivors being temporarily accommodated nearby.

Was this 21st Century Ireland? It felt more like Alabama in the 1950s.

A large share of the responsibility for fermenting this prejudice must be taken by the media.

Whoever saw a headline or bulletin that read “SETTLED PEOPLE IN VIOLENT FEUD”?

If there are higher incidences of violence or criminality among the Travelling Community—and this is more in doubt than the fact that there is skewed and exaggerated coverage of such matters — then who is to blame?

The fact is that in a relationship it is the side with the most power that must take the most responsibility and the Travelling Community has been comprehensively denied power in Ireland.

Political representation

The upper house of our parliament, the Seanad, retains the majority of its seats (46 out of sixty in total) for the election of minority interest groups. Seats are allocated to panels from agriculture, industry, labour and other sectors—and of course the universities elect their own senators.

The Travelling Community are a group with unique (and urgent) needs. They have suffered the most harmful prejudice and persecution since the inception of the state—yet they are unrepresented.

Neither do they have high-powered and influential lobbyists outside (but with access to) the Oireachtas like the interests already represented in the Seanad.

Needless to say, this issue is not on the agenda for Fine Gael’s much trumpeted (but lesser spotted) Seanad reforms. Travellers comprise .6% of the population of this country.

However, Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was the first, and remains the only member of the Oireachtas ever to come from a Traveller family.

What percentage of Senators, TDs—and indeed Taoisigh—hail from the exclusive environs of South Dublin’s private schools? The Proclamation of 1916 promised to cherish all the children of the nation equally. This has been very far from the reality.

It is a disgrace that one of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups in our society is left to fend for themselves, while already powerful groups like commercial interests and university graduates are extended further privilege through guaranteed special representation in our parliament.

Furthermore, there is just as strong a case to be made for designated Dáil seats to represent Travellers too. They certainly can be said to form a non-geographic constituency—almost by definition.

The Travelling Community is identifiable by the very fact they are dispersed across the island while maintaining cohesion as a single people with a homogenous culture. This is in contrast to settled people, who vary more noticeably in dialect and culture from one location to another.

By what virtue can we assert that the only rubric for granting people suffrage as a community is the fact they all live in one place?

If a community is not to be given representation, what right have we to demand they obey the laws we impose upon them? When they have had no say in the writing of legislation, what moral imperative can there be for them to abide by these laws?

Language

Irish is not the only language that is indigenous to this island.

The languages of the Travelling community go by a variety of names: Shelta, Gammon, Cant, among others. These native tongues, which are almost certainly endangered, have yet to be fully studied and recorded.

Government figures confirm spending on the Irish language and Gaeltacht for 2016 will be €234 million.

There is no available figure for allocated funds to be spent on Traveller languages, but I am willing to bet it is very close to zero.

We hold the Traveller languages in the same sort of disdain the English held our native tongue.

The neglect of the rich cultural heritage enshrined within these languages is a national disgrace—and if not addressed it will be a loss not just to the Travelling Community, but to us all.

Empathy

Despite hundreds of years of civil rights advances worldwide (not to mention commendable recent progress in equality within this jurisdiction), the circle of empathy has yet to be fully extended to people from our Travelling community.

Just as the Israeli state rightly demands ongoing recognition for the horrific treatment of Jews under Hitler — while at the same ghettoising Palestinians without the remotest self-consciousness — here in Ireland, we mete out the same type of domination, disposession, and discrimination to our Traveller population that the English perpetrated upon us.

At the height of the Northern Peace Process, Ulster Unionist politician David Trimble (in his Nobel Laureate Lecture) finally acknowledged that the Northern Irish state had been “a cold house” for Irish Catholics.

It is not too late for us to admit this state has been similarly unwelcoming to Irish Travellers— nor is it too late to begin to remedy this injustice. Our society and state need to get on the right side of history fast, or — and this is not bombast or hyperbole — we forfeit any right to be proud of this nation.

'State' continues to be a 'cold house' for Irish Travellers

* Frankie Gaffney grew up in Dublin's North Inner-City. His debut novel, Dublin Seven, charts a teenager's descent into the criminal underworld of the city. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Trinity College Dublin.

** "Traveller Boys with wagon mural". A picture from 1980 by Brian Palm and reproduced with kind permission.  


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