Tuesday 21 May 2019

My great-grandfather, the warrior

'Love/Hate' star John Connors is still inspired by the relative who took part in the Rising as a teenager, he tells our reporter

Inspired: Actor John Connors pictured at home in Coolock. Photo: Douglas O’Connor.
Inspired: Actor John Connors pictured at home in Coolock. Photo: Douglas O’Connor.
John's great-grandfather Patrick (on right) served 18 months in prison after 1916

Celine Naughton

Best known as bomb-maker Patrick who gunned down drug kingpin Nidge in the gritty crime drama Love/Hate, in real life, actor John Connors is a rebel with a cause of a different kind.

Describing discrimination against Travellers as "the last acceptable form of racism," he says nothing has changed for his people in the last hundred years when Irish volunteers, including his great grandfather, Patrick Ward, put their lives on the line for their country. Patrick, from Tuam, Co Galway, was only 16 when he joined the garrison at Roe's Distillery in Dublin during the Easter Rising.

"He and his uncle and cousin were among those who fought for the promise of a socialist republic where all people would be treated equally, as set out in the Proclamation," says John.

"And look at us now, Travellers living in Third World conditions in a First World country, on sites without electricity, families evicted and told to put their children into care… Where's the equality in that?"

John's inspiration comes from his great grandfather, whose story aroused in him a passion for history and social justice.

"Patrick was fearless. At 14, when his father and older brother went to fight in the First World War, he got himself a fake birth certificate and went to Coventry to join them, but his father sent him home. A few months later, his father and brother were killed in action.

"After the Rising, Patrick was jailed along with the other rebels, and he served a further 18 months in prison after fighting against the Treaty in the War of Independence. I'd heard a bit about him growing up, but when I saw a picture of him on the wall of a Travellers' centre in Balbriggan, I asked my grandfather to tell me more.

"Then I did some research of my own online and as I got to know more about Patrick Ward, I couldn't have been more proud. He had warrior blood in his veins. He had a profound effect on me."

After his imprisonment, Patrick went back on the road. He married a half-settled, half-Traveller woman called Bridget and they had 10 children, two of whom died in infancy. But he came to a tragic end when, in 1942, while camping in Athlone, the local landowner, Joseph Lee, accused him of rabbit-snaring.

"This was later proved to be untrue," says John. "Somebody else was found to have been snaring rabbits on the estate, but Lee ordered him to leave. They argued - Patrick protested he needed time - but Lee was having none of it. He shot him dead.

"In his statement Lee said, 'I killed a tinker today. I lost the head. I killed him.' Later he retracted that statement and said it was an accident. He got six months for killing my great-grandfather. Six months! After everything Patrick had done for his country."

Bridget went back to Dublin and raised her family in Summerhill in the city centre. Some of her children stayed and some went back on the road, including John's grandfather, Paddy. John himself was born in London and a year later his parents returned to Ireland.

"We lived in camps, mostly in the Coolock area of Dublin, where I live today. I came back here recently after six years of living in a house. I like having extended family around and being surrounded by people I trust. In my line of work, you get noticed by the public and that attention can turn some people into hot air balloons. It feeds the ego. Travellers wouldn't let you away with any nonsense. We're grounded, because we know who we are and we're proud of it."

Acting is not a common career path in the Travelling community, but John hopes his own success will pave the way for other young Travellers to tread the boards.

"Travellers are the best storytellers in the world! And acting is a form of storytelling too, so I'm not surprised I was drawn to it."

Straight out of acting school, John landed the lead role in the film, King of the Travellers, then along came Love/Hate, and this year the 26-year-old has more exciting projects in the pipeline, including an RTE documentary in March called The K Word, about relationships between Travellers and the settled community. He's also turned his hand to screenwriting and his film, Cardboard Gangsters, premieres this summer.

"It's about young lads who start out as low-level drug dealers. I play the lead role, Jay, who falls on hard times when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and his mother's house is taken away. He starts dealing heroin, and comes into conflict with the local kingpin. It's a gangster movie that's rooted in social realism.

"My great grandfather made me politically aware and that informs a lot of what I do. I'm massively inspired by him."

That inspiration extends to using his celebrity to train the spotlight on the cause of the Travelling community.

"Travellers are an ethnic minority and we want to be recognised as such, here in our country of origin. We have a cultural tradition of our own and a shared history that distinguishes us from other groups, yet successive Irish governments deny what the UK, USA and other countries recognise as a distinct ethnic group.

"They try to assimilate us into the settled community and destroy our culture, but we won't be broken. The promise of a just and equal society that Patrick and his comrades fought for in 1916 has not yet been realised, but I haven't given up hope."

Irish Independent

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