Our casual racism against Travellers is one of Ireland's last great shames
A house at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal that was destroyed by fire days before members of the Traveller community were due to move in. photograph: thomas gallagher
“Trouble.” “Dirty.” “Disgusting.” “A thorn in the side of society.”
These words look like relics of Ireland’s past; they seem to belong to a time when we whispered about “fallen women”, and “improper acts” between men. Now that we have matured into a society that no longer locks up “bold girls” or criminalises homosexual men, we don’t like to recall that we ever saw the world in such stark terms.
It’s heartwarming how much we’ve all moved on, isn’t it? Let’s give ourselves a big pat on the back – we have matured into an inclusive, humane society; a society capable of acknowledging and even apologising for the wrongs of the past; a society that recognises that “different” doesn’t always mean “inferior”.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about Travellers. Because, unfortunately, these words don’t actually belong to our past – they were all taken from recent internet discussions on Travellers.
The kind of casual, venomous racism that Travellers are still subjected to, even by mild commentators in benign contexts, will prove one of this society’s last great, collective shames.
At school 30 years ago, I don’t remember anyone questioning why the Traveller children always seemed to be seated alone at the “bold desk” or why they were universally referred to by the rest of us as “smelly”.
Since then, the discrimination may have become more subtle, but it hasn’t gone away. I have routinely been met with incredulity when I expressed the view that perhaps all Travellers weren’t bad news – in conversation with friends; in taxis; by members of the public in my role as a journalist; and once, memorably, by a uniformed garda.
If it was just the occasional crude generalisation and the odd anonymous online outburst that Travellers had to contend with, they’d probably consider themselves fortunate. Earlier this month, a house at Ballyshannon in Co Donegal was burnt down, days before the Ward family – Travellers who had lived, they said, without incident in the town for more than four decades – were due to move in.
If this had been the house of an African family, or a Jewish family, or a family headed by a same-sex couple or single parent, it’s likely there would have been mass protests at this KKK-style burning. Instead, what greeted the news was a broad indifference.
Speaking about the incident last week on local radio, Jimmy Ward said that his children were “ashamed on their life to go to school at all” since the incident – despite being the victims of it.
“I can understand people don’t want Travellers living beside them, but I’m not a Traveller living beside them. I’m part of them. This is my town as well as theirs. Ballyshannon is our home town – I’m never leaving here,” he said, perfectly encapsulating what so many settled people fail to understand or refuse to see about Travellers.
It is not about where “we” want “them” to live; Travellers have as much right to a home in a place of their choosing as anyone else.