‘Feeling that rejection in society, it’s horrible,’ says first Traveller woman in Oireachtas
‘I know I can’t speak for other marginalised communities, but I want to speak with them,’ says Eileen Flynn
Senator Eileen Flynn: ‘It’s been a lovely experience, the last few days.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Senator Eileen Flynn and Sally, her twin sister. Photograph: Bryan Meade
Senator Eileen Flynn arrives home to Labre Park, Ballyfermot after attending Seanad Éireann for the first time. Photograph: Bryan Meade
“Anywhere I’d go out in Dublin, if anyone asked where I was from I’d say I was from Kilkenny because of the country accent. I’d never say I was from Dublin because of being recognised as a Traveller and being refused [into public premises]. It was survival. My father is from Kilkenny and I know parts of Kilkenny so when people ask what part of Kilkenny I said Thomastown. ”
Like many in her community, she has repeatedly been refused entry to shops, bars and other premises.
After she got engaged to Donegal man Liam White (now her husband) in 2017, she changed her name on social media to its Irish spelling. “When I was booking my wedding I was a bit nervous the hotel would look me up and find out I was a Traveller [and cancel the booking]. As a Traveller, it’s a fear you have all the time.”
The wedding, in Letterkenny in 2018, went without a hitch and the hotel staff “were all lovely”, she stresses. “But even the day after the wedding I was worried maybe someone from my family didn’t get served, and making sure everything was okay. It’s always there, that fear of being rejected.”
It has a life-long impact. “I am a person who talks out, but I suffer really bad with anxiety. Feeling that rejection in society, it’s horrible. I still have low self-esteem going into a place.”
In recent days, however, she has experienced nothing but warmth. As she speaks to The Irish Times in a cafe in Leinster House, she is approached several times by people congratulating and welcoming her, following her nomination to the Seanad by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, as one of his 11 nominees.
She has had phone calls from teachers at St Gabriel’s Primary School in Ballyfermot, which she attended as a child. She even received a letter of congratulations from the local Fine Gael branch at home in Ardara, Co Donegal.
“It’s been a lovely experience, the last few days,” she says.
When she was 10, she lost her mother, aged 48, to pneumonia. Nine days later she was seriously injured in a car accident – suffering broken legs, a shattered ankle, broken arm and broken hips. She would be in and out of Crumlin hospital for the following two years.
She attended St Dominic’s secondary school and then Trinity College Dublin through an access programme for disadvantaged young people. She has a degree in community and youth work from Maynooth University.
She has been an activist for more than a decade, working with the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women’s Forum and Ballyfermot Traveller Action Programme, and campaigned on housing, marriage equality, abortion rights and anti-racism issues throughout.
“I still feel very close to my mother. Losing her at a young age had a dramatic impact on my life. Being in Crumlin hospital, without her, the nurses were always so lovely to me, but I knew then I wanted to be something. It inspired me to go on, for my mother.
“My family, my community, are very happy for me, my twin sister Sally especially. I feel a lot of responsibility on me now, that I am [seen to be] representing 40,000 Travellers.”
At the top of her agenda is working to get hate crime legislation enacted, along with the Traveller Culture and History and Education Bill that had been introduced by former senator Colette Kelleher.
“I am not going to be a senator that is politically correct all the time. I didn’t get the high education some people in here did. So I don’t sugar things up and I say things as I see them. I will always be true to me.
“And I know I can’t speak for other marginalised communities, but I want to speak with them. I am not a migrant. I am not a refugee. I am not a Muslim woman. I am Eileen Flynn and I am a Traveller.”