Tuam elected State's first traveller to hold public office


THE riot and subsequent disturbances between two traveller families in Tuam in June last year caused consternation in the town, with particular concern about the impact the negative publicity would have on property values.

But there is another story to tell about travellers in Tuam. In June, 1994, a member of the local travelling community, Mrs Ellen Mongan, made history when she became the first traveller to be elected to a public office in this State.

Most of the people who voted for her in the local municipal elections were travellers who settled in the town during the 1940s and 1950s. But she also drew some support from the settled community, reflecting a degree of reconciliation, not often seen in relations between the two communities in other towns.

Mrs Mongan is the first to recognise the damage done to community relations by the incidents in June, 1996. At the time, she unreservedly condemned the violence, saying the vast majority of travellers in the town felt the same as she did.

She points out that more than 1,000 travellers have been settled in Tuam. Many of them have long associations with the area.

"The vast majority of (travelling) people in this town, with the exception of one or two people, have allegiances to this town over the years," she says. "Not just because people were housed here in the 1940s and 1950s, but even prior to that.

"People were born, baptised, buried, married in this town going back 150, nearly 200 years."

She has a strong belief in the need for reconciliation on both sides, and says that Tuam has led the way on this. She gives as an example the work of the Tuam Travellers Education and Development Group, which coordinates a variety of projects involving travellers.

The board of TTEDG includes travellers and settled people, its wide range of activities includes a preschool for traveller children, where Mrs Mongan teaches, two women's groups and a men's group.

The women's groups organise drama and crafts workshops, social activities, swimming, discussion groups and other events. The men's group is less successful, reflecting a general masculine reluctance to become involved in such activities which is also widespread in the settled community.

According to Mrs Mongan, the group has received some support in the town for its activities. "No settled person in this town has put anything in our way to stop us from doing our work," she says.

Last year, the TTEDG became involved, through the Combat Poverty Agency, in a project to tackle educational disadvantage.

In another first for the town, groups from the travelling and settled communities are working side by side to look at the problem, not just within the travelling community but also within the settled one.