Wednesday 13 November 2019

Willie Kealy: They are a problem, but so are we

Travellers should be able to participate fully in this State without giving up their culture, writes Willie Kealy

THEY say if you want to get elected President of the United States, you have to convince as many as you can of the 310 million population that you are someone with whom they would like to have a beer.



If that is true, then John Joe Nevin has no chance. He can't even persuade the publicans to let the people of Mullingar drink in the same pub as him. For while they turned out in their thousands to welcome home their Olympic hero, and his face now adorns the "Gar" -- the local "currency" -- the publicans of Mullingar decided that their customers would most definitely not like to have a beer with Travellers of any hue, Nevins or not.

Some family members went so far as to suggest that this affected John Joe's attitude going into the Olympic final and contributed to him giving less than his best performance.

John Joe's club trainer, Brian McKeown, says that when he gets into the ring, it doesn't matter if John Joe is "a Traveller, a Fianna Failer or a Hindu". Unfortunately, it's when he gets out of the ring that it matters. And especially when he goes home to Mullingar.

The action of the Mullingar publicans was not irrational. It was based on experience and on an image of Travellers that many of us share. Travellers themselves have contributed to that image. They have made much of their claim to separate ethnicity for a long time now. But it is not that simple. They are entitled to claim some kind of separate identity based on their propensity to travel, their association with horses, maybe even their "cant" -- the language some of them talk among themselves, confusing outsiders, whom they refer to as "countrymen".

But they are no more entitled to it than, say, Kerry people are entitled to see themselves as a breed apart when it come to Gaelic football, or Kilkenny people with regard to hurling.

Unfortunately it isn't a language or a love of horses of even the travelling that is the essential divide between

Travellers and the rest of us. It is a deliberate decision by Travellers to keep themselves separate from the rules governing society. Too often, the rootless nature of their existence is a means to avoid getting tied up in the red tape the rest of us are subject to -- things like taxes and driving licences and insurance, planning permission, and having to send the children to school. Then there is the total disregard for public safety when they try to settle their family "feuds" with slash hooks and shotguns in public; or through bare-knuckle boxing matches in which their uneducated, well-muscled young men participate while the rest gamble thousands of euro.

Our less than favourable image of Travellers has not been helped by their recent participation in TV reality shows. Only last week, we saw a young Traveller woman about to be offered a career making "big fat gypsy wedding" dresses having to turn down this opportunity because her father had decided to pack up everything from their settled home and go travelling. In fairness, he made this decision to try to find new employment. But there was no question of his daughter being allowed to stay behind and pursue a potential career. Their society is patriarchal, and so it was not up for discussion. Instead she will most likely follow the traditional path laid out for Traveller women for generations -- marry young, live in a caravan and have lots of children. And it was clear she was heartbroken about this.

The negative stereotype is reinforced too by the recent appalling case of the Irish Traveller family that kept homeless men in slavery for years in the UK.

There is no doubt that Travellers in this country are discriminated against as a group. It happens every day, in homes and in workplaces, with knacker "jokes" and remarks. Like, for example, the idiot who tweeted a tasteless "joke" last week about John Joe and his family which denigrated him, them, and his achievement.

The publicans of Mullingar were just more upfront, more honest, with their discrimination. Francis Barrett, another proud Olympian and Traveller, said: "It is wrong. If African or Polish people were not served in pubs because of their nationality, there would be big trouble -- and so there should be. It is time now that the Government got involved. If someone messes in a pub and gets put out, they should be barred and barred instantly, but if someone has never been in a pub before and gets turned away for no reason, well that is a different issue."

Of course he is right in saying that all Travellers should not be tarred with the same brush. And while running a pub the Francis Barrett way would be more difficult, it would be fairer. But when he talks about Africans and Poles he forgets that for all their difference, Travellers are not foreigners or immigrants, they are Irish. And as Irish men and women, while they deserve the same chance as everyone else living here, they also have the same obligations. But that is not to say their rights are conditional on good behaviour. Undoubtedly they don't have the same educational opportunities as everyone else, and for as long as this is true they will remain a deprived subculture, looked down on and discriminated against.

But it is not just our attitude to Travellers that has to change. In terms of schooling, they have always been unwilling horses. They are suspicious. They see schooling as the ways of the "countrymen". They fear that if their children get a proper education, they will eventually integrate into the wider community and their way of life will disappear. They are probably right -- something will be lost -- but that can no longer be used as an excuse to keep themselves so far apart from the rest of us.

It should not be impossible for Travellers to become full participants in the life of this State without having to disavow what they regard as their "culture". There are many settled and successful Travellers to prove that. And while the successful integration of this too-long-lost tribe will not happen quickly, that is no reason to continue the simmering, discriminatory gulf between these two strands of society. The gulf between us is immense but difficult to grasp. John Joe himself was enignatic in Mullingar last week, even as the celebrations were at their height, but the background tense: "I feel the same about the people of Mullingar as they feel about me!"

In America in the Sixties, young black males were largely uneducated, frequently in trouble with the law, and were openly discriminated against by the white population. They were barred from the best bars and restaurants, and this wasn't against the law. One day one of them came home from the Olympics with a gold medal. He went to a local diner, proudly wearing his trophy around his neck, only to be told that he would not be served because of the colour of his skin. It made him wonder what was the value of the medal he had worked so hard to acquire, what was the meaning of all the plaudits he had received from the city fathers. And he decided that if he couldn't get served in his own home town after winning an Olympic medal, it meant nothing. So he threw it in the Ohio river.

Let us hope that we are never responsible for giving John Joe Nevin a Cassius Clay moment, when our behaviour towards the Traveller community tempts him to question the value of his achievements and consign his Olympic medal to the bottom of Lough Owel, where Malachy's fabled collar of gold is said to lie.

Sunday Independent

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