Staying away is so alien to Travellers that it is ‘countercultural’
Large families make small funerals very difficult, particularly for the Travelling community
Mary Bridget Collins, who lives with nine others in a multi-generational household in Traveller accommodation, had Covid-19 in April last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
For the past year, Fr Paul O’Driscoll, the parish priest of the Travelling people, has faced difficulties arranging funerals for members of the community. Staying away is so alien to Travellers that it is “countercultural”, he says.
Trying to avoid confrontation and upset, he has sought diplomatic solutions, but it is difficult in a community where families are often, or usually large. Do his efforts work? “Very well sometimes, and not very well sometimes.
“We have kind of agreed protocols in advance of the actual day. We try to ask a strong person in the family to communicate those protocols and work as best they can to make that happen,” he tells The Irish Times.
Under the State’s Living With Covid rules 10 people are allowed to attend church ceremonies, or graveyard burials, while people are discouraged from turning up outside at churches to offer sympathy.
“Even at 25 [people], it is difficult because families are so large, to be at 10 is very difficult. I do know in other parishes that priests have literally said, ‘I won’t begin until we sort this out.’ People travel to show respect. Even if the immediate circle agreed all this, somebody else can ramble in,” he says.
Discipline has often been poor, though the settled community’s record is not unblemished either. Last month, representatives of the Traveller organisations urged their community to respect the Covid-19 rules, hard though they be, saying people should take the long view.
“Gathering at funerals is a sure-fire way to make the situation worse and pass on the virus if any one person does happen to have it. This puts the whole Traveller community at further risk,” they say.
Brought to the graveyard by a horse-drawn hearse for the last kilometre of her journey, the hearse was flanked by walking mourners, while scores of Dublin, Northern Ireland and British-registered cars were parked on grass verges, despite the 5km travel limit.
The message has got traction with some, but not all. Last Sunday, gardaí dispersed 200 people who gathered at a cemetery in Rathkeale, Co Limerick to mark not a funeral, or a significant anniversary, but, rather, the deceased’s birthday.
In Co Wexford, 100 people attended the funeral of a young Traveller woman in January in Crosstown. Despite public appeals, a similar number of people turned up at the grave for the nine days’ mind, a specifically Wexford tradition.
Gardaí were called and fines were issued, which led Wexford County Council chairman Cllr Ger Carthy to say the flouting of the rules on two occasions had been “very disconcerting and very concerning”.
“We don’t want to have to put security on the gates of our four or five burial grounds or have to issue permits. It is disappointing that members of An Garda Síochána are taken away to deal with people who won’t adhere to the law of the land.”
No community has been affected more by Covid-19 than Travellers, says Dr Margaret Fitzgerald of the Health Service Executive, who liaises with the community. More than one in 10 of the total 35,000 Traveller population have contracted the virus. In the third wave there were 2,200 cases.
While Travellers are more than twice as likely to have been infected as the rest of the population, there has been remarkably few deaths. About 10, it is believed. This, she points out, is because of the age profile of Travellers. Just 3 per cent live to be over the age of 65.
The illness figures, however, make it difficult to get the message across to young people in the community, she believes, since they may have got a mild case of the disease, or witnessed their peers being largely unaffected by the virus.
“It is hard because Travellers are a very diverse community, there isn’t one single network, and their allegiance to their family network is incredibly strong. Their wish for gatherings is stronger. The young don’t always listen to the older ones,” she said.
However, breaches of Covid funeral rules are not confined to Travellers. Thomas McCann, who manages the Traveller Counselling Service, says breaches by the settled community can make it harder to get the message across.
“People want to turn up. It’s a form of support. That’s the same for people who are very sick too. We are trying to work with the families. It’s a difficult ask, but we are trying to keep people as safe as possible.”
Mary Bridget Collins had Covid-19 in April last year. Living with nine others in a multi-generational household in Traveller accommodation in Finglas, she was sick for more than a fortnight with “headaches, dizziness, body pain and a lack of energy”.
“It was very frightening. It was very difficult for me as a mother and a grandmother to self-isolate when you had grandchildren running around you waiting for granny to come out,” Collins says.
Overcrowding can exacerbate mistakes made at funerals, she believes. Supporting stronger Garda action, she says she remembers occasions where local gardaí were quick to intervene with Travellers before Covid-19.
“I’ve seen where there was no Covid and there was no reason for any police to be at funerals and [they] got local towns shut down. If they have the power to shut down towns around funerals, surely to God they have the power to be at funerals and turn people back?”