#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 5°C Tuesday 7 December 2021
Advertisement

'An ongoing risk': Hep A outbreak at council site left five Traveller children hospitalised

Noteworthy and The Journal investigate lack of action on Traveller-specific accommodation across the country.

Noteworthy and TheJournal.ie logos with girl sitting at desk in the middle

“IT IS THE recommendation of the Department to expedite this site upgrade as a matter of public health need and urgency.” 

That was one of the conclusions of a report by the Department of Public Health on an outbreak of hepatitis A in west Dublin in December of last year. In total, 12 cases of the virus were identified, with the outbreak centred on the Labre Park Traveller housing scheme in Ballyfermot.  

The site – originally built in 1967 – is managed by Dublin City Council (DCC). It is severely overcrowded, with over 40 Traveller families, made up of about 180 people, living there in a mixture of houses and caravans. 

Of the 12 cases, the majority affected were children: five under the age of 10, and five aged between 11 and 19. At least five children were hospitalised as a result of the infection. 

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It is usually transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food and water or through direct contact with an infectious person.  

According to the HSE’s outbreak report, seen by Noteworthy, a site visit by a multi-agency outbreak team in January identified considerable concerns around sanitation at Labre Park. These included stagnant surface water, blocked sewage drains and the dumping of domestic waste. There was also a rat infestation on the site. 

According to the report’s authors, these concerns were identified as “the main hazards to human health which could contribute to transmission of infectious diseases, including HAV, onsite”. 

A mass vaccination programme was carried out, with over 70% of the residents of the site getting a hepatitis A vaccine. This vaccine is not in the childhood immunisation schedule and only given to those at high medical risk. DCC also carried out some remedial work to solve the drainage problem onsite.  

However, the report states that the sanitation infrastructure at the site “remains inadequate, while the planned upgrade of the residential site is outstanding”. 

The report recommended the site upgrade be expedited and stated: 

Quote by HSE Department of Public Health - Outbreak report of hepatitis A in Dublin West - The risk of outbreaks of infectious disease, and their impact on public health and child development present an ongoing risk to residents of Labre Park.

Labre Park is Ireland’s oldest, purpose-built Traveller housing, and has been earmarked for redevelopment for decades, with successive plans to build new accommodation falling through. 

The recent hepatitis A outbreak there is a stark example of the severe problems facing Travellers in unfit housing across the country, which has a damaging effect on the lives, outcomes, and health of Traveller families and children. 

*** 

Over the past number of months, Noteworthy and The Journal examined housing and accommodation supports for Traveller children as part of our TOUGH START investigation. This part of the series examines how the Irish State is failing to implement its own policies to provide safe, clean, and culturally appropriate accommodation to Travellers, and how this is affecting the mental and physical health of Traveller children. 

The investigation team carried out an audit of all 31 local authorities in relation to their record on delivering Traveller-specific accommodation, sent in numerous Freedom of Information requests, interviewed experts, advocacy workers, and Travellers most affected by the crisis.  

Today, we can reveal:

  • A previously unreported hepatitis A outbreak at a 50-year-old Traveller housing site was most likely caused by unsanitary conditions and resulted in the hospitalisation of at least five children. The Ombudsman for Children has confirmed that the office has been alerted to the site’s condition.
  • Six months after a landmark investigation into conditions for children at the Spring Lane halting site in Cork City, Traveller advocacy groups say nothing substantial has been done to upgrade the site
  • There has been an increase of almost 1,000 families living in ‘Standard Local Authority Housing’ – something advocates say can be isolating for Travellers
  • Between 2017 and 2019 local authorities failed to spend €10.6 million in funding allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation, with Galway County Council not spending €2.1m allocated in that period – as examined in more detail in our breakout article here>>
  • Children told Noteworthy about living in overcrowded conditions, waking up freezing, having no green space to play and waiting for years for improvements 

This is the final article in our TOUGH START series which can be read in full here.

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy that “there’s ingrained institutional racism against the Traveller community” in part one and we found Traveller health is ‘not being prioritised’ despite ‘shocking’ outcomes for children in part two.

Part three revealed that ‘misuse’ of reduced school days is leaving a generation of Traveller children ‘lost’ and part four showed young Traveller detainee numbers jumped last year. 

Decades of policy failure 

As a distinct ethnic group in Ireland, with a rich history of nomadism and cultural practices that are separate from the settled population, Travellers have a particular need when it comes to being housed in culturally appropriate accommodation. 

Today, Travellers live in a mix of standard housing – social housing or private homes – and Traveller-specific accommodation (TSA). TSA includes living in caravans or mobile homes on halting sites, and in group housing schemes. 

Issues around the supply, upkeep, location and living conditions of Traveller-specific accommodation have been ongoing for decades.  

The 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy was the first government report into Traveller living conditions. The report did not recognise Travellers as an ethnic group and said that government policy should aim to “assimilate” the Traveller population into settled society, and get Travellers to “leave the road and settle down” into traditional local authority housing.   

According to Travellers’ rights groups, the 1963 report began a cycle of policy-driven and government-led discrimination against Travellers when it came to their housing needs and human rights which continues to this day. 

“The 1963 Commission Report set out to absorb us into the non-Traveller population, set out to try to make us like settled people,” said Rose Marie Maughan, national accomodation officer with the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), a national representative body for Travellers’ rights organisations across the country.  

“That set the tone for the decades that followed. Whether people in society or in the State and local authorities want to admit it, not everybody has moved away from that thinking.”

Rose Marie Maughan - wearing a red and black top - sitting in front of mural depicting a Traveller family beside a wagon Advocate Rose Marie Maughan says the 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy “set the tone for the decades that followed” Source: Tommy Clancy

Since 1963, there have been three further statutory investigations into Traveller housing, with government policy shifting away from assimilation and towards policies which sought to facilitate Travellers living in TSA alongside the settled community.  

However, as numerous studies and reviews show, implementation of these policies has persistently failed, resulting in acute housing need among Travellers and severe overcrowding in sites across the country.  

The 1998 Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act enshrined in law that each local authority publishes rolling five-year Traveller Accommodation Programmes (TAPs) to meet the existing and projected accommodation needs of Travellers in their areas, for either traditional local authority housing or TSA. The TAPs should identify whether Travellers want to live in TSA or in standard social housing. These would be done with input from Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committees (LTACCs), made up of councillors, council officials and Traveller representatives.  

Again, in the 23 years since this law was introduced, there have been serious failures in implementation. Following lobbying from Travellers’ right groups, the government instigated an expert review of the 1998 Act in 2018.  

The Expert Group published its final report in July 2019, which identified numerous failings with the implementation of government policy and put forward 32 recommendations. Two years later, and the government has implemented some of the recommendations, with other key recommendations not being progressed as of yet. 

Policies relating to Traveller ethnicity, accommodation and housing have changed substantially over the past 50 years. Here's an Irish timeline. This image depicts a brief history of Traveller policy from 1963 - Report on the Commission on Itinerancy - to 2019 - Expert Group on Traveller Accommodation.

Stark health and education outcomes ‘interlinked’ with poor housing 

Traveller children face stark outcomes in almost every aspect of life. As part of this series, we reported that almost 60% of Travellers were under 25 in the latest Census in 2016 – something Traveller advocates told us was “indicative of health status”.  

We also revealed that Travellers have the highest rate of perinatal deaths – the number of stillbirths and deaths from 22 weeks’ gestation to seven days after birth – out of all ethnicities. 

In our investigation on education, we reported that just 13% of Travellers were educated to an upper secondary school level or above, but this was over 70% in the general population. 

Rose Marie Maughan – who is a Traveller – puts these figures in direct relation to the ongoing issues Travellers have with being housed in proper accommodation. This link was also made by every Traveller advocate that reporters spoke to during the course of this investigation. 

“Those stats are interlinked to how Traveller accommodation is. It’s a result of the Traveller accommodation crisis,” she said. 

“We know that your home is the foundation of every aspect of your life. And if Traveller children are living in inhumane conditions, in overcrowded conditions, with no electricity, no water, no toilets, where do they even have the space or the strength to do their homework?” 

As well as the Census figures, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage publishes yearly totals compiled by each local authority into the number of Traveller families living in all types of accommodation in their areas. 

The latest figures also show that 529 families are living in unauthorised halting sites across the country. In many cases, these halting sites have no running water, no proper sanitation services, and no electricity (though in other cases the local authority provides basic services for the residents). 

While the number of Travellers living on unauthorised sites represents a drop on previous decades, the available evidence points towards increases in Travellers living in overcrowded accommodation and involuntarily sharing with others. In 2019, there were 933 Traveller families sharing their home with others, such as extended family members. 

One Traveller community development worker, Patrick*, told Noteworthy that certain local authorities “had taken a stance” where standard housing is offered rather than Traveller-specific accommodation.  

A Noteworthy analysis of the Department’s figures shows that Traveller families living in ‘Standard Local Authority Housing’ has increased by almost 1,000 between 2007 and 2019 – the figures publicly available.  

It rose from just over 3,000 in 2007, remained around 3,300 until just a few years ago when it began to rise steadily to peak at over 4,000 families in the latest figures.  

Standard housing “doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the Traveller community”, explained Patrick. “The isolation from their own community and the marginalisation they feel when they move into those housing estates, like children being told not to play with the Traveller children in this estate. 

“There’s a lack of understanding about Traveller culture – to be living among your family and the need to feel safe. To the Traveller community, it’s important to be with your own family.” 

Isolation was also raised by Mary Nevin, a community development worker with Longford Traveller Primary Healthcare Project, who told Noteworthy that “lack of Traveller group housing provision isolates women from their families and support that they need”.

Homelessness among Travellers is also at a rate significantly higher than the settled population. National homeless figures released by the Department do not count the number of Travellers specifically. However, Census 2016 data lists 517 Travellers as homeless, representing 7.5% of the entire homeless population in 2016.  

More recent data from Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (which covers all of Dublin), shows that there were a total of 504 homeless Travellers in emergency accommodation in Dublin at the end of October 2018. This includes adults and children, and shows that just under 10% of the homeless population in Dublin at the time were Travellers. 

Research into Traveller homelessness was due to be published in June but it was reported by The Irish Times that its publication was controversially cancelled the day before it was to be circulated, with Pavee Point stating that it required “edits and modifications to make it accessible”. However, it was published by the Traveller organisation last week alongside an advocacy paper it compiled on homelessness. 

The Traveller Community and Homelessness‘ report by independent researcher Brian Harvey found that many are living in ‘hidden homeless’ situations – with the most common form of homelessness “living with extended family in overcrowded accommodation”. Overcrowding impacted 39% of Traveller households in the last census compared to 6% of the general population. The reported continued:

All homelessness has severe, negative consequences for physical and mental health and for the education of children.

It stated that “deteriorating site conditions have been a major trigger of homelessness” and added that “evictions by some local authorities have contributed to the problem”. 

Addressing this issue, one of the recommendations in the new Pavee Point advocacy paper was that there be a moratorium on Traveller evictions until the accommodation needs of Travellers on local authority housing lists are met.

It also set out a number of housing-related targets to be included in the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy currently in development, including to – at a minimum – cut Traveller overcrowding in half by 2030 and ensure 95% of Travellers have access to tap water by 2030. The paper stated: 

Given the disproportionate number of Travellers experiencing homelessness, including those sleeping rough and accessing emergency accommodation, specific measures and actions will be required.

Community development worker Nevin told the investigation team that she sees the impact that homelessness has on health and this “focuses on new mothers, babies and young children”. She works with “young women who are living in unsuitable accommodation, forced to live on the roadside” with no access to sanitation, electricity or running water. 

Systemic issues with the supply, delivery, and living conditions on local authority managed and unauthorised Traveller housing have been an issue for over 50 years, with poor sanitation, overcrowding, rat infestation, fire safety issues, and a lack of running water all recurring problems at halting sites across the country. 

These issues can lead to devastating consequences. Just such a catastrophe happened in 2015 when a fire killed 10 Travellers, five of whom were children, at the Glenamuck Halting site in Carrickmines, Dublin, in 2015. 

‘Rats underneath the trailers’ 

As part of this project, Noteworthy spoke to a group of Traveller children aged 12 to 14 about the overcrowded conditions they live in. One boy who lives in a two-bedroom trailer with two younger siblings and his parents said:  

I have a very small bed [in a room] with my little brother, my sister sleeps with my Mammy and Daddy. The sitting room is very small and the cooker and everything doesn’t work, the water is bad. 

“We have this little shed thing outside and when you wake up in the morning it’s very cold to take a shower or go to the toilet in it.” He said there are “rats underneath the trailers”. 

Another boy lives in a two-bed trailer with his younger brother and sister told the investigation team: “My brother sleeps in my Mummy and Daddy’s room and the cot’s lucky to get in. I have to share a room with my little sister and most of her stuff is covering the room. 

“Whenever I want to take a shower I have to go out to my great grandfather’s house because I live in his backyard, we have no hot water.”

Caravan - trailer - on cement with quote beside it from a young Traveller boy living in a two-bed trailer: Whenever I wake up it’s freezing - especially this morning it was cold and it was raining. We have no hot water. Source: Photo - Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

A girl spoke to us about how she used to live in a trailer but recently moved into a house with her family. Her face lit up when she told us about how she now has her own room with a double bed to herself. 

“Me and my brother had to share the same room, there were two single beds and they were very small and in the middle of the room, you couldn’t even really sit down, the space was so small. My [baby] brother had to sleep in the room [with my parents] but he was only a baby then. We had a shower but it didn’t work so we had to go take showers in another house. And the toilet was very small. 

“Now we’ve got a house, the shower works, the bathroom’s bigger and I’ve got my own room, thank God, and my brother has his own room and my other brother is still in the room with Mammy and Daddy but he’s only two.” 

Another girl, whose parents are separated, lives with her mother and siblings in her grandmother’s house:  

Background - An extension being built with quote by young Traveller girl living in her grandmother's house - We were meant to get an extension for the last five years, my mummy keeps on ringing them - the council - up. My nanny is starting to forget things - she has dementia - and there’s no room in the house. Source: Photo - Ballygally View Images via Shutterstock

“My two sisters sleep in my nanny’s room, I sleep in my mummy’s room and my brother sleeps in the sitting room. It’s all overcrowded, the kitchen is very small, the sitting room is very small.” 

The children told the investigation team that they have no green space to play in at the site and that they get into trouble with local residents when they play football outside their homes.

The children also spoke of the added impact of the pandemic on living in overcrowded accommodation.  

One boy told Noteworthy: “I live in a trailer and I couldn’t go into my great grandfather’s house because he’s old, in case I had it [Covid] and gave it to him. He’s nearly 80.” Before Covid he did his homework there because there is not enough space in the trailer.  

Another boy said he used to use the shower in his grandfather’s house but couldn’t do that during the pandemic. He also said: “When there was Covid and no one was allowed out I couldn’t do my homework because there was no space to do it.” 

A number of Traveller organisations run homework clubs to give children a space to do their work after school, but these had to stop during lockdowns. 

‘Everyone was worried’ 

Lack of space is all too familiar to residents of Labre Park – the location of the hepatitis A outbreak last year and Ireland’s oldest purpose-built Traveller housing site, built in 1967. 

Annmarie Cash has lived there her whole life, raised in one of the houses, and then moving into a mobile home behind the house with her own young family. She has four children, all under the age of 12, including a new baby. 

Directly outside the back of her home, a broken drain regularly blocks and overflows, spilling dirty water onto the road. She and her children have to cross this overflow several times a day to get to the sanitation unit where they can use the toilet and wash themselves. 

“When it rains it comes out in a big puddle around the back garden. It’s dirty water as well. There was hepatitis going around last year. I couldn’t leave [my children] out to be honest with you. I was terrified,” Cash told Noteworthy.

Annmarie Cash at Labre Park with Shay L'Estrange from Ballyfermot Traveller Action Project - they are both standing beside a flooded drain looking at it with a mobile home in the background. Cash said: I'd have to lift the kids out to bring them to the bathroom. The water was literally going into the unit... It comes up from the shore to the unit.

A spokesperson for DCC said any blocked drains were cleared in January, and that the cleared drains in question had been “clogged with refuse, which included mop heads and clothes” and added that “any reports of blocked drains are prioritised and inspected on a weekly basis to identify any issues”. 

In addition, they said that “four yards have been resurfaced to date with another two to be resurfaced. These were identified as areas where water is currently accumulating.” The spokesperson continued: 

“All surface drainage has been inspected with CCTV and cleared with the exception of an outstanding issue where a collapsed pipe has been identified. This work has been assigned to the maintenance contractor.” 

The collapse pipe in question is the one behind Cash’s house, which she said has been like that for about two years, and that DCC have been out to inspect it on numerous occasions, but that the problem has not been fixed. 

The spokesperson said that drains at Labre Park suffered blockages from refuse that is dumped and set alight, and then doused, which causes water to pool. The spokesperson said there were issues with fire hoses left running at the site. 

Following the hepatitis A outbreak at Labre Park earlier this year, Cash worries about her children every time they go out, due to fears that the water might be contaminated. 

Everyone was so worried about the hepatitis that was going around on site. That water is an awful worry. I try my best to keep my kids off it, but you just have that worry in your mind that they’re going to jump into it and get infected from it.

The HSE report into the outbreak stated how standing water at Labre Park is routinely contaminated, and how this contamination can then travel around the site.  

Following the outbreak, the local Childhood Programme for Ballyfermot-Chapelizod, wrote to the HSE, expressing concerns about conditions at the site.  

The letter raised concerns about the impact of living and environmental conditions at the site on children’s access to a safe place to play, children becoming ill and hospitalised with preventable infectious diseases and children being unable to attend school as a result of this. 

The outbreak report concluded:

Background - Image of an overflowing drain in Labre Park - with quote by HSE Department of Public Health - Outbreak report of hepatitis A in Dublin West - The overall standard of plumbing and sanitation amenities onsite at Labre Park, in addition to structural deficits such as road surfaces, present an ongoing risk to human health from waterborne infectious diseases.

The report recommend “fast-tracking of a planned overhaul and upgrade of the site by Dublin City Council in order to prevent any further potential outbreaks of infectious disease among residents”. 

Substantial remedial works ‘slow’ 

Shay L’Estrange, coordinator with the Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project, told Noteworthy that the site was built “on the edge of society”. 

“It was surrounded by a canal on one side, Kylemore Road, the main road, on the other side, Thorntons waste recycling on the other side, and an industrial site on the other side. 

“It was put there for a purpose – to put a community that wasn’t welcome in society out of the way, pretty much, and that’s been the case ever since.”  

Four separate Traveller Accommodation Programmes (TAPs) from DCC over the past two decades have committed to building 30-40 new accommodation units at Labre Park. However, to date just three have been added. 

The most recent plans were for DCC to build 30 new units of accommodation in association with Clúid Housing Association – an Approved Housing Body. But following site surveys, part of the area to be developed was identified as a flood risk, and the number of proposed houses was reduced to between 14 and 18. 

In relation to this planned development, a spokesperson for DCC said an Independent Chair had been appointed to oversee the process, and that an agreement on the site design was at its last stage, before the plans are submitted to the Department for approval. 

Shay L’Estrange said residents were “devastated” by this reduction. He added that they are now engaging with the process, with a meeting scheduled next week to see how the works can progress.  

L’Estrange has written to DCC on numerous occasions, most recently in September, asking them to address the issues at the site. He says he has also notified the Ombudsman’s for Children’s Office in relation to conditions at Labre Park.  

Commenting to Noteworthy, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, said: 

We are aware from media reports about the living conditions of children living in Labre Park… but with regret, we cannot provide any further details on our engagement on this matter at this time.

A spokesperson for the HSE said that it had successfully controlled the outbreak at Labre Park and that to date there have been no further outbreaks at the site. 

“Environmental conditions on site came to the attention of the HSE during the outbreak investigation. The Department of Public Health continues to actively engage with Dublin City Council in relation to progressing this matter,” the spokesperson said. 

In response to queries from Noteworthy, a spokesperson for DCC said that it had privately contracted pest control to deal with a rat infestation at Labre Park.  

In relation to the public health concerns, the spokesperson said that the council’s Traveller Accommodation Unit, along with gardaí and Waste Enforcement, have responded to “illegal waste operations within Labre Park” and that some convictions had been secured, but that the practice of illegal waste dumping was ongoing. 

“We are aware that it is very difficult for residents to speak out against other residents and we act on confidential complaints on this basis,” the spokesperson said. 

‘We’re sick of talking, and we need action’ 

The problems identified at Labre Park are not unique as evidenced by the recent Children’s Ombudsman No End in Site report on overcrowded and unsafe conditions at Spring Lane halting site in Cork City.  

This report identified multiple failings from Cork City Council in relation to conditions at the halting site, which was not named in the report.

The left photo shows someone lifting up a vinyl floor covering showing dampness on the floor. The right image shows a metal kissing gate in poor condition with rubbish nearby. Two of the photos of Spring Lane contained in the No End in Site Report Source: Ombudsman for Children

Among other findings, the Children’s Ombudsman found that the council had failed to consider the best interests of children living on the site and it had failed to ensure consistent waste management and pest control. There was also a failure to clear passage for children travelling to school.  

It found carelessness and undesirable administrative practice has resulted in overcrowding and serious risks on the site for children and there was also a failure to comply with and implement the minimum requirements of the Traveller Accommodation Programme (TAP). 

Cork City Council hit back at the findings. In a six-page letter to Minister of State in the Department of Housing Peter Burke, the council stated that the Ombudsman had not shown a  “complete understanding or appreciation of the complex problems and deep-rooted socio-economic issues” involved at the site. 

In part one of this investigative series, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said he did not think there was any justification for the conditions reported at the site and he was “surprised to see that letter” from the council. 

However he said work is being done to address the issues highlighted in the report, including a “significant package of investment” for maintenance of the site and the development of a new site next to it. 

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that 38 families with 66 children lived on the site, which was first established in 1989. In total, 140 people were using toilets and washing facilities designed for 40 people. 

Children living on the halting site suffer skin conditions and respiratory problems at a much higher rate than the general population. According to the HSE Director of Public Health Nursing, these health conditions were a direct result of the conditions of the halting site.

Nine recommendations were put forward, with Cork City Council responding to each of them. These included carrying out risk assessments; setting out how the accommodation needs of families on the site will be met; and engaging with different bodies to work towards improving the lives of children at the site. 

Despite these recommendations and commitments from Cork City Council, local Traveller advocates say nothing substantial has changed at Spring Lane in the five months since the findings of the investigation were published.  

Brigid Carmody is the coordinator of Cork Traveller Women’s Network (CTWN), and a Traveller herself. CTWN, along with the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG), were involved with bringing the original complaints of Spring Lane residents to the Ombudsman. 

“We just felt like we were constantly firefighting. And so supported families to bring the complaint to the Ombudsman for Children because of the living conditions, and the impact it was having on the kids,” Carmody told Noteworthy.

Brigid Carmody - coordinator of Cork Traveller Women's Network - wearing a black top - with quote - We are now into the sixth month since the report… and we haven’t seen a huge amount of movement on the site since the report. It’s been very much stop and go.

Carmody said that Cork City Council had employed two mediators since the publication of the report, and that they had met with all of the families on the site, but that very little else had happened. 

“Families are starting to get frustrated by it, they’re starting to say to us: ‘why do you keep bringing these people onto the site to talk to us? We’re sick of talking, and we need action’,” she said. 

In a statement to Noteworthy, a spokesperson for Cork City Council said that it has been working on the Children’s Ombudsman recommendations, and had appointed an independent stakeholder engagement specialist who has met the families at Spring Lane. It said engineering consultants had visited the site and were implementing “a range of works that are already in train to address electrical, water and sanitary services”. 

“Whereas progress may appear slow, the City Council has been actively progressing the report’s recommendations, which are not just confined to the site itself. With regards to the Spring Lane site, the City Council’s work to date has been to ensure that the significant works that are due to be carried out fully meet the needs of the families on site,” the spokesperson said. 

For Brigid Carmody, the Ombudsman’s investigation was hugely important in bringing the issues at Spring Lane to national attention, even if the pace of action from the council has been frustrating. However, she says this is part of a much larger nationwide picture. 

“If you go to any site around the country, you will get the same concerns, you will get the same issues,” she said.  

Conditions across the country 

Traveller advocates say that the conditions at Spring Lane and Labre Park are far from isolated issues, with the pattern repeated in sites across the country. 

Related to this, a Noteworthy audit examined – in detail – the funding spent and Traveller-specific accommodation built by each local authority. Overall, between 2017 and 2019 local authorities failed to spend €10.6 million in funding allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation, with Galway County Council not spending €2.1m allocated across that period. 

The team also found that Wexford County Council spent the least – just €85 per Traveller in the county – on Traveller-specific accommodation since 2017.  

We delve into data from every local authority across the country and take a deep dive into how funding red tape led to low output of Traveller-specific accommodation in our breakout piece which you can read here >>  

The team also asked local authorities through freedom of information requests based in areas with high Traveller populations for information on complaints and found similar issues with maintenance, sewage, lack of hot water and damp housing were being highlighted through complaints to councils.  

A letter from the Traveller Visibility Group in January to Cork City Council stated that at one halting site there was “a serious issue with the toilet” used by a family of 11 and added that this problem had been there “since before Xmas”. It continued:

Sewage from the toilet is now in the open, creating a very serious health hazard for this family, as well as all residents.

It also mentions other issues on the site including mobiles not being connected to electricity or water, and other bay “without a working toilet”.  

The letter was forwarded by a council official to housing maintenance which was asked to “address the issue of the sewage”.  

Also in Cork City, an email from a Traveller living in a council apartment reported “water coming out of the floorboards” which they stated council maintenance determined was caused by “a leak behind the wall” 16 days before this. They wrote “my main concern is my children being in lockdown” breathing in “all this damp and mould”.  

The council official sent this to housing maintenance five days later and wrote “FYI – Apologies this went into my junk mail”.  

Leaks in roofs, no hot water for various periods including “a few months” and “two years”, broken heating, “water overflowing from toilets”, a “toilet not flushing for six months”, being unable to light the fire when “two kids are freezing” and a pregnant woman needing to use buckets of water to flush the toilet were just some of the issues reported in over 150 emails of complaints we received from Cork City Council.  

Many of the same issues were logged a number of times with the officer from the Traveller Accommodation Unit writing in one email “I understand this was originally reported a number of weeks ago” in regards to “sewage backing up”.  

Maintenance logs from Galway City Council report similar issues including “problems with overflowing sewage” in August 2021 at Carrowbrowne Temporary Halting Site – an issue which was reported again three days later as “still ongoing”. 

The council official that logged the issue wrote: 

Stock image of an overflowing drain with extract of report logged by Galway City Council in relation to a halting site - The issue of overflowing toilets and sewage... is still ongoing. No one called out to fix the problem. I was speaking to the families this morning, and they are distraught. Source: Photo - Vadim Zakharishchev via Shutterstock

The investigation team also received maintenance logs and reports from Westmeath County Council as well as Limerick City and County Council which also included a number of reports of drains being blocked.  

One such report from Athlone in June stated that “sewers are backing up and flowing back into the site” and added that children were “apparently plating in it”.  

Another from Limerick in February stated: “Sewage backed up at bays [retracted] and flowing in the middle of halting site”. This was assigned a ‘medium’ priority and the issue was resolved by a contractor, according to the report.  

Damp was also a common issue across responses we received from local authorities, with one Limerick report – since marked as resolved – stating:

This is an ongoing issue for years – since the day [the] customer moved in 15 years ago. Was painted over a few times – customer washing walls on a weekly basis.

Noteworthy did not receive these details from a number of councils we sent FOI requests to, including Galway Council Council who stated that complaints “are investigated without an ethnic identifier being assigned to them”. A number of councils – such as South Dublin County Council – instead provided the number of complaints, with “allocation of halting sites/group housing” in that council being the top complaint received by Travellers.  

“Families are living back to back in sites, they’re living in backyards, they’re living in spaces that would have been used for children [to play],” said Bernard Joyce, director with the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), and a Traveller himself.  

“The sites are not getting any bigger, but what they’re doing is getting more dense and more compact, and spaces that would have been used are now getting taken up by caravans.” 

Advocate Rose Marie Maughan said: “If you think of poor little children that are forced to live without water, without toilets, without sanitation, without electricity, getting up in the winter, in the cold and the dark, to go to the toilet, being surrounded by rats: These are the pictures, the reality that society needs to see.” 

*Name has been changed

***  

This article – by Cormac Fitzgerald - is the final part of our TOUGH START investigation which was led by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and Michelle Hennessy of The Journal who both also contributed to this piece. The entire series can be read here.  

Design for Tough Start project - An old football that has too little air in it sitting on the side of the road.

This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs. 

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>> 

Noteworthy and TheJournal.ie logos with girl sitting at desk in the middle

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

Read next:

COMMENTS