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.”

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