Tuesday 22 October 2019

‘They were calling me names like dirty knacker and smelly tinker and I couldn’t understand why’- Irish traveller (19) on her experiences in education

Chrisdina O'Neill (19) opened up about her experiences in education
Chrisdina O'Neill (19) opened up about her experiences in education

Patricia Murphy

A UCC student from the travelling community has opened up about the discrimination she faced in primary school and suggested that teachers did not invest time in her education because of her background.

Chrisdina O’Neill (19) spoke about her experience on RTE Radio One’s Today with Sean O’Rourke and said she was often taken away from the mainstream classroom with other Travellers, and her ability was not taken into consideration.

“I had good and bad experiences in school. In infant school, straight away, there were preconceived ideas that I needed to be taken out of the mainstream classroom and put into different classes with other members of the travelling community. From very early on, they said that we were different.”

“I used to ask why couldn’t my friends come out with me because my best friend was from the settled community. I’d have to go out with the other travellers. They said ‘She stays here, you go out’.”

The UCC student, from Charleville in Cork, said she was often the subject of racist namecalling by her peers, which she could not understand as a young girl.

“I had great friends from the settled community but there was also others that would call me names. I was called so many names when I was walking in the hall. If there was birthday invitations, you were always the one left out when everyone else would get one. They’d make sure to treat you different because they didn’t like you.

“I didn’t know how to take it. I wondered why I was different because it was okay in the classrooms, I just got on with the work. When it came to people my own age it was hard because I didn’t understand why they were calling me names like dirty knacker and smelly tinker because I was very young at the time,” she said.

The Cork woman, who studies English and History, said her education experience shifted in secondary school, where she was shocked that teachers believed in her ability and encouraged her in class.

"When I went into first year I thought ‘Grand, I’m going to be put into the special reading and writing class but the teachers didn’t take me out as they took out other members of the travelling community. I ended up asking them why can’t I go out now, and they said I didn’t need them.

"It was clear in primary school they hadn’t picked up that I could actually read and could actually write. They just put me out because of who I was.

 “I had the greatest, most dedicated teachers that I could ever know”, she says. “They really influenced me and what I am going for now, in college. They were very good to me and they treated me like the rest of the class, which is what I really needed.”

Chrisdina now aspires to be a teacher, an ambition born from the teachers who encouraged her education in secondary school.

“I’m hoping to be a teacher, because of the great teachers I had in secondary school,” said Chrisdina.

Just 1pc of the Traveller Community in Ireland carry on into third level education, and TJ Hogan (21) said there are huge failures and cases of discrimination in schools throughout the country.

“I had an obstacle up until first year in third level. It struck home for me when I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia two years ago during my first semester in DIT. There has to be a fault in the education system if my dyslexia wasn’t picked up until then,” said TJ, also from Cork.

“Primary school was very difficult. I was taken out for extra reading and writing classes for English. To be honest you’re just kind of given a colouring book and told to pass the time away. Going through secondary school I developed the role of a messer.

“I was taken out of class as well in secondary school for this extra reading and writing that never happened,” he said.

TJ Hogan (21) was diagnosed with severe dyslexia in 2014
TJ Hogan (21) was diagnosed with severe dyslexia in 2014

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