'Travellers still judged and rejected by settled communities' - bishop
Years after sharing his home with Travellers, Dr Willie Walsh says stigma has intensified, writes Claire Mc Cormack
Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30
He still vividly remembers the day eight caravans pulled up on the front lawn outside his home, the Bishop's Palace, in Ennis, Co Clare.
It was meant to be a temporary solution but he still felt nervous.
What will the neighbours think? Will the county council be annoyed? Will I be labelled a 'do-gooder'?
These thoughts raced through the mind of Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh, the day he turned his garden into a halting site.
But deep down, he knew he was doing the right thing.
In the early years of the new millennium, a by-law stopped Travellers from parking on any road within a certain number of miles of Ennis town centre.
Read more: Funerals of halting site dead now confirmed
Whole families were ordered to relocate but no one could tell them where to go.
Unable to stand by and watch the Travelling Community suffer in silence, Bishop Walsh (now retired) allowed up to eight caravans park outside the parochial house - his then residence.
"It was a gut instinct; something had to be done at the time and the church has an obligation to help the deprived. Maybe secretly I wanted to put the issue into the public consciousness and put a little pressure on local authorities," said Dr Walsh.
"Some people said it was wrong of me, others said it was the right thing to do. It wasn't always easy, we had a reasonable relationship and they never caused any harm," he said.
For the most part, the families did their best to keep the place clean.
The council provided them with large bins.
"The lawn inevitably got a fair amount of muck in the winter months but there was no anti-social behaviour," he said.
"I enjoyed them; it was nice to see children playing around in safety. They weren't in danger as they often were on the side of the road. I continued my work and they didn't interfere with me," he said.
From around 2000-2005, a significant number of Traveller families, and some individual caravans, came through the gates of the bishop's palace - many during times of major crisis.
More than a decade later, Dr Walsh says he is "disappointed" the community still faces the same inequality, judgement and rejection. "I had always hoped this issue would be resolved within 10 or 15 years but it's no better now than 20 years ago. In fact, sadly, I'm inclined to think the issue is getting worse," he said.
He's not surprised a stand-off has broken out between residents, the local authority and the Travelling Community at Rockville Drive, Carrickmines, in south Dublin - a situation arising from the halting site fire on Glenamuck Road last weekend.
Five adults and five children were killed in the early morning blaze.
"My reaction is two-fold. I'm very conscious of the awful tragedy that has happened and the need to find a temporary site but there is no short term solution to this whole issue," he said.
"I understand why people are protesting, the idea of a halting site next door upsets people and some elderly people are afraid. But this happens in any community where young people grow up feeling they don't have any stake," he said.
The priest, who has been interested in the Traveller Community since his childhood in Roscrea, north Tipperary, says they are "no different" than any other community he has known over the years.
"The reality is some Travellers do cause problems but I find settled people are all for halting sites provided they are 'not in my backyard'," he said.
"I sometimes feel that we have become a nation of blamers no matter what problem arises," he said. For Dr Walsh, a solution won't be reached until all three groups - residents, Travellers and the local authority - are willing to take serious responsibility.
However, even if an agreement emerges, he stressed halting sites will not facilitate lasting change on a national scale.
"I think Travellers have the impression that you don't respect them. In general, if any person feels they don't have the respect of society they're going to react to that and it prevents a relationship of equality," he said.
"A lot of Travellers live with a sense of rejection from the settled community. They say things like 'it's because I'm a Traveller I'm being excluded' or 'it's because I'm a Traveller I can't get into a pub'."
For him, education and leadership within the Travelling Community is vital.
He believes special schools and training centres for Travellers are the best place to start.
When asked if he has any regrets about allowing Travellers to park on his front lawn, he said his only contrition is not getting to know them individually.
"I'm sorry I didn't get to know them better or talk to them at a personal level," he said.
"In some way my relationship with them was one of inequality because I was in a position of power, offering help. You can never develop a real relationship with somebody unless there is equal respect on both sides," he said.