Galway Travellers renew campaign to ‘build bridges’

Government measures needed to underpin ethnic status, Traveller group says

Do people have positive experiences of Traveller culture? Why has an 18-year-old promise to update hate crime legislation not been updated? And should the ethnicity of Travellers have legal support?

These are questions which the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM) wants to explore in the coming months as part of new “bridge-building initiatives” at at local and national level.

GTM deputy co-ordinator Bridget Kelly said it was liaising with other non-governmental organisations, including the Irish Traveller Movement, to lobby for legal recognition of the ethnicity status afforded by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2017.

The organisation believes steps such as that taken in September by former minister for education Richard Bruton to ensure Traveller culture and history are recognised in the primary and secondary school curriculum should be followed by other departments to underpin ethnic status.



“Otherwise it is only symbolic, as we have seen in the presidential election debate,” said Annie McDonagh, a GTM member from the city’s east side.

"Everyone else seems surprised by the result, but we are not," Mrs McDonagh said of the presidential election, which saw presidential candidate Peter Casey come second. He had caused controversy during the campaign with his comments about Travellers, including his denial of Traveller ethnicity.

But now we realise ethnicity is only token, if there is no legislation and no supports to back it up

"Peter Casey has brought out in the open what we have known for a long time, but no one would believe us. That's why so many of us went out to vote for Michael D Higgins, and thank God that he was elected," she said, speaking at the GTM office in Galway with her nephew Martin Ward and colleagues including Anne Ward and Leanne Ward.

"So President Higgins and the Government, including Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, have to take a lead, and make sure there is a law against hate crime that is enforced and implemented, and that protects all groups – not just Travellers, but people with disabilities, migrants, all minorities ," Mrs McDonagh said.

Back in 2000, then minister for justice John O’Donoghue had promised a review of the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act and this is still in train.

Leanne Ward, who is 23, lives in Galway's west side and works part-time in Dunnes Stores. She cites several landmark developments and reports over the past two years which should have boded well for her future.

“But now we realise ethnicity is only token, if there is no legislation and no supports to back it up,” Ms Ward said. Several nights ago, she overheard several young women of her own age refer to a fight in a nightclub as having being caused by “knackers”.

We have families living next to a waste site on the outskirts of Galway for the last 20 years

"I hear this sort of thing all the time, and all you can do is to take it on the chin,"she said. "And then you go in to vote and realise 22 per cent of Galway West people voted for Peter Casey, and it isn't a good feeling at all."

"Casey even managed to insult the Taoiseach about his ethnic status as an Indian," Ms Ward said. "If Leo Varadkar was hurt by that, maybe he will understand how we feel."

Carrickmines fire

“It is over three years since 10 people – five of them children – died in the Carrickmines fire in south Dublin, and after there were objections to emergency accommodation for the survivors, we knew where we stood,” Martin Ward added. “We have families living next to a waste site on the outskirts of Galway for the last 20 years.”

It was at after opening an exhibition on Traveller culture at the National Museum of Ireland, Country Life, in Castlebar, Co Mayo, in July that the President had announced his intention to stand again. The exhibition was a reminder of the strengths of Traveller culture, Anne Ward said.

“There is good and bad in both settled and Traveller communities, but we have to talk to each other,” Mrs McDonagh said.

"Bernard Lawrence, the young Mayo Traveller lad who sang for the President at that Mayo exhibition, got invited up to the Áras afterwards, because that is the sort of president we have who represents all the people, who recognises our culture," Mr Ward said.

“And we can dwell on the negative or think of the positive, and the resilience of the Travelling population.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times