Dear settled people: we need to talk.
I was four years old the first time I remember being discernibly aware that I was different. A girl in my class was having a birthday party, a party that we were all invited to. But when I showed up with my mother I was asked to leave. My friends mother had nothing against us you see- she’d just rather we weren’t there. She “didn’t want any trouble”. I remember that particular incident, not because it was particularly momentous,not because of how particularly ridiculous it was that she thought a four year old girl was interested in causing trouble, but because when we returned home that afternoon I saw my mother cry for the first and only time. Crying isn’t something that we travellers do, it’s a sign of weakness even in children. So to see my mother, an adult, someone who was supposed to be unshakeable, cry over something that hadn’t even really bothered me, frightened me. I didn’t know then what she did- that what had happened wasn’t a singular trivial event but rather a symptom of a larger problem. A problem that 18 years later I still haven’t managed to escape.
The incident itself proved not to be a one off. The trend continued as I grew older- children I was friends with at school were told by their parents that they couldn’t invite me to their house, that they couldn’t play with me outside of school, that they should be careful around me “just in case”. And gradually that wariness that their parents had instilled in them grew, and as it grew it changed. By the time I had reached secondary school it wasn’t wariness anymore — it was hate. A hate that was often given credence by teachers and parents alike. As a young child I was taken out of my third class teachers classroom, because she didn’t want to teach a traveller. Because despite the fact that I had never once been disciplined by her, I was “too much trouble”. Throughout the entirety of primary school I was put into resource classes with other travellers, to learn things that settled children had been taught years before. When I was thirteen I would stay up until 3am in the morning, trying to teach myself long division- a skill that my classmates had long mastered- under the covers by torchlight, because no teacher had ever seen fit to teach it to me. Because the expectation was that I would scrape through school for as long as the ever present social workers felt it necessary, the expectation was that I would drop out as soon as I possibly could. That expectation was made clear to me when I was eleven years old by the same teacher that had refused to teach me in third class. We were going through the same process that every child does in sixth class- attending open days, reading through piles of shiny contrived prospectuses, comparing school choices with our friends and frantically looking for copies of birth certs and PPS numbers to make sure that we got our applications for secondary school in on time. But my mam had never gone to secondary school, she hadn’t even gone to primary. She is- as many travellers are- almost completely illiterate. So I was sent to that teacher to fill out my forms instead. And it was there that that expectation (as though it had ever been in doubt) was made as clear to me as it needed to be. Why, she wondered, was I even applying for secondary school at all? Surely I was just going to drop out within a year anyway. Surely there was no point in pretending otherwise.
It was because of that teacher that I became obsessed with becoming the “model traveller”. Subconsciously I had already been doing it for years, but until then I had never been deliberate about it. But the day I dropped my application off at the local Meanscoil I promised myself that I would be the perfect traveller. And for years afterwards I dedicated myself to that. I played every sport my school had to offer, I was class president, student council rep, captain of the debate team,I represented the school at international swimming competitions, I worked as a meitheal leader,I volunteered for countless charities, I was head of the coiste gaeilge and the green schools committee, I got 12As in my junior cert — you name it, I did it. I dedicated almost five years of my life to becoming the ultimate manifestation of respectability politics. And still I achieved nothing. People still talked about travellers in the exact same way as they had before, they still called us subhuman scum, they still called our culture savage, they still called us uncivilised, only this time they would turn to me and assure me that they didn’t mean me. “You know I don’t mean you C- I don’t even really see you as a traveller to be honest.” Of all their assertions that was by far the worst. It felt like they’d missed the entire point. They weren’t supposed to accept me by ignoring my identity. Yet that was what they’d done. Somehow the only way that they could see fit to respect me was to remove my ethnicity, to strip me of my family, my culture, my heritage and to ascribe me a new identity- one that they could respect. One that wasn’t traveller.
Never was that more clear to me than in October 2015, when 10 travellers lost their lives in a giant blaze in Carrickmines. It was shocking and jarring, but nothing could have prepared me for the reaction of the public. The survivors of the blaze, all of whom had just lost their homes, their possessions and their family members, couldn’t be given appropriate emergency accommodation, because the residents of the area in which the council planned to house them refused to allow travellers to stay there- even for a limited time. Less than two weeks later we travelled to Wexford to bury 5 of the victims, a mother, a father, and their three children all aged under 5 years old. In response the whole of Wexford town shut down. Not as a mark of respect, but rather as the opposite. Not one business wanted to risk having to serve a traveller that day. On the day we buried 5 family members, we were still seen as a threat. We were still seen as other. We were still just knackers, regardless of what we’d gone through. We were still subhuman to them. And no amount of volunteering, or good exam results, or sporting medals on my part was going to ever change that.
The night of that funeral I returned home and for the first time in almost a decade, I cried. Unashamedly. I cried, not just for the victims of that fire, but for every victim of the same system that had caused my friends mother to turn me away from her party aged just four years old. I cried for my mother, who was illiterate, who had raised eight children against all odds, who had never lost hope even when we had been homeless and it had seemed as though things would never get any better. I cried for my dad who had suffered with depression and drug problems all his life but had been turned away the one time he sought help because they feared a traveller might cause trouble. I cried for my brother who aged eleven fashioned a noose out of bed sheets, wrapped one end of it around his neck and the other end of it around the top of the bunk bed we both shared, and stepped off the window ledge. I cried at the memory of walking in to his lifeless body hanging there aged thirteen, I cried for the feeling of helplessness that I still feel for him, I cried because less than two weeks beforehand he had described his ethnicity as a disease that he desperately wanted to rid himself of, and I cried because none of us had spotted any of the warning signs that might have enabled us to stop him from doing what he did. I cried for my other brothers, all younger than me, two of whom have already left school,the other 4 of whom probably will before they ever even dream of sitting their leaving cert. I cried for the future that I fear faces them, a future of unemployment, prison, depression, and god only knows what else. A future of isolation, and a future where no matter what they do they will never be accepted by Irish society, and they will never be respected by Irish society. I cried because I want better, not just for my family, but for every single traveller that put up with that same isolation and that faces that same future. I cried because I could see no end in sight, because I can still see no end in sight. I cried for every traveller that has suffered and will suffer because Irish society isn’t willing to sit down and talk, or even give any kind of serious consideration to the issues that we face.
Our life expectancy is 61 years old. Our suicide rate is seven times higher than the general population. 50% of travellers die before their 39th birthday. 10% of traveller children die before the age of two, compared to just 1% of the general population. 70% of us die before our 59th birthday.Only 3% of us live passed the age of 65. Less than 13% of us finish secondary school compared to 93% of the general population. Less than 1% of us go on to third level education, and more than 70% of traveller children live in families where the mother has no formal education at all. 84% of us are unemployed. 60% of Irish people have said that they wouldn’t allow their child to marry a traveller, 18% of them would strip us (an indigenous ethnic group) of our Irish citizenship. 80% say they wouldn’t live near us, 61% say they wouldn’t be friends with a traveller, and 75% say they wouldn’t approach us socially. 43% admitted that even if we were the most qualified applicant for a job, they wouldn’t employ us. 83% of traveller children have been racially attacked, 73% of us have been refused service on the grounds of our ethnicity, in shops, hotels, bars, restaurants, and 100s of other businesses too numerous to name. The European parliament declared that the “single most discriminated against ethnic group is the travelling people.” The ESRI has described the conditions that most travellers live in as “intolerable”, stating that “no humane and decent society, once made aware of such circumstances, could permit them to persist.” It described travellers as “a uniquely disadvantaged group: impoverished, under- educated, often despised and ostracised , they live on the margins of Irish society.” They found that more than half live without electricity, baths, showers and hot water, and that over a third were without toilets. So why is it then that Ireland is so unwilling to talk about travellers? They’re quick to call us criminals, scammers, benefit cheats, drains on the system, knackers, pikeys, tinkers, itinerants, gypsies, and whatever other term-du-jour they deem fit. But when it comes to discussing the legitimate issues that we face, when it comes to discussing solutions and ways to improve the lives of the almost 40,000 travellers that live on this island, the Irish people are noticeably silent. When it comes to addressing the impact that their own attitudes have on our situation, and on the role they play in creating the ostracisation that is destroying our community, the Irish people are noticeably absent. And to put it simply- we’ve had enough. This isn’t something that we can fix on our own. As I’ve learned the hard way, no amount of pandering to respectability politics will make the Irish people see us as equal. This is a discussion that we need to have, and we need to have it now. Because as it stands, things are only getting worse for travellers, and they will continue to get worse until serious efforts are made on the part of the settled community to address the isolation and the discrimination suffered by the travelling community. Settled people make up 99% of the population in this country- we cannot change things without your help. So dear settled people- we need to talk. We need to talk about access within our education system, about discrimination within our employment system, about living conditions and about attitudes within our healthcare system. But above all we need to have an open and honest conversation, and we need to be willing to act on that conversation to improve the lives of Irelands indigenous ethnic minority. Because we are here to stay- it’s time you accepted that, it’s time you acknowledged that we are human beings, it’s time you acknowledged that we are equal, and it’s time you learned to respect us- not in spite of our ethnicity, but rather regardless of it.