John Connors: 'No matter what you do, you're seen as a drunken, smelly knacker'
'Love/Hate' star John Connors tells Celine Naughton why his community is still discriminated against - and how his own troubled upbringing spurred him on
His highly publicised documentary, I am Traveller doesn't air until tomorrow, but already John Connors has sparked a nationwide debate.
Following a heated exchange with Ryan Tubridy on last Friday's Late Late Show, the Love/Hate actor has been praised and vilified in equal measure on social media and been the subject of many column inches in the press.
He takes the criticism and vitriol with a casual shrug. He's used to it. If the controversy gets people watching his documentary, all the better. Viewers will get a first-hand glimpse of Traveller life and far from shutting up the nay-sayers, John hopes the programme will keep the debate going.
We need to talk, he says, we've needed it for years, and now, like it or not, Travellers will be heard.
There's a rage in John Connors, one that's been bubbling away all his life, and he makes no apology for it. It's what comes of oppression, he says, when generations of an indigenous minority are so reviled, they're no longer seen as people.
"No matter what you do as an individual, you're seen as a drunken, thieving, smelly knacker," says John. "It used to hurt, but no more. I'm not a knacker, I'm a Traveller."
The documentary is an unflinching account of what that means to John, who notes that unlike his acting peers who are often asked in interviews who they'd invite round for a fantasy dinner party, journalists invariably pigeon-hole him about Traveller violence and feuding, even though he's never been involved in a feud and finds the violence of the fewer than 10 families involved disgusting.
"The problem is that the majority of settled people see all Travellers as a backward, inbred minority," he says. "We're dehumanised, and that's the biggest hurdle to overcome. A few years ago my cousin, Aaron Joyce died at the age of 14 and a funeral home wouldn't accept his body, just because he was a Traveller. Even in death, an innocent child was treated as less than human. It was despicable."
During the making of the documentary last October, 10 members of the Travelling community were killed in a fire in Carrickmines, Co Dublin. In one of the most poignant scenes in the documentary, a 15-year-old boy describes how he struggles with the knowledge that, while he managed to rescue one of his nephews that night, he couldn't save his own brother Thomas, who died in the blaze.
According to John, the ensuing protests by local residents against plans to accommodate the survivors in a temporary site nearby "brought to the surface some of the worst, ugly prejudice out there."
It was, he says, a gamechanger.
"We're treated as second-class citizens, criminals from birth. It's endemic. And to make it worse, many young Travellers grow up actually believing they're inferior."
Social exclusion, racism, inequality of opportunity, unemployment and a gradual erosion of cultural identity have been cited by a number of studies to explain a high incidence of depression among Travellers.
The rate of suicide is six times that of the settled community, and John understands like few others the reality behind the statistics. He was only eight when his father killed himself.
"He'd attempted it before," he says. "I found him lying in bed with empty bottles of medication all around him, and foam coming out of his mouth.
"A few months later I was playing outside when I heard my father calling my name. I knew he wasn't at home, but I ran inside and asked, 'Where's Dad?' Of course, he wasn't there.
"I don't know if it was a ghost, or my imagination, or what. I just remember hearing his voice. A few hours later we were told he had drowned. He couldn't swim. He was 28.
"It was devastating, but the aftermath of his death was almost worse. Growing up without a father in the Traveller community is very difficult. Fathers are strong and they show their sons what to do. My two younger brothers and I got a bit of bullying because we had no father to look after us.
"However, we have great survival instincts, and our mother did everything she could to make sure we were okay. She's the best mother anyone could have, and we had a great childhood."
John, 26, was born in England and came back to Ireland with his parents when he was 11-months-old. They spent many years in Darndale, north Dublin, where he recently returned after years of living in a house.
"We grew up with 50 or 60 cousins all around us. We ran through fields, picked blackberries and slid down hills using politicians' old placards as makeshift sleds.
"Our days were wild and free, and every evening we all sat around a campfire, telling stories. It was a fantastic childhood and it shaped my life."
In his late teens, however, the idyllic childhood became a distant memory, when John experienced a depression that brought him to the lowest point in his life.
"I always wanted to be a boxer," he says. "I won All-Ireland titles, but then I lost a few fights and I quit. It left a big hole in my life. I'd left school at 15 to pursue my dream, I'd put all my eggs in one basket and when it was gone, I realised I had nothing - no qualifications, no job, nothing.
"I was so depressed, I gained eight stone in two years, I didn't engage with my family or friends. I was a loner. And then my brother came to me one day and said, 'Come on, talk about it. I know the boxing thing's gone, but you can do something else. Why not try acting?'
"It was a lightbulb moment. I thought, 'Wow!' I'd reached rock bottom, and had stopped caring what people thought of me. And in a way, that's what allowed me to give it a go. Because saying you want to be an actor in my culture, you might as well declare your candidacy for President of the United States.
"But I was free from worry, inhibition or fear of being judged. And once the seed was planted, I felt alive."
He did a course in the Abbey School of Acting and straight afterwards landed the lead role in the film, King of the Travellers. But it was his next role, as bomb-maker Patrick who gunned down drug kingpin Nidge in the crime series Love/Hate, for which he became best known.
"My brother threw me a lifeline that day," he says. "Acting has introduced me to many different things, including writing and directing - (his debut film, Cardboard Gangsters, is due for release this summer) - and a degree of fame gives me a platform to raise awareness about the issues facing Travellers, so I can try to change misconceptions and prejudice. And I'll never stop doing that. I'm on a mission."
Addressing the disproportionate rates of depression, suicide, illiteracy and unemployment in the Travelling community, the documentary also looks at the element of criminality that inflames so much discussion about Travellers. John reasons the issues are all interlinked.
"Travellers make up 0.6pc of the Irish population, and 12-15pc of the prison population. Research shows similar patterns in the Aboriginal tribes of America and other indigenous populations forced into assimilation, yet we're not allowed to raise this in a discussion about criminality. We need to have a sensible, civilised debate, and become more educated about each other.
"It will take generations to change things, and we need to start with symbolic gestures, in particular recognising Travellers as an ethnic group. This will go a long way towards helping the younger generation feel secure in their culture and identity.
"Then the bigger commitments need to be made. Travellers are a nomadic people forced into a world that's not ours. Today, if a Traveller wants to do something different, they feel they have to drop their accent, speak a certain way, act a certain way, and deny who they are.
"We have to change the game. I say follow your dream, but maintain who you are."
He is John Connors, Traveller, activist, actor and many other things - and for the record, the three he'd invite to that fantasy dinner are Malcolm X, Marlon Brando and James Connolly. Sounds like some party.
'I Am Traveller' is on RTE2 tomorrow at 9.30pm