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Traveller families forced into exodus after church carnage


Barney McGinley

Barney McGinley

Michael McDonagh and Jacqueline McDonagh

Michael McDonagh and Jacqueline McDonagh


Barney McGinley

Several Traveller families are reported to have already uprooted and begun moving out of the country in the aftermath of last Wednesday's murder and attempted murder at the Co Fermanagh Traveller wedding, sources in the community have told the Sunday Independent.

The shocking attack has forced innocent women and children to flee as a result of feuding among the menfolk, the sources say.

It is believed the murder was in retaliation for another violent attack on two young men who were hacked with machetes, slash hooks and other weapons last year. Both survived what amounted to a double murder attempt, but have suffered permanent injuries. At Christmas, a series of threats were issued by men from both factions.

'Small' Barney McGinley (63), who died from his injuries in Enniskillen Hospital, was blamed for instigating the attack on the two young men in the Midlands last year, reputed to be over an alleged €1,000 debt, sources said.

The feud that led to last week's murder has also involved other attempted murders, pipe bombings, shootings and other violent incidents involving weapons over the past decade. Two years ago, the feud widened to include members of the 'dissident' republican group, the 'Continuity' IRA, who were involved in criminal activities alongside men from the Travelling community.

The origins of the feuding are unclear, even among members of the Travelling community. Some believe it has its origins in another bloody street battle at a fair in Ballyshannon in the early 1990s, in which a distant relative of Barney McGinley's was severely injured.

Those who suffer most from male feuding are innocent women and children from those clans. Traveller sources say bitter and long- lived blood feuds perpetuate fear and instability.

Traveller children making progress in full-time education are forced to move away from schools and fail to achieve literacy beyond early primary level. This instability further feeds into the severe social problems in the community, the sources said last week.

The problems facing Traveller women were most tragically illustrated by the murder of Jacqueline McDonagh, by her husband, bare-knuckle fighter Michael McDonagh at their mobile home in Co Louth in August 2012. McDonagh, a semi-heroic figure among male travellers for his fighting prowess, subjected his wife to a life of constant violence and intimidation, a hearing prior to him being sentenced to life imprisonment heard last Monday.

Jacqueline McDonagh (36) had repeatedly tried to escape her husband but, under pressure from McDonagh, also 36, that he would kill members of her family, had to return to him. McDonagh subjected his wife to an 80-minute beating during which she repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to call her father for help from a mobile phone which became clogged with her blood.

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The court heard that like many body builders and men in the unofficial fight scene, McDonagh was taking steroids and benzodiazepine, the sedative used to counter the heightened aggression resulting from steroid abuse. Such drug abuse is said to be very common among pugilists in the Travelling community and an increasing cause of violence toward women and children.

The issue of male aggression was addressed by Judge John Neilan in handing down sentences to two members of a Mullingar-based Travelling family in February 2009.

Judge Neilan referred to male Travellers coming before his court as living "in the dark ages, hell-bent on pursuing" feuds while Traveller women were at "the coalface" of trying to move on and not carry the stigma of constant battles and feuds.

He said it was an "appalling tragedy that male members of the community are persisting" in "causing mischief" and engaging in conduct "horrendous by any standard in a civilised society".

"Unless they listen to the females, they are going to drag the community back every time into this feud that's going on in places around the country."

He added: "The female members are anxious to join society on the same terms as the rest and I commend them for that, but they are getting no help whatsoever from their male partners and sons."

Judge Neilan's warnings have had no apparent impact on the feuding male Travellers. In October 2010, then 12-year-old Michaela Maughan was turned into a 'human fireball' during an attack on a relative's home in Longford in an outbreak of feuding. The child suffered terrible burn injuries but survived. Michaela's mother, two other women and two other younger children managed to escape as the house caught fire in the arson attack. No one was held accountable for this outrage.

In April 2010, Traveller and settled children had to be ushered to safety outside Creagh National School in Ballinasloe, Co Galway when a party of men brandishing machetes and other weapons arrived and attacked two male Travellers waiting to collect their children.

There is more or less 'constant' feuding underway around the country, gardai said last week, little of it attracting press attention. Last July, parts of Finglas and Ballymun had to be sealed off and gardai called in from around the city to deal with vicious street fighting between dozens of men and boys from two rival families.

The increasing access to guns has made Traveller feuding more lethal, and drug and alcohol-fuelled attacks are an increasing threat to the lives of children and women.

In October 2013, Traveller gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons on a house in Drogheda, Co Louth where two young mothers were minding five children. All escaped injury despite dozens of shots being fired.

And male Traveller reckless disregard for women and children was vividly highlighted in a case in Sligo in which the court heard that during an attack in the town centre last August, one of two assailants threatened to attack the victim's pregnant wife, shouting that he would "kick the child out of (the man's) wife".

The attack, during which the intended victim suffered severe injuries, took place not only in front of his wife and three other children but in broad daylight in front of horrified shoppers.

As with Wednesday's murder in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh as the wedding ceremony for teenage couple Matilda McGinley and James Connors was about to take place, planned gatherings such as weddings and funerals are repeatedly the scenes of violence.

In February last year, Ennis town council debated installing CCTV cameras at Drumcliffe graveyard in the town as it had been so frequently the scene of male Traveller violence. The debate came after reports of an episode in the cemetery involving men wearing bullet-proof vests with machetes.

The matter was deferred after the councillors were informed that the likely cost would be in the region of €100,000.

Members of the Travelling community affected by the persistent feuding around Co Clare told the Sunday Independent that dozens of families have had to uproot and adopt a nomadic existence, defeating attempts by womenfolk to settle and stabilise their children's lives.

State-provided accommodation in Ennis has also been severely vandalised.

In Waterford and Tralee, male Traveller feuding has led to the destruction of free accommodation for families, many who have been now forced into involuntary nomadism. In Waterford in 2008, more than €2m worth of damage was done to accommodation provided under the Government's Traveller Accommodation Act of 1999. Feuding in Waterford even spilled into the local hospital with reports at the time of a man wandering around Waterford Regional Hospital brandishing an axe.

Gardai last week spoke critically of judicial sentencing in relation to Traveller feuding saying that despite the potential heavy sentences for offences like violent disorder, the most frequent outcome of court hearings is a suspended sentence following guilty pleas.

One senior officer told the Sunday Independent it is now 'beyond time' the State introduced a policy of harsher sentencing and introduced electronic 'ankle bracelet' tracking for persistent male Traveller offenders.

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