The view from inside: a day on the halting site

 

At a Limerick halting site comprising the extended Casey family, tales of social ostracism are rife from the women, names are not offered up easily and the men seem not to want to talk at all, writes ROSITA BOLAND

TOPPINS FIELD halting site is directly opposite the Maldron hotel, not far from Limerick’s Southern Ring Road. The site is concreted, and on the wet day I visit, water is relentlessly lodging everywhere. To get to one particular caravan, unless you jump over the boundary bay wall, you end up navigating an immense puddle of water that is ankle-deep and rising. At the entrance to the site, the ribcage of some large animal, still with pieces of meat attached, is being pulled around and devoured by dogs. There are a number of horseboxes but no horses. They are kept elsewhere, as there’s no room for them here.

In all there are 42 people living at Toppins Field, in four family units of 18, 10, eight and six, all members of the extended Casey family.

The brand new shining caravan in one corner of the site is destined for Bridget Casey’s 20-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is getting married today. It’s full of wedding gifts: a set of hanging cutlery, pots, Waterford Crystal picture frames, a lamp, seahorse candlesticks and bowls. “Crystal is traditional as presents, because it’s very dear,” she explains. On the bench beside Bridget is a long box covered with a brown towel. She lifts the lid off to display her daughter’s pretty diamante-scattered veil and bouquet of artificial sparkly white roses. The dress is being stored elsewhere, because there isn’t room for it in the caravan.

Bridget (39) has lived here for 17 years, and “is still waiting for a house”. She left school after sixth class. She says she knows she has missed out on opportunities that non- Travellers have. “Like getting into places when you go out.”

Bridget has six children. Margaret (10), who comes in to see us, is home from school today because she has a sore throat. Samantha is the eldest. Danny (five) is the youngest. He flings open the door, and looks in at us. “Hello, Danny,” I say. “F**k off!” Danny replies, to his mother’s embarrassment.

Bridget tried for five weeks to book a venue for her daughter’s wedding reception for 70 people. She failed. “I tried lots of restaurants, and they all said they were booked. You phone up, and I suppose people hear my accent and guess I’m a Traveller. And they won’t take deposits, either, from Travellers. You have to ask a settled person to put down a deposit. It’s embarrassing. I don’t understand it. I mean, with a recession, you’d think people would want business, wouldn’t you?”

As a result, Samantha will put on her dress and veil today, go to the church and get married, and after the photographs she will remove her wedding clothes and go straight to Shannon Airport for a honeymoon in Lanzarote. “There won’t be any party. And weddings are usually gatherings when you meet everyone else. Guests will have paid out for new clothes, and there won’t be any party.”

When Margaret made her First Communion, the family was able to book a venue in advance. However, when they turned up in a limousine they were turned away. “I could see the tables. They were all done up in pink and white, like I had asked. They told us there was a mistake, and the place was booked for someone else. We had to go from pub to pub all dressed up, looking a place to take us.” Was Margaret very upset? “Oh, yes. She cried.”

Margaret Casey’s mobile home is striking because it is almost entirely bare. There is not a single toy, picture, book or ornament within sight. There are a few china frames with photographs of family members, and bundles of clothes shoved into corners. A section of the lino has been taken up to be replaced, and in this mobile, as in many others, the table has been taken out to create more floor space. Here also, as in some of the other mobiles and vans I visit, is a disorientatingly dim interior; most of the orange velour curtains are closed tightly, even though it’s not long after noon. The drawn curtains provide a measure of privacy from the extended family members who live in close quarters on the site.

Margaret (38) has eight children. Two of them are with her. Meg (five) is home from playschool because, like Margaret, she has a sore throat. Her youngest, Willie, is 13 months, and experimenting with his walking skills. There is a small gold ring in his left ear – “Traveller tradition for boys,” explains his mother. When I ask Margaret to describe a typical day, she replies flatly, “There’s nothing for women to do here”. Then she says, “Cooking, washing, cleaning,” and laughs. She married at 17, and has been, she thinks, 19 years on this site. Margaret says their family is hoping to move away from the site and into a house in the near future.

THE BIGGEST individual family on the site is Billy and Philomena Casey’s. They have been in Limerick 30 years and on the site for 20. “We’re Limerick, born, bred and raised,” as Philomena puts it. “We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” says Billy. “It wouldn’t be the same. Offaly people are different to Limerick people, for instance.”

They have 16 children, ranging in age from 28 down to Chelsea, who is six. Seven of the youngest children live with them in their mobile, which is filled with Philomena’s striking collection of religious statues, some of them as large as those displayed in churches. She says regretfully that the rest of her collection has to be stored in the kitchen/bathroom unit of their bay, due to lack of space. In regulated halting sites, each bay has a unit with a separate toilet, bathroom and kitchen with a Stanley range. Later, Billy shows me their unit – the bathroom windowsill displays a row of small statues of Jesus and Padre Pio, and the kitchen is filled to capacity with much larger statues of Jesus, Waterford Crystal, tin buckets, enamel kettles and paraffin lamps. “We like going to car-boot sales,” he explains.

The older boys live in the opposite caravan, and older girls live in an adjacent mobile. I’m never sure which of the 16 are living in their parents’ mobile, because over the course of some hours, the door constantly opens and closes, as different children come and go about their business. When I ask one of the older boys his name, he laughs and says “Tommy”. His siblings howl. This is not his name. I never learn what it is. Some of his sisters do offer their names, and then almost immediately ask me not to use them.

Three chihuahuas, Daithi, Freddie and Tinsy, roam around, usually settling under the stove. How many dogs do they have? “Fifteen,” someone answers. “Shut up! We’ve only three,” is the next answer. Later in the afternoon, Philomena emerges from a bedroom with one of Tinsy’s puppies and gives it to Chelsea. It doesn’t really matter how many dogs there are, but nobody seems to want to give me a straight answer.

I am visiting this site at the invitation of the Irish Traveller Movement, but even so, over the course of the day I find it difficult to get people’s stories, because they are revised or retracted as fast as they’re told to me. The boys and men, in particular, seem not to want to talk at all, and there is considerable additional tension when the photographer arrives. In one caravan, a young woman tells me about a shameful act of discrimination against her, but before I even leave the caravan, she’s changed her mind. She wants me to hand over my notebook so she can burn the pages that refer to her story. I don’t do this, and the atmosphere noticeably sours.

“Miss!” suddenly explodes the youngest boy in Billy and Philomena’s caravan, after I have been sitting there for some time, “write in your notebook that we’re living in a dump!”

The boy who says he’s Tommy declares “We don’t want to live on an estate. We want to keep away from everyone. We want somewhere a bit out the country. And we want half an acre for our dogs and horses.”

“There’s no such thing as a Traveller,” Billy declares. “We all came out of houses before the Famine. We need our land back. We should have our land given back to us.” What Billy wants for his family of 16 children is a group of houses in a less built-up part of Limerick, where they can live in proximity to each other. On some sites, every family on them wants to be rehoused together in a group, but at Toppins Field, families say they would be happy to be rehoused individually, with two or three houses to cater accordingly for the number of children they have.

“Or you can live in a corporation house. Or you can buy a house and pay a mortgage like everyone else,” interjects one of the children, after their father has finished explaining what he hopes the council will provide them with. Nobody makes any response to this.

When I leave the site, the ribcage is still lying at the entrance. There is not a scrap of meat left on it.

Matters of life, death and difference Key facts and findings about the Traveller community

The All Ireland Traveller Health Study was published in 2010. Here are some of its findings:

40,129

The Traveller population on the island. As part of the study, a census was conducted in 2008/2009. This found 36,224 were living in the Republic and 3,905 in Northern Ireland.

While researching, this reporter asked members of the Travelling community and the settled public to estimate the size of the Travelling community. Nobody knew. Answers varied from 2,000 to 250,000.

3.6 times

higher infant mortality compared with the general population.

15 years

lower life expectancy for Traveller men compared with the general population

11 years

lower life expectancy for Traveller women compared with the general population

6.6 times

higher suicide rate for Traveller men than the national average.

The Irish Traveller Movement was established in 1990. It is a national network of more than 80 organisations and individuals within the community and has made the following findings:

63%

of Traveller children under 15 have left school, compared with the national average of 13 per cent.

Religion: predominantly Catholic. Rituals such as christenings, confirmation, weddings, pilgrimages and funerals are highly important, both from a religious and from a social perspective.

They are usually events where people gather from all over the country, and from abroad.

Task Force Report:

A 1995 report on the Travelling community defined culture as having three key elements: (1) The shared way a group acts; (2) The way a group thinks; (3) The way a group learns.

There are tangible and intangible concepts that define a cultural group. For Travellers they include nomadism, language, family and ways of working. Less tangible markers include shared values, ways of communicating and symbols.

All cultures are fluid and allow for diversity and expressions of that culture to evolve. The pin that holds the community together is ethnicity, so not all Travellers have to act the same way or practice the cultural values in the same way to be considered a Traveller.