Annus horribilis for travelling community
Travellers: Carrickmines tragedy highlights appalling conditions in which some must live
Flowers left in sympithy at the scene of the Carrickmines fire in which 10 people were killed at a halting site on Glenamuck road in south Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.
For Travellers, 2015 has been an annus horribilis, one marked by unspeakable grief, most publicly in the Carrickmines fire tragedy that left 10 dead, including five children; but it is a a grief that has turned to anger.
In February, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from a boy who had challenged the refusal of his admission to the Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, six years ago.
The five-judge court effectively upheld earlier rulings by the Circuit and High courts in relation to the case taken by Mary Stokes, mother of John Stokes (16 ), who had argued the school’s preference for the sons of former pupils discriminated against Travellers, as most of John’s parents’ generation had not attended secondary school.
Brigid Quliigan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, speaking after the judgment, said the ruling showed “discrimination [was] alive and well” in Ireland.
In May, a Co Clare family said they had been “publicly humiliated” when Caroline Sherlock and her niece, Kathleen-Marie (20) had been refused entry to their local church for the Holy Communion service, in which two young family members had been participating .
The parish priest had dictated “no low-cut tops” and “no mini, mini-skirts”. They sought an apology but the Diocese of Galway said: “For all concerned, such things are best not played out in the media.”
The media played its role in the national attitude to Travellers, keen as ever to alert readers and viewers as to the Traveller identity of those involved in criminality.
In May, readers of The Irish Times learned about a “crackdown” on “Traveller gangs” in the Midlands, while in July, readers of a number of tabloids were told of “ruthless Traveller gang” based in Tallaght breaking into houses in the south-east of the State.
In October, the zeroing on criminality among some Travellers and the widespread anger engendered as a result towards the whole community, reached new heights.
This came as the trial of seven young men from Dublin, for a terrifying attack on the young family of Mark and Emma Corcoran in their Tipperary home two years ago, came to a close. The men were handed prison sentences of between seven and 20 years at Clonmel Circuit Court.
Though court reports did not directly identify the Traveller backgrounds of some of the men, several commentators were keen to.
‘Volatile and dangerous’
A reporter with another newspaper described the men as “a mix of individuals from the Traveller and settled communities in Coolock, north Dublin” who were “extremely volatile and dangerous”, and “use a number of illegal halting sites to store stolen goods, cars and weapons”.
The unspeakable act of violence perpetrated on the Corcoran family gave rise to a renewed focus on rural crime. Explicitly or implicitly, Travellers were identified as ‘ring-leaders’ at the centre of massive rural crime wave.
Amid all this, arguments over the provision of Traveller accommodation played out across the State.
The failure of most local authorities to deliver decent housing to too many Travellers was shown with heartbreaking clarity, on the Saturday morning of October 10th. The deaths of Tara Gilbert (27), her partner Willy Lynch (25), their children Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4), of Sylvia Connors (25), her husband Thomas (27), their children Jim (5), Christy (2) and Mary (five months), and of Jimmy Lynch (39) at a temporary halting site on Glenamuck Road in Carrickmines, Dublin, convulsed the Traveller community.
Many in the settled community, however, were less moved. Efforts by Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council to temporarily re-house the Connors family, left homeless by the fire, were met with opposition from residents at nearby Rockville Drive. A week of meetings between officials and residents resulted in capitulation by the council. The Connors were instead housed in a council-owned car-park.
In the wake of the tragedy, this newspaper reported Dún Laoghaire Rathdown county council was one of 15 of the 31 local authorities which had not drawn down a euro this year for Traveller accommodation.
Since 2008, the national budget provided by the Department of the Environment has fallen from €70 million to €4.3 million this year – a 93 per cent collapse.
And yet, in the past two months this writer has visited Traveller housing schemes across the State which are damp, cold, severely over-crowded, with electric wires trailing through pools of stagnant water, with up to 20 people sharing one bathroom, and where ill children are sleeping on floors and sharing, sometimes four to a bed.
These families pay rent to their local authorities for accommodation that breaches their rights under several pieces of legislation, including the Housing and the Traveller Accommodation Acts, and, arguably, international law.
Such conditions unavoidably contribute to a Traveller infant mortality rate of 14 per thousand, compared with three per thousand in the settled community.
Too many Traveller children miss school, or fall behind when they are there. Fifty five per cent have left school by the age of 15. Their parents, who had the same or worse starts in life, have an unemployment of 84 per cent, higher rates of depression and a suicide rate six times that in the settled community.
In November, the four main Traveller representative organisations– the Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point, Minceirs Whiden and the National Traveller Women’s Forum – walked out of a housing conference, saying they could no longer “collude” with a process that was not delivering.
Fifteen years after the first projects, more than 1,500 Traveller families are still in unsafe or overcrowded accommodation.
However, the walk-out was not met kindly by the Government-appointed hosts, with the chairman of the meeting describing it as an “insult”.
* This article was amended on January 5th, 2016. It originally said the infant mortality rates for the Traveller and settled communities were 14 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively. This should have read 14 per thousand and three per thousand, respectively.