‘A Traveller going to university shouldn’t be news’

Kathleen Lawrence, who has graduated from Maynooth, was told she was ‘stupid’ at school

Maynooth university graduate Kathleen Lawrence: ‘When I first came into the school the teacher gave me a colouring book and said I didn’t need to learn Irish.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Maynooth university graduate Kathleen Lawrence: ‘When I first came into the school the teacher gave me a colouring book and said I didn’t need to learn Irish.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

When Kathleen Lawrence (31) was told as a child by her teacher that she was “stupid” she resolved that no one would ever call her that again.

The young Traveller woman, who graduates today from Maynooth university with a 2:1 degree in civil law, tells how she was given the Bronte classic Jane Eyre to read at her primary school in Finglas, Dublin.

“I remember trying to read this book with the ‘thous’ and the ‘thees’. I said to the teacher, ‘This is stupid’ and she said ‘You’re stupid if you can’t understand it’. So I went and got myself a dictionary and I read it for spite. Ironically, it’s now my favourite book.”

She and her family – parents, four brothers and two sisters – spent time in England but have lived mainly around north county Dublin. She now lives in an apartment in Donabate.

Just one per cent of adult Travellers have a college degree and as with the majority of those few, Kathleen entered third level as a mature student, having left formal education early. She says she was bullied in primary school, being the only Traveller in her class.

‘I kept to myself’

“I was made to feel different. I always knew I was a Traveller but it was only when I went to school that I was made to believe it was a bad thing. I’d never thought it was bad, and I still don’t. I am very proud of who I am ,but if you were to believe these girls it was a terrible thing to be a Traveller. You were called ‘knacker’, you were dirty. You were just basically looked down on, everything you did, everything about you, was an issue.

“So my friends were the other Travellers in the school. We kept together. There was nothing said... I couldn’t go and socialise with the other children after school so it just became that I kept to myself and at breaktime I’d play with the other Travellers.

“The teachers weren’t too much better. When I first came into the school the teacher gave me a colouring book and said I didn’t need to learn Irish.”

She went on to secondary school, but “didn’t stay long”.

“The experience I had in primary school had an effect. Even though I liked the learning part I didn’t like the environment so I left. I was 15. I regret that. I imagine if someone had shown me some support or encouragement I might have at least finished even a GCSE or a Junior Cert. ”

She completed several courses, married at 18 and divorced at 26. Voluntary work with Fingal Travellers Organisation led to a job in the Traveller-led organisation Pavee Point. Colleagues encouraged her to apply for college, something she says had never occurred to her.

‘A freeing experience’

“It was not even on my radar and I kept not expecting to get a place. Even getting a place was almost good enough for me.”

Though she met “some lovely people” she was “wary” of friendships.

“I didn’t want to get to like someone and feel, ‘They’re a lovely person’ and then they’d say something that wasn’t nice. That’s nearly always been my experience interacting with settled people. So you hold yourself back, to not be hurt.”

She spent nine weeks in the United States over the summer, on the prestigious Washington-Ireland programme, during which she worked in the office of Congressman Brendan Boyle.

“One of the best things was I was able to come and go in restaurants, in shops. I was just Irish there. I told everyone I was an Irish Traveller, but it wasn’t a problem. It’s hard to describe the difference, being made to feel welcome wherever you go. It was a very freeing experience.”

She continues to work with Pavee Point and hopes to start a Masters in human rights in 2018.

“A Traveller going to university shouldn’t be news. It’s wrong that it is. I want to make sure no other child, no matter where they’re from, loses the opportunity to be whatever they want to be, because of prejudice or discrimination, or because someone once told them they were stupid.”

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