Thursday 18 April 2019

Sinead Burke talks about the hate crime that led to her new campaign in Dublin schools

Sinéad Burke, Founder, Sinéad Burke, Ireland; Cultural Leader,.speaking during the Session
Sinéad Burke, Founder, Sinéad Burke, Ireland; Cultural Leader,.speaking during the Session "Designing for Everyone" at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2019. Congress Centre - Betazone Copyright by World Economic Forum / Mattias Nutt
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Irish writer and leading activist Sinead Burke has written about how a hate crime perpetrated against her on Dublin's O'Connell Street has led to her new campaign.

Ms Burke (28) - a contributing editor with British Vogue - said she has spent the past few weeks visiting schools in Dublin's north east inner city talking about what it means to be different and "how that concept unites us all".

Sinead Burke arrives at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2019/20 on February 20, 2019 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Gucci)
Sinead Burke arrives at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2019/20 on February 20, 2019 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Gucci)

Writing on Vogue's website, Ms Burke recounted an upsetting incident which spurred her along to visit schools in the area.

Ms Burke travelled to Dublin's city centre and got off on O'Connell Street. From there, she walked towards a new Japanese restaurant where she was looking forward to meeting a friend for lunch.

She was close to the Department of Education buildings, not far from the restaurant, when she spotted two teenage boys. 

"As I got closer, two boys, no older than 16, walked past me.

Irish writer Sinead Burke poses on the red carpet upon arrival to attend the British Fashion Awards 2018 in London on December 10, 2018
Irish writer Sinead Burke poses on the red carpet upon arrival to attend the British Fashion Awards 2018 in London on December 10, 2018

"One nudged the other, pointed to me and they both laughed. As a little person, this behaviour is sadly part of my everyday experience. As a teacher, I have a deep yearning to make these moments educational and want to help people learn that it is unkind and unjust to make derogatory remarks about people with dwarfism, but I’ve become accustomed to sensing when it is safe and unsafe to do so. I took a deep breath and kept walking.

"It seemed to happen in slow motion. A whoosh, followed by a thud.

"One of the boys landed in front of me. He had jumped over me, leap-frogged over my head from behind. I couldn’t believe it.

"I couldn’t make sense of it. He walked to the end of the road, turned around and walked past me again with a frightening grin. I was furious and scared."

Sinead Burke at Brown Thomas Dublin Autumn Winter 2018 International Designer Collections. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Sinead Burke at Brown Thomas Dublin Autumn Winter 2018 International Designer Collections. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Ms Burke soon realised that one of the teenagers recorded the incident on his phone.

"With tears threatening, I asked him if he knew that his behaviour was illegal. He laughed and jogged back to his friend who had recorded the entire incident on his phone.

"They seemed proud of themselves, proud of their actions. They knew that their content, my harassment, could go viral or be an instant pass to popularity among their peer group. I was devastated," she said.

Following the frightening experience, Ms Burke said she started to cry, and that nobody approached her to see if she was okay.

"I was crying, the kind of crying where you can’t catch your breath and speaking is difficult even though there is so much you need to say.

"People walked passed. They saw my distress but kept walking even though I needed them to ask me if I was okay.

"I called my Mam. Her warm hello quickly turned to worry, but she knew to immediately try and remind me that other people’s actions do not equate to my value or validity as a person. "

Her mother urged her to call gardai, which Ms Burke did. She wrote that gardai responded immediately, and an investigation commenced.

Thanks to her work with Little People of Ireland (the national organisation for little people and their families), Ms Burke has spoken to trainee gardai in Templemoe College, asking them to "root their policing in empathy".

"Yet, back on O’Connell Street," she wrote, " I couldn’t help feeling that, even though it was the right thing to do, calling the police wouldn’t be enough.

"If those boys were taken in and questioned, what would they learn, other than to not get caught? They would likely not gain any understanding of how the arrogance of being able to jump four feet in the air had frightened me in such an aggressive way.

"They wouldn’t see how scared I was or how easily they could have kicked me in the head or neck and caused serious physical harm. They would not be asked to answer questions about peer pressure or the importance of saying no when called upon to be an accomplice. Social media can be a powerful tool; it can be used to empower, to be a catalyst for change but it can also be weaponised as cruelty finds home in anonymity."

Through Little People of Ireland, Ms Burke already visits schools.

But following this incident, she decided to visit primary schools in the local area where she was attacked.

After she spoke to gardai, she contacted her good friend, the multiple All-Ireland winning Dublin star Michael Darragh McAuley.

McAuley is a programme officer with NEIC, a regeneration project for Dublin's North East Inner City and was able to help Ms Burke with her next idea.

"I had a big idea, I wanted to speak to every primary school child in the area.

"I wanted to encourage curiosity, challenge ignorance, empower them with a better vocabulary, and ask them to use their voices to make a difference.

"Being in those classrooms these past few weeks has been an enormous privilege. Children ask the most extraordinary questions - some wanted to know if I could drive, if I was married, where I bought my clothes, every detail about the role as a Contributing Editor at British Vogue, and what it feels like when people are cruel."

Ms Burke says society needs to stands together to make a difference in how we treat others.

"Advocates are making themselves vulnerable every day explaining the most intimate details of their lives to educate society and to make our world safer and kinder. We cannot do it alone. We need you all to shift the lens and to stand for something. We need you to stand with us."

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