Saturday 16 February 2019

Pat Kenny's Big Debate flushed out two lots of bad politics

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Pat Kenny's Big Debate proved a perennial truth: the old dog for the hard questions.

Kenny does not look like an old dog of course. Physically and mentally he is fighting fit. Behind him are years of sceptical sifting.

Kenny's greatest gift is his clarity of mind. No clutter, no waffle, no belly-rubbing.

That is why he was confident enough to flush out the bad politics of the two most challenging participants, Peter Casey and Liadh Ni Riada, without having to strike self- protective PC postures.

So when Peter Casey appealed to anti-Traveller prejudice to boost his flagging campaign, Pat Kenny did not pretend Casey's views were not shared by many people.

Alas, I suspect a majority of settled people are prejudiced against Travellers because of a few bad experiences. If so, the majority is wrong.

Here I speak, not as someone peering fearfully over a hedge in Foxrock, but from personal experience. Unlike most people, I have lived with Travellers, up close and personal.

Early in my first marriage, we took in a Traveller family who had been evicted. They lived with us rent-free for a few months and were a joy to share the house with.

Buoyed up by our successful house-sharing with the Wards, we took in a husband and wife from the settled community at the request of the Dun Laoghaire Housing Action committee.

A few days after they arrived, the brawny and tattooed husband barricaded half of the house. He refused to let us into his half and threatened violence. No idle threat.

The gardai told us he was a criminal with convictions for grievous bodily harm, but they could do nothing as it was a civil matter. So we had to call on some of our harder friends to help him leave.

Luckily, we spotted his parting gift - a nail driven into the wiring of the light switch, meant to electrocute us if switched on.

But this bad experience did not cause me to brand the entire settled community as criminals - as settled people regularly do when they blame all Travellers for the crimes of a few.

True, some Travellers can be thankless. A family to whom I gave a few bob every week robbed my house when I was on holiday.

But I did not dream of blaming the entire Travelling community for their bad behaviour no more than I could blame the settled community for the criminal who tried to electrocute us.

My most recent dealing with Travellers was earlier this year when I proposed to buy a second-hand car from a Traveller against the advice of a sceptical mechanic.

But I liked the seller and bought the car. The mechanic grudgingly gave it the nod and it ran through the NCT no problem.

Travellers, like settled people, come in all sorts. But I especially enjoy their edgier take on things and the sharper wits that comes from living on them.

Some time ago I interviewed the actor John Connors at a symposium in the National Film School (IADT) about how he got his start as an actor on an Abbey introduction course.

John told us they were asked to do improvisations about going into a shop to chat with the shopkeeper. He did not know what an improvisation was or what he should say.

So what did he do in the shop? "I robbed it."

Naturally, this hit my funnybone so hard I could barely breathe and most of the audience needed inhalers, too.

Far from funny, however, are some of the foul slurs on Travellers. But on Peter Casey I find myself in agreement with Sinn Fein TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn.

He believes Casey may have unwittingly done us some service by forcing us to debate the issue.

In any such debate I part company with some of the politically correct on the issue of integration versus assimilation.

Integration means the majority culture will support your celebration of your separate culture and traditions. Assimilation means merging with the majority so that in time most of the deeper differences disappear.

Personally I favour a policy of assimilation, as with the Irish and the Jews in America.

But as Travellers have decided to go down the road of integration we have to accept - to take one example - that horses are part of Traveller culture.

Conversely, Travellers have to accept the majority community has problems with how horses are treated.

Horses are a minor issue, however, compared with how Traveller culture adversely affects the education of Traveller women.

Pavee Point is trying to tackle this problem, but it needs more effort.

Meantime, how can the bourgeoisie work itself into a rage about a Traveller woman stealing €300 worth of children's clothes when "settled" bankers who blew our billions are blithely playing golf without a bother on them?

As for charges that Travellers are milking the State, I could also say the same about many sinecures in the public sector.

But I'm no bleeding heart. The downside of John Connors, as with so many Travellers, is the kind of tribal nationalism that mirrors loutish loyalism.

But as Liadh Ni Riada showed in her testy exchanges with Pat Kenny, bad tribal politics is not confined to Travellers.

Her politics are rooted in the romantic republicanism, of Cuil Aodha, an area which holds many happy memories.

Every summer in the early 1960s, as a sergeant in An Buion Gaelach, the Irish-speaking FCA platoon, we pitched our tents on the banks of the Sullane in Cuil Aodha where Sean O Riada reigned like a Gaelic chieftain.

After graduation in 1963 I spent some weeks babysitting O Riada's family who were staying in Bru na Graige in the Kerry Gaeltacht. My first wife, Anne Harris, was a student of Sean's in UCC. We were married in Cuil Aodha church and Sean O Riada said he wrote the first full Irish Mass for our wedding.

Later, in RTE, I shot the only existing film of Sean and Cor Cuil Aodha.

These springs of affection do not blind me to the fact that a Gaeltacht princess like Liadh Ni Riada is being ridiculous when she repeatedly claims common victimhood with poor Travellers. Cuil Aodha is not a halting site.

But I bring the same beady eye to bear on those who underestimated her.

Liadh Ni Riada is intelligent, articulate, and armed with an arresting voice, rich with the open vowels of Cuil Aodha.

Her independent stance on Mairia Cahill and on wearing the poppy sent out a reassuring message to middle Ireland.

Unlike Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, she's seen as someone who will not be dictated to by shadowy figures.

What a pity then that such a strong candidate had not the moral courage to dump the baggage of the brutal IRA campaign.

Because I am certain that if Sinn Fein had started her campaign earlier, and if she had the gumption to condemn IRA atrocities without whataboutery, she would now be breathing down Michael D Higgins's neck and he would be pumping his legs hard to clear the final hurdle.

Sunday Independent

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