Travellers and council clash over grazing land for horses
Stand-off shows ‘lack of understanding’ between Travellers and settled community
Philip and Charlie McCarthy with their horses Dream Girl and Painted Lady on the old site at Cabragh Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photograph: John D Kelly
A stand-off between an extended Traveller family and Tipperary County Council, over the provision of grazing land for their horses, “highlights the lack of understanding” between Travellers and the settled community, human rights commissioner David Joyce has said.
Mr Joyce, a solicitor, Traveller and member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission,was speaking as the council seeks a resolution of the dispute with the extended McCarthy family, who have lived for over 40 years at a “camp” about 2km outside Thurles.
They have been reported as “refusing” to move into a €1.7 million development of six houses across the road, because they want stables and a half-acre of land, per house, for their horses.
The families, however, say they have not been invited to move into the houses, and have not asked the council for stables, but rather grazing land adjacent to the houses.
They say if a resolution cannot be found they would be happy to see the houses offered to settled families on the council’s waiting list.
The McCarthys – nine households including 18 children – live at Cabragh Bridge, up a sheltered council-owned slip road off the R569 between Thurles and Holycross. It is tidy and pleasant, with flower-pots, sheds and a grotto they built. The families have electricity, portaloos and running water – provided by the council – and describe themselves as “very happy” there.
Between them they own about 30 horses, some of which are descended directly from horses bred by their grandparents, stabled in sheds they built on land adjacent to the camp. In fine weather they graze on nearby wetlands.
Melissa McCarthy (34), who was born on the site, lives with husband Lawrence and six children, aged seven months to 14 years. She sets out a clear memory of attending a meeting with council officials in 2004, with her husband, brother Philip and late father Bill.
“They wanted to build houses for us. My father agreed to the houses, said, ‘No problem’ but only as long as there was land for the horses’.” She says her father was assured by the council that it would be okay.
Cllr Séamus Hanafin (Fianna Fáail), then a member of the Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, recalls Mr McCarthy’s insistence about grazing land but says, “It was never agreed to.”
We’ve always had horses, going back generations. The council are trying to pull the Traveller out of us
In the intervening years, says Ms McCarthy, they were repeatedly assured by the council that land for the horses would be “sorted out”. In August last year, Philip McCarthy says he asked the builders on-site about grazing land. “That’s when we realised there was no land for the horses,” he says.
They insist they at no point asked the council for stables or half an acre for each house. “We just need some land. We’ll put the sheds up ourselves.” They say they would pay rent but could not afford to buy land themselves.
Asked why the horses are so important, Ms McCarthy says: “People think horses are just a hobby. But they are like our children, they are family. They are right in here,” he says, patting his chest. “We’ve always had horses, going back generations. They [the council] are trying to pull the Traveller out of us.”
Ms McCarthy says horses are so intrinsic to particularly the men’s sense of self she would worry for her husband’s, brother’s and sons’ (14 and 11) mental health, if they could not keep them. “They’d be lost,” she says.
“The houses are beautiful. As a mother I would love to move into them, but as a Traveller mother I won’t sign away our culture.”
A spokesman said Tipperary County Council “acknowledges that the late William McCarthy requested . . . stables with the houses. However, the council clarified early on . . . that the construction of stables was not eligible for funding from the Department [of Housing].
“The key focus of the council is to provide homes for those in need of housing. The council understands the place horses hold in the culture of the Travelling community, but in the interest of good estate management does not facilitate the accommodation of horses. The council would be supportive in principle of the Travellers leasing or purchasing lands themselves for the purpose of grazing their horses.
“It is intended to have further discussions with a view to resolving the matter at the earliest possible timeframe.”
The fields around the houses are owned by local man George Clark, now based in Co Carlow, who confirmed to The Irish Times he had “dealt with the council”, selling them the site for the houses. He would not say if he would sell the field beside it for the horses.
Though “culturally appropriate” accommodation for Travellers is not defined in the 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act, the 1995 report from the Task Force on the Travelling Community – which informed it – said then about one third of Traveller families kept horses. “They should be required to secure adequate grazing areas for their animals,” it said.
However, it continued, though urban local authorities should not be required to help Travellers access grazing land, rural councils “have been able to assist in the provision of grazing facilities. This should continue and, where possible, be expanded with the support of the relevant department”.