A tale of two communities in Rathkeale: ‘We live in the same space but different worlds’

The settled people of Rathkeale often wish the town’s Travellers would disappear – and the feeling seems to be mutual

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 10:18

It’s said the tension between settled people and Travellers in the small Limerick town of Rathkeale can be traced to a riot in the 1960s. The story differs depending who tells it.

“Some Travellers beat up an old settled man and so [settled people] went to burn them out,” says a young man in Kathleen’s Bar. “The army were called in. After that the Travellers vowed to buy up the town.”

“Some settled fellas beat up a simple Traveller boy,” says Mike Flynn, a 76-year-old Traveller. “And it wasn’t the army. It was just guards that came in.” Nobody vowed to buy the town, he says. “We’ve always lived here.”

“We all have stories we tell ourselves,” says David Breen, a community development worker and project leader, who has spent six years trying to build a bridge between the two communities in a town where Travellers are reckoned by many to be in a majority.

“Whether those stories are real or not, they still frame how we live.”

Breen is a hard-working, endearingly stoical man with good relationships on both sides of the community. He was once a Mennonite pastor and has lived in Canada and the Philippines, where he worked with Irish Aid. His job, he says, in a moment of good-humoured pessimism, “is to bring together people who have no interest in coming together.”

There is no violent conflict in Rathkeale, but the settled people often wish the Travellers would disappear and the feeling seems to be mutual.

Mediation Northern Ireland was invited to report on the town in 2009 and they concluded that without both communities recognising their interdependence, the town’s civic and business life would wither and die. Rathkeale didn’t have Northern Ireland’s issues with conflict, but it had a similarly intractable cultural divide.

Local café owner John Comer, who lived in Belgium for a time, says it reminds him of the gulf between the Flemish and the Walloons. It can’t be solved by “a quick fix,” he says, “[because] for many people a quick fix would mean getting rid of the other community.”

Travellers have long been in Rathkeale. Over the past few decades the community has grown, both in size and in wealth, with many householders spending much of the year working abroad before returning in their thousands in winter.

There has been a building boom. There are Traveller-owned ghost estates at the edges of town, empty shop fronts, an abandoned cinema and several unfinished houses, some with obvious planning infractions (Gerry Sheeran, senior planner with Limerick Council, recognises the problem. He says there are currently 50 enforcement actions in Rathkeale).

Settled people complain Travellers are “buying the town”. They also have a tendency to refer to themselves as “locals”, even though Traveller families have also been local for generations. They complain about Travellers knocking businesses and building houses on Main Street, while settled people relocate to the hinterlands. Although, as other townsfolk observe, settled people can’t complain about Travellers buying property when they’re simultaneously selling those properties at high prices.

Travellers have even moved across the river, supposedly breaking a taboo in the process. “People used to say [Travellers had] a superstition about crossing water,” says Breen. “As I said to them, ‘Travellers have crossed every ocean in the world. They’re not going to be afraid of the Deel River.’ ”

Some are dealing with Rathkeale’s demographic challenges constructively. The faith-based Pre-social Cohesion Committee, chaired by Dr Salters Sterling and supported by local clergy, fosters initiatives that bring the two communities together (the jointly produced St Patrick’s Day parade was considered a great success) but getting Travellers involved has been difficult. “We live in the same space but different worlds,” says one committee member.

Up around what locals call “the hill”, where the Travellers have long lived, there is a particular aesthetic. Properties have big gates, pillars around the porch and statues of Padre Pio and Mary in little garden grottos. Some of these houses are huge, because some Rathkeale Travellers are wealthy. “Dublin 4 couldn’t match the instances of home ownership without mortgages you’d find here,” says Breen, who works closely with the Pre-social Cohesion Committee.

While Breen acts as a tireless advocate for the many poorer Travellers who fall between the cracks of the welfare system, he has also offered educational schemes to wealthier Travellers he is friendly with.

“They just look at my old car and laugh.”

Policies built on the assumption that Travellers are a disadvantaged minority don’t always work where they’re not a minority and not necessarily disadvantaged. It often seems like neither community has much to offer the other beyond real estate deals. “There is no model for this,” says Breen. “We’re writing the book as we go.”

Keep out

Some of the houses on the hill have caravans in their driveways and seem inhabited. But many have metal grills on all windows, sheet-metal doors and forbidding handmade signs saying “keep out” and “enter at your own risk.”

The owners of these houses will return in November for the blessing of the graves, and many will stay for months, lining the streets with caravans until the New Year. Where are they the rest of the time?

“England, up to 15 years ago,” says Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, a prominent local figure. “[Now] they go to Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa, you name it. When they come back, a lot of money is spent and the pubs are full. They come back to enjoy themselves and see their parents after being out in wilderness places.”

Born to a large settled family, O’Brien married into a Rathkeale Traveller family (his wife, Christina, is one of the Flynns). He lives in a large redbrick house with a caravan in the garden, at the edge of a ghost estate he built during the property boom. Sitting in his kitchen over tea and biscuits, he says he’s in the business of buying and selling and that this regularly takes him abroad. His business secret? “Buy cheap and sell dear,” he says. He can’t help smiling when talking about business.

He has also authored a blog outlining his grievances with the gardaí. His son was jailed in the United States for smuggling rhino horns, and in September balaclava-wearing, armed police raided his home, frightening his wife, children and grandchildren.

According to the Garda press office, in September several searches were carried out in the area relating to an international investigation into “labour exploitation, counterfeiting fraud, tarmac scams, tobacco smuggling, and the theft of rhino horns and Chinese cultural artefacts”.

No charges have yet been brought against him on foot of this, says O’Brien, and he has since fitted the interior windows and doors of his house with huge protective grills that lock from the inside. “The children were terrified,” he says.

He paints a picture of a divided town. He drinks in the Black Lion pub, “which is for the Travelling community, and no settled community go in there”.

Feel safe

Although house-buying took off in earnest only in the past 15 years, Rathkeale Travellers always believed in owning houses, says Christina, Richard’s wife.

“For the Travellers, a home is a thing to come back to and that’s what Rathkeale is about. It’s somewhere to come back to.”

Breen characterises the town as a place where Travellers “feel safe”.

Some settled people query the source of Traveller wealth, although Breen stresses that many of them work hard for it. Indeed, on Facebook you can track some Rathkeale Travellers moving from building site to building site across Europe. Most people also say that Rathkeale has one of the lowest crime rates in Limerick.

Joe Williams, the butcher, says you could walk the streets at night with money in your pocket and not get robbed. When I visit, he’s sitting in an old barber chair in the backroom, drinking tea with two neighbours, Liam Wolfe and Aidan Suppel.

“That’s a strange name,” I say.

“Well, he’s a strange man!” says Wolfe.

They think the town is dying. They lament the disappearance of the mart, the railway station, the bakery, but they don’t blame Travellers for those things.

“The first Traveller who came into this town came in 1882,” says Williams. “He was brought in as a tinsmith. Brought up from Kilrush, in Clare . . . the town council fought over it . . . He was a Quilligan.”

When these men were young, there weren’t as many Traveller families in town, they say, but they get on well with their Traveller neighbours. They have some issues, specifically with the planning infractions, which they claim no settled person could get away with (they tell me a story about a Traveller man moving a grave, which David Breen tells me is apocryphal) and the traffic congestion at Christmas. That said: “At Christmas, 2,000 people arrive into this town,” says Williams. “And there’s very little trouble.”

Williams runs a prize-winning boxing club, one of the few places where settled and Traveller young people interact. “We never have a problem,” he says. “There’s no animosity there.”

Mike and Kathleen Flynn say their family connections to the town go back generations. Mike recalls when Travellers couldn’t get served in pubs and cafes in the town (now only two establishments are so restrictive). There are more Travellers here now, he says, but that’s just because “there’s no help needed beneath the blankets”.

He gets on with his neighbours, he says, but “some are resentful of what the Travellers have. They’re down on the Travellers, wondering how they’re earning it and how they have property and how they have this and that. Well they work for it! But no, they tell a heap of lies about Travellers doing a heap of wrong things.”

As I walk around “the hill”, dogs bark, children ride bikes, swallows swoop and adults decline to chat. A foreign correspondent I know says he found it easier to get Syrian rebels to talk than Rathkeale Travellers. In person they politely decline. On Facebook some are less diplomatic. “Go drown yourself,” writes one man.

People are distrustful of media since My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and TV3’s The Town the Travellers Took Over. A couple of times I’m asked whether I’m “with Eamon Dillon” the Traveller-documenting crime reporter who is a sort of local folk figure. But the town has a sense of humour. An older Traveller man won’t talk about Rathkeale but will happily discuss “the fella with the iron legs who shot his wife and ran the Olympics”.

At one point a car pulls up alongside me. “Hello,” says the passenger in a strong Limerick accent. “We’re from America and were wondering if this is a dangerous area?” The man winks and they drive off.

A Traveller man called John Sheridan agrees to talk to me – “Because it’s nice to help people.” He and his son Pa are in the town’s only halting site, helping an older neighbour. Pa has jump leads in his hands. John has rosary beads around his neck.

They have a house on Roches Road and, says John, Sheridans have been in Rathkeale “for the best part of 200 years”.

He doesn’t like how Travellers are represented in the media. “Those ‘big fat gypsy weddings’, they don’t happen. There might be a fortune [a dowry] but that one fortune does 20 people. I might get it from you and then you give it to someone else. One fortune might cover 20 weddings. And they’re not as big as they say.”

As for “buying up” Rathkeale, he says: “The best investment you can make is property. And it’s nice to have your own place, a place to call home. There’s nothing particularly special about Rathkeale, but Rathkeale is home.”

Travellers and settled people don’t mix, he says, purely because the cultures are so different. “We’ve our own traditions. We’re very old fashioned. We have a lot of Victorian values. The girls don’t drink or smoke until they get married. They don’t go out with boys. In our community a man of 40 who’s not married is classed as a single boy but if he’s 18 and married he’s a married man.”

“But it’s more than that,” says Pa softly. “The settled people wouldn’t particularly go out of their way to associate with us.”

“They think we’re aggressive people or something,” says John.

Does he go abroad to work himself? “I have done,” says Pa.

When asked if it’s fun, he’s taken aback by the question. “When you go somewhere for work is it fun?” Planning Later at Kathleen’s Bar a settled man takes me out onto the street to show me how the Traveller-built houses across the road were stretching planning regulations (one house is built so close to a telephone pole, the pole bows outward).

Kathleen Mulcair, the barkeeper, says the town is dying. She regularly complains to the council about the patina of dust that covers her bar thanks to the nearby ghost estate. She and others suggest Traveller wealth is increasingly illusory (last Christmas many of the fancy returning cars were hire cars, says one customer) but she says the town needs the Travellers. “The money they make, they spend in Rathkeale.”

There are only three people in the bar, including one noncommunicative young Traveller man. A settled woman tells me Rathkeale is one of the weirdest places she has ever lived. She has friends from both sides of the community, but this is rare, she says. “When I came here first, I thought it looked like apartheid.”

Kathleen’s Bar started letting Travellers in only two years ago, she says. Mulcair confirms this.

In contrast, hotelier Davy Mann realised the economic importance of Travellers more than a decade ago. Mann’s Hotel is now where many Travellers hold their parties, weddings and “pop the question” (engagement) parties.

Mann is a self-confessed opportunist, who, until 2003, kept Travellers out of his establishment. “I never thought there was anything wrong with them or that they were bad. It’s just you can’t run a business with the two sides. Now they see me as half one of them.”

He says Rathkeale’s businesses do well out of Travellers. “They’ll give out, but they’ll rub their hands and say, ‘The boys’ll be home soon. We’ll make a bit of money!’ ”

Hopeful

There are some hopeful signs. When I visit the boxing club, built in the shell of the old creamery building, dozens of Traveller and settled boys and girls hit punchbags, exercise and spar together.

Joe Williams introduces me to Traveller twins Jamie and Jason Harty who reached the finals of the 2013 EUBC European Schoolboys Boxing Championships. The walls are filled with photos and trophies.

“Whatever you are is left outside the door,” says Williams. “They’re working from the time they get in here.”

A month later, when I return to Rathkeale, David Breen is pleased about another development. In the gaol of the town hall, now used as a mother-and-baby group, he tells me the local prayer group, with the support of the Pre-social Cohesion Committee, is fundraising to refurbish the old parish hall. He’s excited because the fundraising committee comprises both settled people and Travellers.

Claire Young, the secretary, a settled person, and Mary Sheridan, the treasurer, a Traveller, tell me about their friendship and the 20-year history of their group. When Breen says that for all the complaining about Travellers he’s heard from the settled community, he’s heard little in return from Travellers, Sheridan reaches over, touches her friend’s sleeve and says: “Now, did you hear that Claire.” They laugh.

Breen still has faith that the two communities in this unique town can be brought together. When he first told his colleagues he was going to a “prayer meeting” one of them said, “So it’s come to this.” He smiles. “Maybe it has.”

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