Barney & Nancy foster five Traveller children from heroin addicted parents and have been active in Traveller community development for over 20 years.
Barney: Before we got this house we saw a house up in Beechmont and the agent said it’s a good job it’s you that’s interested because there’s Travellers interested and I don’t want to give it to Travellers. I said to Nancy let’s see if we get it first and then we’ll tell him, but I got furious with him, I didn’t take it.
“Without a shadow of a doubt if we had recognition as an ethnic minority we’d be entitled to rights”
Without recognition we’re just seen as dropouts. Once it’s proven that we’re an ethnic minority, and it is in the North and England, it’s different.
Nancy: I’ve been involved in Travellers rights for 20 years and nothing has changed. There’s only 0.1 % of Travellers go on to third level education. The vast majority who are in full time employment with settled people are hiding who they are, hiding that they’re Travellers, they can’t self identify.There’s a couple in the Gards that will not identify themselves as Travellers, there’s a prison officer in Mountjoy who’s a Traveller, he can’t self identify and that affects the census. They say there’s 36,000 here and 4,500 in the North but there’s not, there’s more.
Barney: Once the children have finished primary there’s nothing like, schools round here they can refuse you as a Traveller. I was 10 when I left school, Nancy was 11. I remember being involved in a youth training centre when I was 13 or 14. I was vocal and kind of got to like it. You become a mouth and people listen to you and you like it you know.
“It’s an ego thing but it’s a feel good factor when you feel you can do something right”
The sense was easy to get, the education part was hard because it wasn’t heard tell at that time for Travellers to get onto third level and I had a very bad primary education, it was frowned upon, everyone was sneering. Now, you could continue acting an eejit or you could try and do something for yourself. So first and foremost it was about yourself. My education came from myself, my own initiative. My understanding was you’ve nothing in this hand, you’ll never get anything so you’ve got to get up and do something, you can keep going this way and end up like the majority of the Travellers or if you’re passionate about something you’ll actually change it.
Nancy: I got involved with Pavee Point. I knew that they talked about human rights and that’s when I became aware that we were treated differently. But we were powerless, you see it as the norm. Say you walk into a shop and get put out and instead of causing a scene, because its seen that Travellers cause scenes, you just walk out with embarrassment, shame, whatever. You go for hotels and no matter how well you’re done up you get put out.
Barney: You’re resilient, see when I was a young fella and living in a housing estate here in Navan, the mothers were telling their kids not to play with us and it was at that point you see there’s something different. Even though you weren’t told it, your instinct told you that if they’re not expected to play with you, you drew the conclusion that there was something strange.
Nancy: You can see it even with the small children here. This estate we’re staying in is a private estate and the children won’t be let mix. You can see with my three small ones, they go out and play among themselves, there’s segregation. Stay away from them people is what the settled children are told, they learn very early.
Barney: The media is deadly, they never give a good story about Travellers. When they do a story about Travellers they’ll get it the wrong way round on the front page and the next day there will just be a line inside putting it right. We went to Rome last year, 3000 Travellers at the special invitation from the Pope there was not a word of coverage in Ireland and we definitely made ourselves known. Mag O’Leary got a selfie with the Pope. I said how did you get that and she said “Well I just made it my business to get it”. This is the Pope like and still its not newsworthy.
There’s a study shows that Travellers have different DNA from the average Irish person. Traveller DNA goes back to the fifth century. So we are distinct.
On a European level the state has to recognise Roma and Travelling people but it does not have a knock on effect inside Ireland. Politically they have to recognise it but it doesn’t filter down to the average TD. There is one Traveller TD from Sinn Fein in County Donegal, well his grandmother was a Traveller.
The government, they’re afraid to do anything about it because they were asked in 1989. When they drew up the Nice treaty they were asked if there were any ethnic minorities in Ireland and they refused to say yes. So now they’re not accountable. How they can manage to escape it I don’t know but they still receive European money for minorities. There are 52 councils around the country and nine spent the money, the rest sent the money back. I do know that when we moved to Cavan I applied to the council for the Traveller Grant and they’d never heard tell of it. I had to get the Department of Environment to tell them. It was ringfenced.
Of course the problem with right to buy is that if you can afford to buy your house from the council where have you got the money from? You’ll lose every entitlement and benefit if you’re on social welfare. Unless you’re working legally, but that’s the catch because how do you get a job?
Reminiscences: The real lives of Irish Travellers exhibition opened in October 2016 at the Cavan Arts Centre, Cavan Town. The exhibition is continues to tour throughout Ireland.
Follow reminiscences at Mike Stone, Reminiscences
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