On the long road towards equality for Traveller people, rabble examines the stops along the way. Freda Mullin Hughes and Paul Reynolds speak to Travellers and activists working towards ethnic recognition.
On a cold November’s morning a single heater battled to warm the converted lock-up garage. The shutters were up and three young men inside sipped the morning’s coffee surrounded by bicycles, parts and tools. Francis had just stripped a lawnmower-engine for a go-kart he was rebuilding for a local man while Patrick and Terrance were working on bicycles that had been donated in poor repair to the workshop.
‘It keeps me out of the house, if I wasn’t here I’d be at home on the settee watching Judge Judy’ explained Francis ‘I should be here every Tuesday but I’m here nearly every day. Love it. When I first started here (5 months ago) I hadn’t a clue about bikes but Barry Semple showed me what to do, same with Terrance here, but now I’d be able to fully service 5 bikes in one day.’
The men work in Crossbar Bikes which is part of the Clondalkin Travellers’ Development Group (CTDG). They take in bicycles for repair from local people. They also get donations, often from local Travellers, of frames and parts found abandoned or thrown out and prepare the bikes for sale. There is a certain beauty in seeing a rusty-looking High Nellie go through the hands of dedicated mechanics and come out gleaming and ready for the road. If these bikes could talk.
David Joyce is the administrator here and explained his vision for the workshop. ‘We are looking at certification. We could train people to a stage where they could take City & Guilds examinations, unfortunately there are no qualifications in Bike mechanics in this country yet. ‘ David has a twinkle in his eye when he speaks about 1940s roadsters and his own first Peugeot. There is a love of bicycles, in fact David reckons Barry is about 30% bicycle at this stage.
Barry Semple trains the apprentices in every aspect of cycle mechanics. He carries this enthusiasm from a similar workshop in the autonomous space, Seomra Spraoi, in Dublin’s north Inner City. David explains ‘We’re a bit like a poor man’s version of Rothar. We want to bring the bikes back to the workingman’.
The CTDG sees the space as more than just a workshop. Those involved are expanding it’s use to include a kind of Men’s Shed where older Traveller men can meet on Thursday evenings to discuss what is important to them. Mincéirs Whiden is Cant for ‘Travellers Talking’. There are plans for cycling groups to use the canal cycle-way for day trips. People can cycle bikes built by Traveller men, borrowing from their ancestors’ traditions in every aspect. There are art projects and history days, a photography exhibition highlighting Travellers long association with bicycling.
When asked if their being Travellers hinders their job opportunities the young men responded, ‘We don’t tend to tell them’. David sees the mechanic course as a way out, ‘While there’s always been an aspect of discrimination in employment from the mainstream we’d hope there is potential here for self-employment. It’s a low investment startup. You can setup from home.’
David is a Barrister and Traveller activist, a man of many talents he has traced his Traveller roots back to about 1770 and what he calls ‘a crowd of mad tinkers from Westmeath!’. We met up with him again at an action at Fingal County Council offices in December. The large crowd was there to highlight the case of the extended McDonnell family. Geraldine McDonnell explained her family’s plight.
‘Our family have been living on Dunsink Lane for the last 15 years. There are 4 generations of our family on site from 3 months to grandparents in their 60’s. We’ve got no electricity, no running water and no flush toilet. We’ve got no services on site save for what we provide ourselves. Mothers getting up in the middle of the night with no electricity to heat bottles for newborn babies and no fridges to keep them in. ‘ The families here have been struggling through almost two decades of broken promises and abandoned Council Traveller Programmes but their case is being used as a totem now to focus attention on the plight of Ireland’s most maligned native ethnic group. Catherine’s nephew David tells us ‘I’ve spent more than half my life on Dunsink Lane’, the families use toilet portacabins they bought themselves and have to pay €6 to use shower facilities in the local swimming pool.
Catherine Joyce, Chair of the Irish Travellers’ Movement (ITM), expanded on the protestors’ demands, ‘We’re asking the council to provide the accommodation that they said they’d provide, not just in the new plan but in their three previous plans. The McDonnell family and other families are in the three programmes that we’ve seen out. We’re calling on Minister Hogan to use his discretionary powers – look at local authorities that haven’t provided, haven’t spent their budgets and force them into provision. ‘The ITM is basing current activities on it’s founding principle – Travellers are an ethnic group. For Catherine this recognition is vital, ‘If our ethnicity is recognised we will have a much stronger position to campaign for our other rights in accommodation, education, health, employment and justice’. While the state does recognise Travellers as a separate cultural group it won’t concede ‘ethnicity’.
But how does this notion of ethnicity have any practical impact on the men in Crossbar Bikes or the families on Dunsink Lane? Dr. Robbie McVeigh, a prominent activist and academic in inequality research has written at length about ‘ethnicity denial’ how this lack of recognition leads to internalisation of oppression. Catherine Joyce expanded ‘Oppressed minorities across Europe have fared badly at school and in employment and these communities have seen alcohol and drug abuse rise. These issues lead to exclusion from mainstream society.’
There are direct, immediate implications from the way our laws are drafted without ethnic provision, as David explains ‘I’m talking about legislation around control of horses; that kind of legislation has direct impact on the traveller community and that is a form of denial.’
So there is a practical side to this demand for recognition. We afford Travellers all the impact of racism in this society without granting them the one damning aspect of racism that they could turn to some advantage, ethnic difference.
Councils consistently underspend their allotted budgets for Traveller accommodation, to the extent of tens of millions. It’s a form of internalized Irish racism but as a society we let it slide, sure it’s not really racist we say. Meanwhile those who suffer are living in rat-infested, inhospitable housing around Blanchardstown and across the country.
Catherine Joyce makes it clear, ‘Recognition would signal for us that we live in a society that values us and our way of life.’