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'The word knacker makes me feel nervous and ashamed'

John Connors says the word will always be offensive to Travellers but he doesn’t think Irish people will ever stop using it.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

I GREW UP knowing I was a second class citizen but it was alright, it was normal. It was grand like you’d never question it.

John Connors spoke to TheJournal.ie about how he felt growing up as a Traveller in Ireland. The activist and actor said the word ‘knacker’ was something he was called in school everyday.

“I remember the first time I was called it. I was four and in junior infants. I went home and I asked my mam what a knacker was and I could see the look on her face.

That’s when it all started. That’s when I realised I was different from other children.

Speaking about the effect of the word, Connors spoke about recent times when he would be relaxing with friends, and friends of friends, and how somebody would say it and instantly he would feel ‘put in his place’ and ashamed.

“We’d all be just sitting down in a pub, drinking Guinness, having singsongs. Irishmen – I’m not a Traveller, they’re not settled people – all just Irishmen, and then all of a sudden one of them would say the word ‘knackers’ and they’d be referring to Travellers.

And straight away my heart beats a bit quicker and I just get nervous and ashamed. I just feel like I’ve been stripped back, like I thought everything was alright and now I’m just this size. It just makes me feel that small.

“My natural reaction about six or seven years ago was to break their jaw, but then I learned that’s not very helpful because then you just have a broken jaw you have to deal with.

“Now I ask them about the word knacker and explain what the definition is, explain what I am, and explain that they are two very different things.

“It’s always going to be deeply offensive to us but there’s no point in weighing in on it because it will never change. It’s always going to affect me but I think it’s impossible to overcome it.”

‘I’ll never live in a house again’

The third and final programme in Connor’s three-part series, The Travellers, airs tonight.

The actor says he had no expectations about how the documentary would be viewed but that he has received very positive feedback from the settled community, with many people telling him that it has changed how they view Travellers.

90399331 John Connors in Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre in Dublin last year. Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

He added that he wanted Traveller people to learn and feel pride when watching the programme.

My intention was always to show the truth because I’ve seen so many documentaries that were just lies.
My idea was to come in and tell the truth and tell the stories and let people tell the stories … that’s the Irish way.

“We’re just presenting facts and stories and let people figure it out for themselves.”

Connors described how he came across a lot of new information about Travellers while working on the series, “A lot of the stuff I wouldn’t have known myself.

“We always had a sense that we’re really Irish but never looked into it … what I know now is that a lot of our traditions, and a big part of our culture, comes from Gaelic Ireland and we were lucky enough to hold onto them.

If you look around the 1500s, the Irish were called the nomadic people, or the wandering Irish, because the vast majority of the people actually travelled.

“When the British colonised us, one of the things they wanted to do was to get the Irish to settle. We were always a travelling country, they wanted to get us to settle so we could pay taxes, that was the main objective, to get rid of the Gaelic culture.

Gaelic culture was based around family and living around your family … we’re still trying to live around each other in our halting sites which is a modern-day version of that.

00030483 File Photo, 2001. Source: Gareth Chaney via Photocall Ireland

Last year Connors moved back to the halting site in Darndale where he grew up and he says he is “way happier” since.

He moved because his mother was suffering from arthritis and there was no electricity in the camp at the time.

I’ll never live in a house again, the only way I’ll leave the site is in a coffin. I love it, my family all around me.

“It’s the way I grew up for 17 years of my life so I’ll never change now.”

John Connors: The Travellers airs on RTÉ 1 at 9.35pm.

Read: No empathy for families of five children and five adults burned to death>

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