For one group of 400 Travellers, anti-social behaviour seems the order of the day, says Lara Bradley.
For one group of 400 Travellers, anti-social behaviour seems the order of the day, says Lara Bradley
OTHER Travellers know them as "the millionaires". Each summer they set up camp in towns around the country, trading door-to-door and moving on only when forced to do so or when business dries up.
The brand-new, top-of-the-range cars and flash clothes indicate that this annual outing is highly profitable, but residents in the towns where they pull in say they feel "intimidated" and "under siege".
Currently dispersed among camps in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, and Swords, Co Dublin, this troupe of wealthy Travellers has left a trail of resentment and recrimination in their wake as they move around the country.
They were moved on from Wexford last Monday morning following a number of violent incidents. Previously they had been forced to move on from Waterford after a nine-day stay and, before that, a security firm was called in to press them to leave Swords, in north Dublin.
They moved en masse to Kinnegad last Monday, but split into smaller groups on Friday. The group of around 400 Travellers originate from Rathkeale in Co Limerick, which has become well-known as the "Traveller capital of Ireland".
Forty-five per cent of the town's population now class themselves as Travellers. The Rathkeale Travellers are a wealthy trading group whose business interests extend across Europe.
The same surnames come up time and time again when Travellers across Ireland, Britain and northern Europe hit the headlines.
The "millionaires" run a sophisticated business network. Their main trade is in furniture imported from eastern Europe, though they also sell tools, generators and antiques. They set up temporary depots wherever they make their camp and delivery lorries follow them around.
One of the most common complaints about the group is that they take their customers' old furniture away and do not always dispose of it properly. Sofas and armchairs were found floating in the river after the group departed from Wexford last week and abandoned furniture had to be removed after their departure from Waterford.
Last Thursday four Travellers - two of whom gave Rathkeale addresses - were jailed in Belgium for their part in a cigarette-smuggling gang. In sentencing James Scannel, Daniel O'Brien, Danny Flynn and Richard O'Brien, the Belgian judge said the four were part of a larger group of 150 Travellers who were "not afraid to use violence and intimidation to force truck drivers to carry large amounts of tobacco to the UK".
The "millionaires" are highly mobile, and while some give addresses in Britain and the North they regard Rathkeale, Co Limerick, as home and return there in huge numbers each Christmas.
When 800 members of the group arrived in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, last year residents threatened to withhold council tax payments in protest. Last week, angry residents launched a website www.middleenglandinrevolt.co.uk to provide support to other communities across the UK feeling under siege and intimidated from the Travelling community.
Spokesman Terry Brownbill said: "There is a Mafia feel to this lot. The main men are directing families around Britain and Ireland. They have called us racist, but we lived happily with English Travellers for 40 years until the Irish ones forced them out. These guys are extremely aggressive, demanding and anti-social. They shout at staff in shops, block the traffic and allow 14-year-olds to drive big vans at high speeds.
"They are involved in a property scam here and have promised pitch battles if they are stopped." The Middle England in Revolt group plans to visit Rathkeale later this month to "confront" the Travelling community there.
Mr Brownbill said: "They live in Rathkeale yet claim they are Travellers and have the right to set up camp wherever they like. We want them to explain that to us."
Feelings were running just as high in Wexford and Kinnegad last week. Sixty-eight caravans arrived on reclaimed land at Ferrybank, Wexford, on Tuesday, June 1. An hotel opposite the encampment was forced to close that evening, holidaymakers in a nearby official campsite checked out, and the municipal swimming pool had to shut its doors after being deluged by Travellers wanting to use their shower facilities.
Locals also claim a nearby playground was used as an open-air toilet.
The Riverbank hotel opened two days later after a 24-hour Garda presence was put in place, but business 'The hotel opened two days later, after a 24-hour Garda presence was put in'
plummeted by 55 per cent on the same period last year.
Manager Colm Campbell said: "Our customers couldn't get near the area so we had to close. A couple of girls came over and said it was discrimination that we wouldn't serve them, but the hotel was closed to everyone at that stage. They said they would come again at night and break all the windows, but that was the only threat we received.
"They are travelling in such a large group that the Gardai can not physically impound so many vehicles. I don't regard these people as Travellers. They are traders and they give ordinary Travellers a bad name. They have been in Wexford at least 10 times in the past five years, but it is the sheer numbers that are intimidating.
"We had the law on our side and it wasn't enforced, but in fairness to the Gardai their hands were tied."
Pubs in Wexford closed for several nights or employed extra security to deal with the perceived threat. Some put up notices such as: "Happy Birthday Seamus. Invited only. Thank you."
A tense standoff ensued two days later. A security company surrounded the site and trenches were dug around the encampment to prevent more Traveller families moving in. At the height of the altercation 40 Gardai, an ambulance and a fire engine were positioned at the entrance to the encampment. Eggs and stones were thrown at locals, but the Travellers claimed they were being discriminated against.
One Traveller, who was among the group, said: "We mean no harm to anyone. We go about for a month a year doing our business. We don't look for trouble at all. People have no reason to feel frightened of us.
"It's only on the bank holiday we meet up in a big group. We're not begging in the street, but the pubs and shops all close down when we arrive. We got blamed in Wexford for trouble from bikers high on drugs and another group who didn't want to mix with us."
Last Sunday around 20 of the group arrived in Killinick village five miles from Wexford. They were served in Ye Olde Cooper's Inn, but the barman refused to continue service after a number of menus were allegedly thrown around the bar.
One witness said: "They said, 'You're not serving us because we're knackers'. Then they threatened to break up the pub and to smash a bottle over his head."
The group crossed the street to the Merry Elf where once again they were served, but again became boisterous, with some urinating against the outside of the pub wall. Gardai were called and the group moved on.
Their next stop was Ryan's pub in the village of Taghmon, which is home to five families of settled travellers. One local said: "They drank in the pub for about a couple of hours, which was very intimidating for everyone else.
"They came wanting a row. We are a very close-knit community and the settled Travellers are part of that."
By 11pm a fight involving pool cues and broken glasses had broken out outside the bar between the visiting and settled travellers. A window of the pub was broken.
Businessman Eric Fenlon said: "These are small village pubs. They aren't big town pubs with security men. What can the barmen do? If people arrive in the village we would expect them to behave themselves. That didn't happen."
The injured attended Wexford General Hospital at 2am, where another fracas began. Several were arrested.
A total of 32 members of the Travelling community were charged with offences during the week-long stay in Wexford. Just two out of 18 men appeared before New Ross District Court last week to face charges relating to disturbances, and bench warrants were issued for the arrest of the others.
The convoy eventually left Wexford last Monday and headed to Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, where their arrival heralded similar tensions. Irish Traveller Movement spokesman David Joyce said: "These families are not seen among travellers as aggressive. They are very successful and have all the trappings of wealth. They are travelling in a large group in response to trespass legislation - there is safety in numbers in terms of being prosecuted by Gardai. The legislation was introduced to deal with this, but actually has the opposite effect."
But councillor Pat McLoughlin claimed Kinnegad felt "under siege". He said: "People are very uncomfortable and the huge numbers are intimidating. It's not politically correct to say so, but there should be some kind of law to prevent such large convoys travelling around the country."
Independent councillor Robert Bagnall has employed security staff to guard his supermarket business. He said: "They have been highly abusive towards my staff, they are double-parking in the street and tearing around in vans at high speeds giving people the fingers.
"This lot are not Travellers, they are hooligans. There are arrest warrants out for them, so I don't understand why the army aren't sent in if necessary to get them out. They think they can flout the law and they threaten to get compensation off anyone who challenges them."