‘I am a Traveller who does not travel’
My Education week: Martin Warde, mature student at NUI Galway
Martin Ward at NUI Galway. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy
There are not many Travellers in college. It’s been a long road to get here. I’m studying sociology and politics, as well as philosophy, as part of an arts degree at NUI Galway . At the same time, I’ve been doing comedy gigs for a few years. Today, I spent most of my time in the library on coursework. I’ve also been working on some top-secret proposals for TV projects.
In primary school, we were all put into remedial classes based on being a Traveller, rather than on our intelligence. I was always capable of keeping up with other students. I started secondary school with about six other Traveller students, but there were only two of us left by sixth year.
I remember Junior Cert art class, where the teacher had all the Traveller students sitting together. While the rest of the class were making clay models, we were given A1 sheets and colouring pencils. Role models were few and far between. Travellers have made a rich contribution to Ireland ’s culture, but we learned none of this in school.
My parents’ educational experience was 10 times worse. On my own understanding, there is a feeling that no matter how bright you are, and no matter how well you do in school, you will constantly be expected to prove yourself, constantly expected to be perfect, constantly watched for any sign of misbehaviour that proves the assumption that all Travellers are trouble.
Busy day of lectures and tutorials, but I meet my friend Hannah McGinley for coffee. Hannah is doing a PhD in education. I think she is the first Traveller in Ireland to do a PhD. She’s been somewhat of a mentor for me in university. She gives me huge support on everything from structuring my essays to managing my finances.
Money is tight for mature students. Getting a part-time job is hard for most of us. I have extensive bar-management experience from working in England but, try as I might, I can’t get work here. Let’s be honest: my surname, Ward e, indicates that I am a Traveller, so most pubs, most employers in fact, are reluctant to employ me. I’d love a job that could fit around college, and if someone offered me work, I’d snap it up.
I don’t want to generalise about the non-Travelling community, many of whom have done more to fight for Traveller rights than I have. But sometimes I think my surname and ethnicity might bar me from getting a fair shot in Ireland. It’s a bit of a battle, and comedy helps me make light of it.
So I make my own opportunities. I got into comedy when Des Bishop came to Tuam and was looking for Travellers to take part in a TV show. We met and had a conversation and I did some stand-up, along with three other Travellers, but I was the only one who continued on. I’ve done warm-ups for T he Late Late Show, been on numerous radio stations, and was recently asked to take part in a documentary for Sky television.
Today, there is a fair for internships and summer work, but nothing really strikes me. I call into the head tutor for sociology and politics. He has been a great support. I like to keep in contact with lecturers, tutors and support services.
NUI Galway has been so wonderful, and there are great services in the university. I got into this course through the Access programme, and it continues to support us throughout college.
If there are problems of any sort, it is available to help. That can make all the difference between staying in or dropping out of university.
I recently helped to run an event to encourage Travellers into third-level education. About 20 Travellers showed up, and many were surprised to hear that they can aspire to college and will be supported.
I call to a friend who recently had an accident and is now in a wheelchair. I walk her to the pier and then help her around the house. Mum and Dad always encouraged us to have friends from all walks of life, Traveller and non-Traveller. We did travel a little when I was a kid but I lived in a house from the age of six.
A lot of my friends are international or gay or Muslim. I guess this is because I have an interest in other people’s heritage and history, for obvious reasons. I’m currently learning Portuguese through some of my Brazilian friends.
Study. Chores. Pay the insurance. Work on my next column for The Voice of Traveller magazine. One of the highlights of writing this has been meeting fellow stand-up Katherine Lynch, who has become a good mate now.
I’m looking forward to the weekend. I don’t drink much. Getting served can be a problem. I wish it was because I still look 17, but it’s because a lot of pubs in Galway will ask for a passport in order to avoid serving Travellers, and when they see certain surnames, they won’t let you in.
Of course we face stigma, all the time. The press mostly reports on court cases involving Travellers, painting a picture that we are all criminals. But the majority are not criminals. The majority of Travellers condemn crime. We get robbed too. We get beaten up. No other community is asked to police its own people as Travellers are, any more than people in Limerick should be expected to change misconceptions about gangland criminality. Most of us don’t put videos of fighting up on YouTube. I don’t blame the non-Travelling community for having concerns. I only ask that they do not tar everyone with the same brush.
All I can do is I live my life as I want to live it. I am a Traveller who does not travel, and although I do feel strongly about my ethnicity, I know that when you interact with people who are, on the surface, different from you, you wonder why you hadn’t got to know them before.