‘Settled women talk of glass ceilings, Traveller women are still outside looking through the window’
Dr Rosaleen McDonagh on the emergence of Traveller feminism: The O’Reilly sisters created a ‘watershed moment in Traveller women’s history’
From left, sisters Philomena Connors, Helen O’Donoghue, Anne O’Reilly, Bridget O’Reilly, Mary Moran, Margaret Hutchinson and Kathleen O’Driscoll leaving court after their father was jailed for 20 years for their abuse. Photograph: Collins Courts
“The function of freedom is to free somebody else”
This quote from African-American feminist Toni Morrison has particular resonance for the O’Reilly sisters. These incredibly strong Traveller beoirs waived their anonymity in court last June, allowing for the naming of their abuser – their father, James O’Reilly – who was found guilty of raping and sexually abusing seven of his daughters and his younger sister and jailed for 20 years. These sisters from Tipperary have lifted the stigma and shame of gender-based violence within our community, and are a testament to the growth of Traveller feminism.
Many Traveller women have experienced gender-based violence or have watched our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female cousins live with it. Traveller organisations play a huge role in providing safe spaces within the community.
The O’Reilly sisters undertook the most powerful and courageous act by going public about what they endured
over 20 years
The three main waves of feminism determined incremental change or milestones – usually in line with evolving social policy, such as the marriage bar being lifted in Ireland in 1972/73 – but these incremental changes were not impacting marginalised women’s lives. Access, participation and contribution in the area of education were available only to the few. And while the third wave of feminism recognises intersectionality, it does not truly reflect that racism and other forms of discrimination or bias cause great difficulties for marginalised and poor women. This includes Traveller women.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many Traveller women there are in Ireland. Kathleen Lawrence, an education support worker, says that “due to racism, stigma and shame, not all Travellers identify within the census”.
Empirical evidence suggests there are about 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, and roughly half are female. Among Traveller women, just 13.3 per cent reach secondary level education or above, compared with almost seven in 10 (69.1 per cent) of the general population.
While settled women talk of a glass ceiling, Traveller women are still outside, looking in through the window
Catherine Joyce, co-ordinator of Blanchardstown Travellers Development Group, says: “There are also wider factors that impact on low attainment of education for Traveller women and girls: these include poor health status, unsuitable accommodation, and high unemployment.”
Waves of feminism happen only when change comes for a generation of women. This has not yet happened for Traveller women. Chances may come for individual women, and we must always celebrate these opportunities, but incremental change for the majority is slow. While settled women talk of a glass ceiling, Traveller women are still outside, looking in through the window.
Instead, Traveller women created their own narrative. The National Traveller Women’s Forum was founded in 1988 with the aims of advancing Traveller women’s rights, human rights, equality, cultural recognition, solidarity, liberation, collective action, anti-sexism, anti-racism (and) self-determination. Similar to black and minority ethnic women, we experience sexism from within the community and, simultaneously, racism and sexism externally. Traveller women are custodians of Traveller culture, but this does not mean we are subordinate to Traveller men or boys.
In 1998, Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre set up the Breaking the Silence initiative. This programme developed a Traveller feminist approach to gender-based violence and issues of diversity and inequality. The opening up of these sensitive conversations lifted many layers of oppression that generations of Travellers carried.
Gender-specific roles were being questioned (tradition is often made by men to suit men). What was unique about this programme was the articulation of how we as Travellers could and should support each other regardless of complex family dynamics.
A year earlier, in 1997, the C Case, where a 13-year-old Traveller girl was raped and became pregnant by an adult male Traveller, brought shame and anger within the community. This anger was echoed loudly within broader Irish society. The perpetrator was jailed for 12 years. At that time, our community was vilified and shamed for allowing such an atrocity to happen. There was the assumption that the community was somehow complicit to such a crime.
But this crime happens in all communities; rich, poor, Traveller, settled. The following year, the story of Sophia McColgan, a settled child who was abused by her father, came to light and this narrative of female survival also shocked and frightened the nation. It was in this environment that the Breaking the Silence programme was born.
Today, Pavee Point continues to provide training for organisations to increase knowledge, skills, capacity and confidence to recognise and respond to domestic and sexual violence in a culturally appropriate way. Twenty-two years later the granddaughters of these pioneer women continue to challenge violence against women.
We are struggling like all communities to recognise diversity among our own. New realities such as divorce, second relationships, older single status, women with no children, women who are married to non-Travellers, women who are gay or non-binary, single parents, deaf and disabled bring a rich texture to our ethnicity. The gendered aspect of suicide, addiction, prison and homelessness are part of contemporary Traveller female narratives.
We all share responsibility to ensure women and children are not suffering in silence. The continual challenge to institutional endemic sexism and racism is on all of us
Many Traveller women do leave violent marriages, but the idea that you can leave your family and community or dispose and disregard your Traveller identity is unfair and carries a judgement. These matters are often multi-layered; often, there is a failure to recognise Traveller women don’t always have the same right of access to services.
Kitty McDonagh, a student from Wexford, argues that gender or sexual violence is not part of Traveller culture. “Toxic masculinity and its behaviours must be routed out from all elements of society, including our community,” she says.
“We all share responsibility to ensure women and children are not suffering in silence. The continual challenge to institutional endemic sexism and racism is on all of us.”
Where were the teachers, the social workers and the school liaison officers when the O’Reilly sisters needed them?
In the early days of Traveller politics, many of us struggled to put gender on the agenda. As with mainstream feminism, some Traveller women experienced a backlash not only from the men in our families but from some of our more conservative male activists. Similar to the experiences of the Southall Black Sisters in London (a group set up in 1979 to highlight and work to end gender-based violence against Asian women), Traveller women and Traveller organisations were becoming conscious in the area of sexism, poverty and inequality. The anti-racist movement continues to be a challenging space for women.
Catherine Joyce sees this through her work with Blanchardstown Travellers Development Group: “The task internally within our community is to keep raising the consciousness of girls and women. Men need to take up the gauntlet of anti-sexist behaviour and attitudes.
“Many changes have happened in our country over the past 10 years. Gender politics are less polarised. We have all benefited from these changes, particularly minority ethnic women. The divorce referendum, the abortion referendum and the Marriage Equality Act have all rejected a history where women, including Traveller women, were subjugated to oppressive patriarchal structures of violence and control.”
Tessa Collins from Pavee Point Violence against Women Programme explains that “historically, our relationship with the gardaí could be described as somewhat adversarial. There was a belief that we could not or should not report a crime, especially if that crime was perpetrated by a Traveller, [but] the law is there to protect everybody, no community should assume the role of policing women and children. Power and control have nothing to do with safety.”
Ann Burke, a co-ordinator for the Southern Traveller Health Network in Cork, echoes these sentiments, particularly with regard to protecting women and children: “Where were the teachers, the social workers and the school liaison officers when the O’Reilly sisters needed them? In classrooms, in playgrounds, in exam halls, in gyms or jobs, do settled people ever ask where the Travellers are?”
In terms of political representation, Traveller women have also seen racism and bias stifling progress. In 1982, Nan Joyce was the first Traveller to run in the general election. She was unsuccessful. I ran as an independent candidate on the Trinity University Panel for the Seanad three times. In June 2020 Traveller woman Eileen Flynn was nominated to Seanad Éireann. She continues a legacy of Traveller women who amalgamate the personal and the political in a practical way, but more Traveller women are needed within local and national government.
Maria Joyce of the National Traveller Women’s Forum explains: “While the feminist movement in Ireland has slowly acknowledged, supported and extended the hand of friendship towards Traveller women, universally there is still an issue of the failure of the feminist movement to deal with the question of diversity.
“Real history was made on June 15th, 2020. The O’Reilly sisters undertook the most powerful and courageous act by going public about what they endured over 20 years. By any standards this is a watershed moment in Traveller history, particularly Traveller women’s history.”
Dr Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright and Irish Traveller. She was recently appointed to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission by President Michael D Higgins