Ronnie Fay: Champion of the Traveller community

Activist helped empower Travellers to get ethnicity and needs recognised by society

Born: January 5th, 1962
Died: January 31st, 2022

Ronnie Fay, who has died aged 60, was a community worker, a human rights activist, wife and mother.

Her life’s work was with the Traveller community. She championed their needs for almost 40 years, working with them as codirector of the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre in Dublin.

Her aim, which grew out of her family’s tradition of public service and her faith, was to empower Travellers while simultaneously having their distinct ethnicity and needs recognised and respected by the rest of society.


This culminated in Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s March 2017 Dáil statement in which he said Travellers were “a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation” and urged for them “a better future with less negativity, exclusion and marginalisation”.

She totally immersed herself in our community and I'd say nearly every Traveller in the country knows her

In a tribute on her death, President Higgins said her contribution to this end had been “of such immense significance”. Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, also paid tribute saying she had “humour, expertise, imagination, determination and fairness to her work in local, national and international fora”.

Veronica Fay, always known as Ronnie, was born in Dublin in January 1962 and grew up on Rosemount Avenue in Artane. Her father Ray ran a print works on the Malahide Road and was a Fine Gael councillor, serving a term as Dublin’s deputy Lord Mayor and as chairman of the Dublin Port and Docks Board.

Her mother Vera was a home-maker and community activist helping to run, among other things, a local meals on wheels service.

Ronnie was one of seven children – two boys and five girls – and was educated at Santa Sabina school in Sutton before entering Trinity College Dublin to study history.

While studying there she met her future husband, Philip Watt, a fellow history student. He was also a student political activist and was elected president of the Students’ Union in 1986, with Fay as his election agent.

The pair became involved in inner-city community work while at Trinity, including working at the youth training centre in nearby Sean Macdermott Street, the so-called School on Stilts.

After graduation, Fay went to Maynooth College to take a diploma in community work, laying the foundation for her future career.

The course was given by Anastasia (Stasia) Crickley of the Department of Applied Social Studies. At the time some Traveller families were living on the then incomplete Tallaght Bypass road where they were attacked.

Respect and truth were Ronnie's essences. Loyalty was her gift

Crickley sought to help the families and asked her students to assist her. Fay volunteered and thus began her involvement as an advocate for Traveller rights.

In 1984/5 the Dublin Travellers Education and Development Group was founded and operated from rooms in Meath Street, loaned to it by Father Michael Mernagh to run leadership programmes for young Travellers. Others in the group included John O’Connell, a human rights activist and soon-to-be laicised priest, and later husband of Crickley; Martin Collins, later codirector with Fay of Pavee Point and an early graduate of a leadership course; Michael Collins the actor, Hughie Collins, Catherine Joyce, Thomas McCann and Chrissie Sullivan.

The Group’s work grew into what is now Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre with O’Connell as its first director. When he died in 1999, Fay and Martin Collins took over as codirectors; Crickley chairs the organisation.

Throughout nearly 40 years working with Pavee Point, advocating on behalf of Travellers and mentoring members of the community to engage with officialdom, Fay helped revolutionise the community’s approach while also challenging those with whom they dealt.

“She believed that Traveller culture, language, history and identity had to be acknowledged,” says Martin Collins. “Back in 1985, that was ground breaking and it is the analysis that has informed our work since then ... She totally immersed herself in our community and I’d say nearly every Traveller in the country knows her. There were no airs or graces about Ronnie. I learnt so much from her.”

Fay developed strong personal relations with many Travellers, especially women, which were often built on hours spent visiting halting site trailers, sharing tea and listening to their stories, hopes, dreams and difficulties.

A capacity to laugh – and to make others laugh – stood to her favour but beneath her warm personality and easy likeability was a steely determination and focus.

The playwright and Traveller activist Dr Rosaleen McDonagh paid tribute to her friend this week in a poignant piece written for Pavee Point.

“We met when I was 22. My life seemed stuck. Choices and opportunities were out of my reach,” wrote Dr McDonagh. “Ronnie opened the door of freedom to me ...”

“Ronnie spent many hours mentoring and supporting me to put a shape on Traveller feminism. Respect and truth were Ronnie’s essences. Loyalty was her gift. Regardless of the size of my many misdemeanours she gave love, forgiveness, understanding and wisdom in abundance. Our friendship was enriching and nourishing. Her generosity at building confidence in people was endless.”

That is a view shared by Missy Collins, one of Pavee’s Traveller health care workers. She says that Fay gave her the confidence to argue her community’s needs with HSE officials.

“She was always, always encouraging and I got my confidence that way,” Missy Collins said this week. “When talking about Travellers no one could contradict me because I knew about Travellers’ needs. I had no fear and Ronnie was behind that.”

Political nous gleaned from her father helped make Fay an effective networker and lobbyist. Her consequential work on Traveller healthcare was built around the idea of establishing local healthcare projects in which trained Traveller nominees would engage with the HSE and related service providers.

“It was groundbreaking,” says Stasia Crickley. “It was using a community collective approach with Travellers involved, targeting social determinants of health – accommodation, education, employment and discrimination, rather than lifestyle – and engaging all the relevant agencies.”

There are now some 27 primary healthcare sites across the country where Traveller needs are addressed. These played a leading role during the Covid crisis in delivering healthcare to the Traveller and Roma communities backed by HSE information tailored specifically for them.

Last November Pavee’s work in Traveller healthcare and education, and in combatting discrimination saw the organisation receive the OSCE and Dutch government’s Max van der Stoel Award which is given for “extraordinary and outstanding achievements in improving the position of national minorities”.

Fay believed strongly that unless the policies behind service provision were determined by data, including ethnic equality monitoring, to pinpoint the challenges facing Travellers, they would fail. The upcoming census is expected to contain specific questions designed to this end.

“It’s an old management principle,” says Crickley, “if you don’t know the numbers, the detailed data, you can’t tackle the problems.”

Former chief executive of the Equality Authority Niall Crowley who worked with her in the mid-1980s says that in working to support Travellers, she challenged wider society.

I've never known anyone so passionate. She was passionate in so many ways – for Travellers' rights, for women's rights, for sports, for our family and our children

“This was not a poverty issue,” says Crowley, “but a cultural one and a failure of wider society and the State to recognise this and respond accordingly. She had a clarity of thinking and saw the need for social change – change needed for all.”

Fay was a practicing Catholic and her faith, plus her abhorrence at discrimination, underpinned her work. She believed strongly in tackling injustice, breaches of human rights and in speaking out against discrimination.

“Her faith was definitely one of the drivers of her human rights work,” says her husband.

Ronnie Fay and Philip Watt, who is chief executive of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, made a home in Skerries, north county Dublin, and married in 1995. The ceremony was conducted by Fr Paddy Kelly, the Redemptorist priest who ministers to the Traveller community and who on Thursday officiated at her funeral.

Family summers were spent in west Cork, enjoying Rosscarberry, Glandore and Union Hall where an open house was a magnet for visiting siblings and in-laws.

“I’ve never known anyone so passionate,” Philip Watt said this week. “She was passionate in so many ways – for Travellers’ rights, for women’s rights, for sports, for our family and our children.

“She was my darling.”

Ronnie Fay is survived by her husband Philip, their children Jonathan, Veronica and Paddy; and her siblings Roy, Cathy, Moya, Orla and Oonagh. She was predeceased by her parents Ray and Vera and her brother Don.