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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 21 October, 2019
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Opinion: 'It's such a worrying time for Travellers. Is every fifth person I meet a Traveller hater?'

Activist Eileen Ní Fhloinn says it worries her as a Traveller woman “to see the brazen and openness of anti-Traveller sentiment that’s out there on social media and political forums”.

Eileen Ní Fhloinn

I’M SEEING FOR the last two weeks on social media people backing Peter Casey for president because he is “saying what we are all thinking”.

It worries me as a Traveller woman to see the brazenness and openness of anti-Traveller sentiment that’s out there on social media and political forums.

They will come up with all sorts of scenarios – of when they were robbed by a Traveller or when they left a mess in their area, but will never look at the lack of services or the discrimination that Travellers face on a daily basis.

They will comment on how privileged they are and how Travellers won’t work, but they won’t mention how over 70% of employers said they would never hire a Traveller or how many Travellers who excelled in their profession had to hide their background. 

They’ll mock our accents and our culture but will sing along to folk music and Trad music that was a gift to the settled community from the Travellers. 

There is such outrage about six houses in Tipperary but not a murmur when 10 Travellers died in that awful fire three years ago in Carrickmines. 

My community was once welcomed into communities, we brought our tinsmith skills, our poetry, our stories and songs. Sadly Irish society changed; it has become obsessed with wealth and property and that property is worth more than the life of any Traveller. 

‘Our nomadic way of life was outlawed’

2672 Traveller ethnicity_90539751 Source: Leah Farrell

In the early 2000s it became illegal to travel [the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act criminalised trespass on public and private land], our nomadic way of life was outlawed. But nobody wanted us to live beside them, as the song says Go, Move, Shift. We were filthy, thieves, we were pushed right to the edge of society and the results have been disastrous. 

Higher suicide rates, higher unemployment rates, lowest education rates. Highest infant mortality rates, highest rates of homelessness: remember, we are less than 1% of the population, only 40,000. We’d only half-fill Croke Park. 

Last night as the polls came in they showed Peter Casey had jumped from 1% to 21% on the back of his anti-Traveller sentiment. It’s such a worrying time for Travellers. Is every fifth person I meet a Traveller hater, well it certainly feels like it. I’m not naive enough to think that there was no racism towards us out there but I’m shocked at the high level of it. 

There are more and more Travellers completing education and trying to make the best of life, but for a large minority this isn’t good enough, we still be filth in their eyes. This presidential election has pushed our community even further to the edges. 

I really think the media played a role in this and thought more about ratings than the consequences of such open blatant racism and the effect it can have on a community .

A large part of the debate was asking the other candidates their view on Travellers, which suggested that Casey’s views were in some way legitimate. The role of journalism should not be to just seek opinions but also to research fact.

My community was recognised as a different ethnicity to the settled community and this decision was backed up by scientific research. But I didn’t hear any journalist challenge Casey on this. 

A lot of people don’t know that we have our own language, Ceant/Gammon and it has survived and will continue to survive without any formal education. This is testament to the resolve of my community and how we have lived in Ireland for over 1,000 years . 

Divide and conquer has always been a tool used by the powerful to keep the masses in their place. So I wonder who is next on Casey’s hit list. That famous Niemoller poem still rings true today as it did in the forties:

First they came for the Travellers, and I did not speak out – because I am not a Traveller. 

Author photo by Ruth Medjber.

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Eileen Ní Fhloinn

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