Abusing Travellers is ‘racism for liberals’

Casey’s comments verbalised what people think, say those close to the community

Sr Cait Gannon, a retired member of the Sisters of Mercy nuns who lives in Thurles, still works with Travellers following decades of involvement with the community as a teacher and social worker.

This week, she has spoken a lot about them, after Peter Casey's second-place finish in the presidential race against Michael D Higgins, where Casey received 342,727 votes – or 23 per cent of all votes cast.

"Peter Casey verbalised what people think in their hearts," she says, "I know it is, because people phoned me up and told me they would be voting for him because of what he said about Travellers."

Last weekend, signs declaring “Stop the hatred. Stop the lies”; “Blame the people causing the problem, not the victims”, or “Casey, Trump, tear down those walls” hung from fencing at the entrance to a housing estate at Cabragh Bridge, a couple of kilometres outside of Thurles.


There is one law for one section of the community and one law for another. Travellers need to be a little bit more considerate to the wider community

It was here at this as yet unoccupied estate of six houses that Casey visited on October 18th. There, before a crowd of assembled media, he refused to withdraw the criticisms he had made of Travellers.

The local Travellers who had been offered the houses were selfish and unreasonable for turning them down because they did not have grazing land for horses.

Basically, Casey said, Travellers are “people camping on someone’s else’s land”. More generally, he refused to accept they are a different race, despite being formally recognised by the State as an ethnic minority last year.

Ratings boost

The controversy boosted his ratings, from 2 per cent beforehand. Throughout, Casey denied he is a racist.

Casey secured his highest number of first-preference votes in Tipperary – all 20,149 of them. In Thurles Shopping Centre earlier this week, people were curt when asked their views on Travellers, and whether they agreed with Casey.

“Peter Casey told the truth,” says Paddy O’Reilly. “People living in the countryside are terrified of robberies. People are afraid of Travellers.”

Despite this, however, O’Reilly says he voted for Michael D Higgins.

"I was very surprised at the result, but I could understand why Peter Casey got so many votes," says Margaret Lawson. "There is one law for one section of the community and one law for another. Travellers need to be a little bit more considerate to the wider community. They should never be allowed to be above the law."

"I personally have nothing against them," John Doherty says. "But judging by the size of the vote Peter Casey got, I don't think it says anything great about how most people view Travellers. Here in Thurles, the feeling around town is that when they go out to socialise, they tend to be rowdy in the extreme."

Questioned about the disconnection between Travellers and the settled community, Sr Cait Gannon says: “I think bitterness started to arise when Travellers started to be housed, because people didn’t want to live beside them.

“They blamed them for the value of their houses going down. There is a fear of Travellers; an ingrained fear. And so they [the settled community] keep their distance, and so too do the Travellers. That doesn’t help integration.”


Two decades ago, secondary school education was seen as the solution: it would offer equality to a new generation of Travellers, better integrating them with settled neighbours. Two decades on, it has not worked.

“Children only used to get as far as primary school. Now we’ve seen the generation who are in secondary school. But it hasn’t made the difference it was thought it would, because people won’t employ Travellers.

“I myself have tried to get them jobs on stud farms. They are brilliant with horses; they grew up with them, and some of the men are horse-whisperers. But none of them got jobs,” the nun said.

“I had people tell me it wasn’t because of the particular young person themselves, but because of who they might know: that they might give them information, and then there might be a robbery. I think there is now an anger building up in young Traveller men. They see the pals they had in school getting jobs, but they don’t have jobs.”

In the 2016 census, the number of Travellers recorded was 30,987, which represents just 0.7 per cent of the total population. Eight out of every 10 who could work in the community are unemployed. Out of the entire Traveller population, just 932 of them were aged 65, and over.

Your horse is your friend; a family member; a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Horses give a purpose to stay alive

Margaret Casey, a Traveller herself, leads the Tipperary Rural Travellers' Project in Tipperary town, which works with 162 families in south Tipperary. Interestingly, she sees some positives in Casey's actions.

"Of course, Peter Casey said those things on purpose to get votes, but in a way, he has done us a favour," she says. "We've had the conversation in Ireland about same-sex marriage and abortion. Now this – the Travelling community – is the last taboo to be tackled.

“If Peter Casey had taken that platform about any other ethnic group in Ireland, there would have been an outcry, but because it’s Travellers he targeted, that is okay.”

Brian Dillon is development officer at the project. "The most liberal people in Ireland who have glasses of wine at dinner parties and who would never dream of using the 'N' word have no problem calling Travellers 'knackers' in private. It's racism for liberals," he says. "The liberal veneer in Ireland doesn't allow people to actually come forward publicly with their very serious prejudices. Casey knew that. People will feel a little more courage now to voice what they really think."

“People’s perceptions of us is that we are not intelligent or educated. That we are spongers off the State. That we are dirty and we are criminals,” says Margaret Casey.

“There is no communication between us and settled people, because communication is based on respect. We should respect differences. Society has to accept we are Travellers and we need to respect settled people, but I don’t think there is any foundation of respect from either side. Settled people are the people who have the power, and they can decide whether they want to be racist. We need to access their services, so we are at their mercy.”

Casey talks about the part horses play in Traveller culture. “The last little bit of tradition and culture is our horses. Your horse is your friend; a family member; a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Horses give a purpose to stay alive, and they are a little bit of status in society. That’s all we have left of our culture and we want to hold on to it. Travellers are very connected to horses, especially men.”

There are horses, a sulky, and several dogs at the three-caravan camp I visit at a concealed rural location outside Ballinasloe, Co Galway, the following day. Thurles-based Paul Harrison, who has been photographing members of the Travelling community for years, has invited me to meet his friend, Jim Ward.

Ward, who lives in a privately rented house in Ballinasloe, has in turn brought us out to the encampment to meet his cousin Martin Cawley, and Martin's wife Rose.

Ward, who also has horses, has just explained to me why the term “knacker” is considered by Travellers to be the most offensive of all insults directed at them. “A knacker is a horse going to the factory. It’s a horse that is no good to anybody and is going be killed,” he says.

Then the caravan door opens and one of the Cawley children comes in and hands something to her mother. Minutes before, she took it out of the post-box located at the entrance to the site, a kilometre’s distance from where the caravans are grouped together.

The note is not a greeting, or something welcome. Instead, it is anonymous, handwritten, with poor grammar. Inside, there are two blue shotgun cartridges. Jim Ward cannot read, so I end up being asked to read out the note to everyone. This is part of what it says:

“Final warning to you and your family. We have recently found your camp . . . Stay of [sic] your horse and traps. We know what roads your [sic] going everyday we’ll ram you off the road till we get one of you . . . We’re not stoping [sic] till one of you are dead We’ll run you out of your camp . . . Your time is near at end”

The guards are called. Shaken, we restart the interview while waiting for them to come. Rose Cawley is visibly upset. There are two newborn babies in the caravans. Now she is afraid for their safety and that of everybody else, including the animals.

“We saw Peter Casey on the TV,” Martin Cawley says. “We were shocked at what he said. He didn’t say anything good at all about us. He is definitely a racist.”

“He came second, so if Michael Higgins hadn’t got it, Peter Casey could have been president. I didn’t think he would get that far,” says Rose Cawley. “Why would anyone have respect for Travellers now when someone running to be president said those things?”

“He said exactly what most settled people are thinking,” says Ward. “When you have a man running for president who is saying those things about us, what hope is there?”

Interestingly, the Wards and Casey have an equally low opinion of the ethnic status now offered by the State to Travellers: “They say we are an ethnic group now. But what difference does it make? We are being treated worse than ever now. That ethnic thing means nothing to me,” Martin Cawley says. “We are just being treated the same as we have always been treated. It didn’t change anything.”

If Travellers are disconnected from the settled community, many appear, too, to have little faith in the groups set up to represent them, most particularly Pavee Point: “I have no interest in Pavee Point,” Ward states. “They’re only a waste of time. Anything we have done, we have done ourselves.”

“None of them have ever helped us, ever,” says Rose Cawley.

“We did ask for help from Pavee Point once. But we didn’t get it,” Martin Cawley says.


Later, I spoke with Martin Collins, co-director of Pavee Point: "I think what that is reflecting is a deep, deep frustration with the system and the State and how the State and local authorities in particular have failed Travellers," he said.

“I think there is a misunderstanding among some Travellers whereby they think that organisations like Pavee Point and other local Traveller support groups have the power to make things happen. To get local authorities to build sites. To end inequality and discrimination. We unfortunately don’t have that power or that level of influence, and I think some Travellers somehow or another have that view that we do. If we did have that power and influence, we would create a much better society for Travellers.”

After they arrived at the camp, gardaí took away the note and the two cartridges, promising to make sure their cars would patrol the road at night. They arranged to return to take a statement the next day. The Cawleys voiced their suspicions about who might be responsible.

Back in Tipperary, Imelda Reidy is the co-ordinator of the Traveller programme with the North Tipperary Leader Partnership in Roscrea, which works with 200 families. Among others, it employs six Traveller women, who work as health workers within their own community.

“What Peter Casey said isn’t new. He is a rehashed version of something that has been there all the time. Discrimination against the Travelling community has been an issue for the last 50 or 60 years,” she says. “I’m not surprised he did so well. I am aware of the levels of discrimination in the settled community against Travellers.

“But this needs to be put in a context of world events. I do believe there is a push towards picking on the marginalised and on ethnic minorities, because it is very easy to blame them, and they are people with very little power. People like Peter Casey legitimise racism. Public figures have a responsibility in what they say. People who are divisive like him never contribute anything positive. The discrimination has always been bad, but social media has made it worse. People have greater access to express themselves publicly now.”

In her years experience of working with Travellers, what misconceptions has she heard about them from the settled community?

Reidy rolls her eyes. She has heard everything. “People have an immediate response about what they think Travellers are. That they have no interest in school. That they all have a learning disability. That they are to be feared. It’s a nonsense, this perception people have that they are to be feared. It is not based in reality.

There is also a general assumption is that all Travellers are the same. The Travelling community is not a homogenous community. It is made up of different individuals and it is a gross mistake to say they are all the same and need the same things.”


What about the proven element of criminality among some members of the community?

“It does happen, but when one Traveller does something wrong, the whole community is blamed for it. Criminality is a policing job, so why are Travellers expected to take on all the responsibility, and to do the job of the guards?”

Reidy is clear that she considers discrimination against Travellers was always present. “We have a tendency to see things through rose-tinted spectacles. There is a myth that in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were providing a service by ‘tinkering’ and mending things that Travellers were welcomed into settled communities.

They were only welcomed when they had a purpose, and when that purpose was gone, they were not so welcome. There is a long history of mistrust on both sides.”

Reidy urged settled people not to support derogatory remarks about Travellers, and to challenge such views when they are made: “Whether you are sitting at your kitchen table or in the pub, challenge people and ask them: ‘Why are you saying that?’.”

Sighing and shaking her head, Reidy goes on: “I despair sometimes at how we treat each other. It would be so much easier if people could be a little nicer and kinder to each other.”

Back in Thurles, one settled local, who used to work with Travellers in education, agrees to talk, but only anonymously. She is horrified by the support Casey received.

Many neighbours have made a point since of telling her that they had voted for him: “His comments are not new, but I think what they have done is to stir the shit again,” she says.

Travellers always want to live together, in multi-generational family settlements and that doesn't suit most county councils

“There is a tendency by both sides to romanticise the old days, when men fixed pots and were tinkering and they lived in barrel-top wagons. The summers were grand and they could move around when they wanted, but in my opinion that is really romanticising what was extreme poverty.”

Today, little has changed, particularly for women: “They do the washing and cleaning and look after the kids. Most men don’t have any intention of working, ever. From our point of view, their whole life is wrong.

“There are no opportunities for girls, and they are people who don’t value what we value. I used to be upset the girls would get married so early, because it is a kind of vicious circle, but the girls themselves don’t see it like that.”

For decades, Ireland’s settled population has wanted Travellers to integrate, but only on its terms, she argues: “Which is why it hasn’t worked. Travellers always want to live together, in multi-generational family settlements and that doesn’t suit most county councils. From the perspective of the council and the settled people already living there, it is creating a ghetto.”

Relations between the sides have never been worse, she believes. This week, many others agree. “Communication is the key to solving most problems, but how that comes about, I don’t know,” she says.

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland is Senior Features Writer with The Irish Times. She was named NewsBrands Ireland Journalist of the Year for 2018