Oh, Had I the Wings of a Swallow

My family insisted that this man had potential. They warned me about talking too much and being overly opinionated. The arrangement was for a Sunday afternoon 3pm, the Merrion Square entrance of the National Gallery.

My companion suggested the third floor, the Yeats room. For a moment, there was an uncomfortable hesitance. We made our way towards the lift. On several occasions my visits to this room invoked a sense of unease. With great enthusiasm my companion produced a library book about these particular paintings. The tinge of blue echoed through.  My own viewing of these paintings were of wild coastal scenes, horse races, farmers, card players and local shops. The colloquialisms felt familiar. Yeats is believed to have said that the deep, intense blue was “a colour that always affected him.”

For most of my life, public spaces such as art galleries felt closed off to people like me.  An innate feeling of lacking overwhelms me. There are subtle subjective and objective reminders of elitism associated with galleries. However, the paintings are portraits of my people so the kernel of the building, if not the Yeats room, is a contradiction or an emotional oxymoron. Monologues with the words exploitation, voyeurism and misappropriation are tucked into the pit of my belly.  My companion is an art historian.

We move separately to either ends of the room. My attention is drawn to the painting entitled; “The Tinkers Encampment.” The colours, vibrancy, brush work and energy of the piece pulses through me. The abstract marks capture a rawness that inculcates my rage which quickly subsides into nostalgia for my childhood.

Us the Travellers, with an aggravated history and ambiguous connection. A cumulative eclectic, searching for a cultural position to be engaged with. Yet here in this room, the presentation tells us of our integral relationship as Travellers with Irish identity.

Moving from painting to painting, slowly breathing, manoeuvring our way around the room. Furtive smiles with nods towards particular pieces.  Sitting in front of one canvas brought me to many places; Sligo, Tullamore and Mayo where often strangers would stop their cars to take photographs of us.  It is said that Yeats’ interpretation of the Travellers is unromanticised. The faces he paints are lived in. They tell a narrative of nomadism.

It’s estimated that Yeats had twenty four pieces that depicted Traveller identity. Unlike other painters who made portraits of Travellers, he pushed himself beyond the encampment and propelled his portfolio to include the female and male Traveller form. Slowly moving through Yeats’ family room, more paintings of diverse figures.  The clown, the person of small stature and the Tinsmith. Sitting in silence, the chemistry between my companion and the electricity between my body and the paintings creates a complex pressure.  Tilting my head, my response is coded. The backdrop of my own narrative also curates the tension between the outside gaze and the inside landscape. The oil paint lends itself to a rich texture that echoes aspects of Traveller ethnicity.

The subtlety of this painter’s work encapsulates the presence and the inflection of authenticity. However the problematic legacy of  misappropriation both politically and ethically brings it’s own entangled contention. This lies between the artist’s settled identity and the Traveller of the painting’s subject.

His charm is infectious. Studying the painting, cautiously glancing, enquiring. The close proximity of my companion is telling. The conversation about the paintings is full of contradiction. Reticence engulfs me. The composure of my poise becomes unsettled. Turning, moving, attempting to create some distance. The interruption on our familiarity disorientates him. The sudden chasm creates confusion. It makes a new silence. My attention is ignited by the painting’s brashness. Yeats’ women are assertive, in content & form. His intentions come with a discerning invitation.  Boldness dares me. Whispering with absolute certainty; “Travellers, Travellers, Travellers”. The word reverberates around the room.

We are both fixated, on the painting entitled “ Oh, Had I the Wings of a Swallow,” which illustrates a young woman singing for her supper, on a train in 1920’s Ireland. Rapidly glancing at the painting, then turning towards me. His words; ‘gens du voyage’, the French word for Traveller people. A slow smile gathers momentum. We move closer to Yeats’ painting. The passion of the Tinker Woman, tells me on this occasion there will be no need for explanation or interpretation. We head towards the lift, into the café. His library book is opened. Glancing furtively at the images while my companion brings the tea and cake.  My agitation remains close, the allegory within Yeats’ work concerning Travellers can only be understood by way of honouring his intent.


We had to make a decision. Either to go in the back entrance of The Gate theatre, or go in the main entrance of The Abbey, either choice would mean us as a couple not sitting together. The bar in both venues has no access. The inference being that your companion will be a non-wheelchair user is telling in terms of stigma and association. Holding my face close to his  the Gate he  whispered “as a black man, using a wheelchair:  Side or back entries”  The confusion and frustration held the moment where intersectionality  encapsulated discrimination, racism and disability.

Both of us acutely aware of the mixed race female actor on the poster for Hamlet hanging behind us.  Access is always a compromise and the anticipated response is always appeasement and gratitude.  A companion who is settled or non-disabled in these environments increases dependency and encourages the optics of infantilisation.

It is worth noting that the Arts Council building has a back entry for wheelchair users. This sends a clear message to artists, employees  or board members with disabilities. That message reads – at best  we are a  nuisance – or at worst – we are not welcome.

Theatre venues in the suburbs and outside Dublin have made huge efforts around access. Yet they too are slow in commission or producing work by writers ,  dancers and visual artist who identify as an artists with impairments.

The moment was exacerbated by an earlier visit to book tickets for Richard III. After a long silence he asked “what about Traveller identity” ? My response  “They don’t ask, we don’t tell”. “It’s about keeping the numbers to a minimum, we  expect to be turned away when there’s more than two”.

There has been moments when collusion with discrimination felt like the only access route in. The phrase “change from within” is trite. The concept of equality is limited when it only servers a few. Diversity often seems like a dirty word; a hypothesis for something beyond a post-modern institutional group-think mind set. The infrastructure of the art sector in Ireland has a way of undulating the personal and the political.

Explaining  inherited protected buildings system was followed by the statement, “ paying homage to bad architectural structures that continue to give access to privilege” ?  Years of being placated and tolerated had made me repeat the rhetoric of the oppressors.

In an effort to defend my profession, highlighting  that both theatres claim  to have access policies. In 2018 The Abbey received €6.8 million funding with an additional touring fund of €200,000. The Gate Theatres core funding from the Arts Council was €960,000 in the same year. We sat in silence for a long time. Him the actor, and me the playwright contemplating how these venues put their access policy into practice. The ‘reasonable accommodation’ clause as my friend pointed out is discriminatory and therefore should be redundant.

Finally, we booked tickets for a show at The Project Arts Centre. The blue building  on Essex  street which was developed over 50 years ago by an artist collective.  The Project receives €718,000 in Venues Funding from the Arts Council and €27,000 in Revenue Funding from Dublin City Council Arts Office.

In 2018 Project arts centre has begun to deepen the partnership with Arts & Disability Ireland on a number of initiatives – including the development of the Realise Production Award. This is a major commission to an artist with a disability to create a new performance work which will be presented as part of Project’s 2019/2020 season.  The award includes mentoring for a number of shortlisted artists alongside a significant investment by both organisations into the work of one of those artists. The aim of the award is to build production capacity amongst artists with disabilities, strengthen our connections with skilled, professional production teams and to develop audiences for their work. Full details: https://projectartscentre.ie/realiseaward/

The Arts Council should encourage a similar initiative for Travellers, Roma, Black and other ethnic minority groups.  There is a desperate  need for a paradigm shift in all areas of Irish life related to platforms and representation.

My country is my home. Nonetheless, trying to contextualise a history of abuse, discrimination, racism and exclusion is futile. That profound awkward ignominy of introducing someone new to your cultural capital is excruciating. He comes from a place where universal access and affirmative action is the norm. We had a pre-show drink & sat close together during the performance. Reflecting on the piece ‘The Bystander’ by Junk Ensemble, the words of the playwright James Baldwin kept reverberating “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


Recently, in the company of five women with various impairments all of different ages there was an acknowledgement among us that our underwear was lacy or expensive lingerie. The why, where & when they chose to wear this type of underwear is connected with confidence, self-esteem and a reclaiming of our bodies. Owning your sexuality was expressed with pride. Predatory, non-consensual sex in any context has nothing to do with what underwear you’re wearing.

There was a time when disabled people’s sexuality was deemed dangerous- a universal taboo. Conversations often took place in an abstract absent vacuum without our presence and voices.  History gave us a legacy of segregation & institutionalisation. The pathologising of our sexuality by medics & service providers, makes cultural questions concerning consent, complex. Moving from the general elements of sexism involves engaging with particularities relating to intersectionality. The disability lens widens the narratives of misogyny, gender-based violence, trafficking, sex work, sexual abuse, rape and femicide. These fears are also realities for women like us.

The experience of ableism and sexism coupled with ingrained notions suggests that we as women should be controlled & contained. The management of our sexuality can involve cohesive contraception, forced sterilisation, and dangerous medical interventions. Finding ourselves under surveillance brings with it an imposed vulnerability. Privacy, independence, the freedom of bodily integrity and the right to be sex positive is often framed in the category of us being positioned & labelled vulnerable.

The women in my company acknowledged that any sex education they received was mostly focused on heterosexual relationships. It called upon the female to be responsible rather than the initiator of pleasure.

Recent changes in the law means it is now legal for a person with a mental health difficulty or a learning disability to have a sexual relationship. This law emphasises capacity rather than disability. Two new categories of ‘protected person’ &‘relevant person’ are there to safeguard those of us who cannot consent.  There are three dimensions as to how we interrupt this law.  Consent as being able to understand the nature of and consequences of sexual acts. Having competence to making a decision to engage in a sexual act.  Being capable of communicating consent. All this is dependent on whether a person who has any or a variety of impairments is believed.

As the conversation continued, the women spoke of being in clubs or other events where alcohol and drugs are part of the mix. Inferred connotations and a suggestion of poor judgement is often expressed; blaming women as why they were not more responsible about their own safety in these environments. Blatantly implying we have no business being in these public spaces.

As humans all our interactions with other people are dependent upon context. Metaphors are over simplified when discussing the realm of where, when and who initiates sex. Who wants it and who doesn’t becomes a trajectory of sequences and events that are reliant on reshaping our understanding of the rules of intimacy. These rules often conflict with the rules of the courtroom. The victim entered into this connection with the hope that she could and should say no at any juncture. The perpetrator believes they are owed something on the basis of nuisance and circumstances.

Feminist Catharine MacKinnon’s stark analysis is that “Women’s sexuality is, socially a thing to be stolen, sold, bought or bartered or exchanged by others.” There can be little doubt that the legal process prolongs and exacerbates the pain and trauma of rape where the person relives the experience during questioning. The prosecution is acting on behalf of the State; the defence for the accused and the victim is often alone. Women’s services, working on very tight budgets don’t always have routes of support for deaf and disabled women. Information and awareness is not always in an accessible format. The law is often interpreted due to circumstances rather than the actual question of mutual consent.

There are hurdles too in getting past the investigation stage where the police or prosecution may deem a complainant too weak for cross-examination due to victim credibility or evidence issues. Capacity or disability adds to the complexity of the case. This is pertinent for women with learning disabilities or those of us with speech or other such impairments. Also if the perpetrator is a person with an impairment the crime may not be taken seriously.  Generally sexual assault by its very nature is unlikely to have witnesses. The parading of underwear to convince juries of promiscuity whilst belittling the victim should have no place in the court.  Modesty has never protected a woman from assault. The conversation with these five women was both exhilarating and exhausting. Fiona said “A woman’s body is hard to mind”. We all acknowledged strength and vulnerability are part of the same spectrum.

Bendy straws

My relationship with the straw has been on and off for a number of years. Commitment is part of the problem. There’s also the fear of judgement and a sense of either giving in  – or giving up. For lots of people, in various situations using a straw is  a necessity, which should never be confused or conflated with, what’s called a lifestyle choice. Diversity means challenging conventions. My Cerebral Palsy makes swallowing difficult for me. Hence the straw features heavily & privately in my daily living.  Straws  are part of the material culture of disabled lives. Hiding, concealing or minimising this reality is  stressful and loaded with pressure.

Apart from the use of bendy straws, my environmentalist politics are sound. My choices in clothing, food and my environment always have a tinge of green. My mother in her wisdom cultivated my love for vintage, chic clothes which are ethically made and sourced. Products that use animal testing or any form of cruelty would not be endorsed by my consumerism.

In recent years, they’re called landfills, but in my time going to the dump to get my first second hand child’s bicycle caused great excitement. My father and my brothers were involved in recycling and scrap dealing. During his child minding duties he’d often bring me with him to the scrap yard to count the pieces of aluminium. These were precious moments in my life because gender roles or stereotypes were not adhered to. My dad took me out of the kitchen and encouraged me to do what was considered men’s work.

It crept up on me. The ways these things usually do.  My hands were trembling. My fingers were shaking while wrapping them around the cup. The hot tea spilled all over me. Mopping up the tea from the table a euphemism for the tears that also had to be wiped. My life, my body, my disability was moving into a different phase. In that moment, the on and off relationship with the straw needed to be resolved. Adding a box to my weekly shopping list meant that a few could be surreptitiously slipped into my handbag.

When meeting people for coffee, the assumption would be to find an accessible patisserie. This provided me with the opportunity to pick my favourite coffee shop. The smell of fresh bread, croissants and coffee beans, but my request was always for a cup of tea. There’s also the opportunity to bite with passion into a slice of  gooey coffee and walnut cake. The staff  had got to know me. With my order there was always a discrete straw placed on the left hand side of my cup. No language was ever needed.

Often while ordering the infamous cup of tea, part of me knows, without the straw the experience will be precarious. Longing for a cup of tea but not having the gumption to ask for a straw is my modus operandi. Watching the tea get cold, feeling  my thirst,   caught up in a heady mix of complicated emotions.  The monologue in my head,  the narrative in my heart, the promise is always  ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next time’.

Basking in the company of  people with impairments has influenced my life decisions’ in a positive way.  There’s a relaxation, a knowing and appreciation of our shared experience, history & identity. Somebody in the group always has a box of straws in their bag. A couple are thrown on the table. Nobody notices or comments why or who is using a straw.

Despite all this, there was still a residue of stigma and shame that was preventing me from enjoying my cup of tea in public. My promiscuity with the straw was complicated. It’s  in my handbag screaming “you want me” “you need me” “take me out”  there was still great hesitancy in being brave enough  to use it. In recent years, the cups in coffee shops have got bigger and heavier. Now, my hands are weaker, the spasms have become more  frequent. Drinking in public often feels torturous.

As with all conflicts, the personal is the hardest to resolve or embrace. Despite the mantra about disability pride and independence, my resistance about needing to use the straw seemed to be embedded deeply within my internalised oppression.

As a younger woman, the obstreperous part of me cursed the idea of a straw.  Now  whenever  ordering  tea, there is a silent hope that a straw will be included. The recent call for the banning of plastic straws has made me vexed. My foolish vanity means I  may well be too late to sort out my relationship with the straw.

Microphone 1995

They say activists are born rather than made. But for me, I trace my formation as an activist from a terrifying incident in my childhood, all the way to the first time I spoke into a microphone, and people listened.

Growing up, whenever there was a programme on television about African-American people looking for equal rights, I was all ears. On hearing of apartheid in South Africa my heart too would quicken its pace. I felt an instinctive affinity with these people, a shared history. But I hadn’t yet started to put it all together.

Me and my sisters were inducted young into Traveller feminism, though.  The older beoirs often lacked formal education but the wisdom and knowledge they passed on to us could not be matched by a certificate or a degree from college. They could articulate the problems of sexism and racism in a brash and bold way. Traveller women have been the custodians of our culture and the biggest influence in my life. They are the negotiators, the peace makers, the advocates, the ones who have cradled our resistance and representation.


My family moved from Sligo to Dublin when I was eleven. We joined a number of other families who were living on the Tallaght By-Pass. As children we did not know or understand the hostility towards us. We thought settled people were strange and that they were living their lives the wrong way. One particular day myself and my sister Jules, who was only a toddler, were playing in our trailer. My father, along with other men, were standing and acting very nervous half way down the road of trailers. My mother was out hanging the clothes on the washing line.

Suddenly, the game that my sister and myself were playing stopped. We both climbed up onto the bunk in the trailer to look out the window. There was a crowd of settled men shouting ‘Travellers out’. As they moved closer toward the trailer it became more frightening. Then they started rattling and rocking the trailer. Grabbing my little sister, I lay on the floor with her so they couldn’t see us. She crawled under me with fear.

Amidst all the chaos I manage to climb back onto the bunk and I looked out the window, searching for a familiar face. To the left the beoirs, including my mother, were running towards us and telling the men who were shaking our trailer that there were children playing inside. Baby Jules was hysterical but over all the noise, my mother’s screams were the loudest. The men pushed and pushed and our home was turned over onto the ground. With the fall of the trailer the windows were in smithereens. Shards of glass came in on top of us. In our hair and in our clothes. I heard the sound of my mother’s delph and other bits and pieces breaking into pieces.

At the back of the trailer a gas bottle had been rigged up underneath the window. The nuzzle of the gas bottle had come off with all the commotion. The smell was so strong. For a moment, there was an eerie quiet. Everything seemed calm. The men seemed all at once to realise what they had done; we heard them running away. Blood was running down my baby sister’s face. A hand came in through the window. It was a young Garda. He was shaking. He grabbed us both and pulled us out. We all fell on the ground, and with my little sister in my arms, I watched our home go up in flames.


Spring? 1995. I was a grown woman, happy and confident. Pavee Point, the pioneering Traveller Centre, was marking its 10th anniversary. There was a shindig to celebrate and I had been asked to speak. 

For many of us Traveller girls growing up, it was Pavee Point who offered us our first educational opportunities. Our expectations were raised; our ambitions were widened. Tradition was being pulled and stretched. We’d experienced racism, discrimination; now we would analyse it and learn from it. Traveller voices were emerging and everyone was beginning to realise that self-determination rather than assimilation was the only way forward.

On entry to Pavee Point that day, you could hear Margaret Barry’s music being played. The smell of freshly baked soda bread held out the promise of a second breakfast for all of us. All over the building, people were rehearsing their poetry, songs and passionate polemical speeches. The media cameras were all there.  I found a quiet corner, and looked over my own speech. ‘Women’s rights are Traveller’s rights’, it began.  

That day in Pavee Point was the first time in my life that I was ever trusted with a microphone. My name was called. The memory of our trailer in flames came burning back. The room fell silent.

The voices of previous generations came out of my mouth, as I started to speak.

Winding back the clock

Back in the day, in the early 90s politicians and political parties were greedy and careless. Anti –Traveller sentiment was an assured vote catcher. The assumption was that Traveller accommodation was the contentious issue or that it was just a rural response. That’s a myth. The cultural ephemera of the times also allowed these politicians; so called mavericks to be homophobic, misogynistic with no regard for the poor and those of us who can’t get up early in the morning. Some of the bigotry, prejudice and discrimination of that time proved temporary, some less so. In the run up to an election parish pump politics ensured that anti-Traveller rhetoric would galvanise the vote. Travellers were fair game; cat calls and dog whistles, disapproval & undermining an already fractured Traveller community was the norm.  This was how elections were fought and won.

My consciousness was raised when Traveller organisations both local and national asked politicians and parties to consider an anti-racist protocol.  Anti -Traveller  hate speech  would not be part of any manifesto. The flip side, politicians confessed that there was no vote for them if they supported Traveller rights.

At first few agreed. However, as time moved on people were shamed into complying.  Their party whips and public relations reluctantly enforced these protocols on their candidates.  For a moment we, members of the Traveller community thought we had won the battle.  A few years later anti Traveller sentiment is flagrantly being used to bolster electoral chances. This turn of events is frightening.

Casey has blown the dog whistle and the dogs are barking. This election has exposed a demographic of between 14% and 20% of our population, those that don’t like Travellers, don’t like poor people and don’t believe in human rights or social justice. Traveller Ethnic status is no longer up for debate. After years of struggle by Traveller activists, several United Nations committees, the Irish Human Rights and Equality commission, the European Commission, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and a number of academics, Traveller ethnic status was finally recognised on 1st March 2017.

The fact that we as Travellers have ethnic status seems to bother Mr Casey and his supporters greatly. Refusing to acknowledge our ethnic status is providing cover for racism, mistrust, marginalisation and overt discrimination. All characteristic of relations between the settled population and the Traveller community.

Recognising Traveller ethnicity means acknowledging that Travellers experience racism and discrimination. Statics    tell a very clear history and story.

General Stats for Traveller Women

In highlighting the statistics, it’s important that they are famed within the context of the gendered nature of racism.

  1. Health
  • Life expectancy at birth for Traveller women is 70.1 years, 11.5 years less than women in the general population
  • Suicide rate for Traveller women is 5 times higher than women in general population
  • 7% of Traveller women reported their mental health to be poor for one or more days in the last 30 days.
  1. Education

Traveller specific education supports were cut by 86.6% following budget 2011. Despite recognition of the need for additional support for Travellers at departmental level the State insists on a mainstreaming approach.

  • 13% of Travellers complete secondary education in comparison with 92% of the general population.
  • Less than 1% of Travellers are in third level education 47.

7 out of 10 Traveller children (67.3%) live in families where the mother has either no formal education or primary education only.

Mr Casey  appears to advocate a return to the  assimilationist policies of the past.  These policies and informal practices have harmed our community. We as a community thoroughly rejected these ideologies. This antiquated thinking flies in the face of the current Traveller community development model that hold values of self-determination, equality, non-discrimination and solidarity central to our work. Outdated discredited policies of the past has left the community trying to manage the fallout of several generations managing the debris.   Assimilation polices, or practices are not progressive for Travellers or the wider Irish settled community. Diversity enriches all of our lives.

There seems to be confusion too, whether through willful ignorance or something more sinister in conflating nationality with ethnic status. The media  pundits did little to clarify  this issues  during the election debate. One is  a Traveller and an Irish Citizen. The assumption that the only true Irish identity is that of a settled Irish. This narrow trajectory   speaks volumes about the willingness of Casey and his supporters to embrace a modern, multicultural Ireland. Travellers have always been part of the fabric of Irish identity and culture.  Micheal D Higgins president elect will not let them wind the clock back.



Racism towards Roma in Ireland

At a ceremony in the Mansion house Dublin on the 2nd of August 2017  to commemorate  the 3,000 Romany men, women and children who were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp   Roma feminist and academic Ethel Brooks said “in some areas 90-95 per cent of the Roma community were killed by the Nazis. “We mark this date after decades of struggle for the recognition of our loss, for our status as victims and survivors of the Holocaust”. Roma were not asked to give testimony at the Nuremburg trials. Ms Brooks continued to state “but another 500,000 were displaced, dispossessed and had their identity papers destroyed during the war.

Throughout  Western & Central Europe,  including Romania, laws existed where Roma were enslaved. Efforts to expel Roma were gradually replaced in many countries with forced assimilation policies. From the late 1950s in Bulgaria, Roma children were forbidden from speaking Romani in schools. Between 1970 and 1990, in Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Roma women were coercively sterilised to stop the ‘social risk’ that Roma were deemed to pose by reducing what was termed their ‘unhealthy’ birth rate.  In many European countries Roma children remain excluded from mainstream education. Placing any child in remedial classrooms, should be based on need, not on ethnicity.  Roma ethnicity or any ethnicity should be a celebration and not reduced to a human imperfection. The history of Roma children being put into segregated special classrooms or schools is similar to that of Irish Travellers during the 70’s, 80’s, & 90’s.

It’s important to understand the legacy of the experience of discrimination across Europe. Roma were targeted and ‘exterminated’ under fascist regimes in Italy and Romania. For centuries Roma communities have fled violence and persecution and this continues to this day. Across Europe there are patterns of discrimination and ill-treatment by police towards Roma.

‘I would not dress in Roma [now] because we get treated badly, followed, and discriminated against’. Roma in Ireland A National Needs Assessment, 2018

Roma emigration is a consquence of  high levels of poverty and experiences of discrimination in countries of origin. For Roma, migration acts as a defence against external aggression, discrimination, and is a means of securing a livelihood. For example, for those migrating from Romania, the collapse of the state sector in 1990 is linked to their emigration. (2018 Pavee Point) In the mid-1990s a number of Roma sought asylum in Ireland and in addition, some Roma sought better and permanent employment opportunities in Ireland.

‘Ireland is my home but I feel excluded. I don’t know how to read or write very well. It is very hard to find work. People are looking down on us because we are Roma. I don’t want my children to have this experience.’ Roma in Ireland A National Needs Assessment, 2018

Roma constitute the largest minority ethnic group in Europe. There are parallels between Roma and Travellers, in terms of our history of nomadism, distinct culture and strong identity associated with family networks, which distinguishes them from the majority population.

The interconnection between Roma ethnicity and Traveller identity became more concrete because of various European and National platforms. It’s relevant to remember that in Europe, such platforms were the instruments that were used ensuring Irish Travellers received official state ethnic status recognition.

  • 2001 Council of Europe definition of Roma comes from World Conference Against Racism
  • 2007 a group of Roma set up camp on Ballymun roundabout on the M50 in tents & huts & without sanitation.
  • In Ireland in 2011, Marioara Rostas a Roma woman is murdered
  • 2012 Pavee Point becomes Traveller & Roma Centre in recognition of the interconnection of Traveller & Roma objectives.
  • 2013 two Roma children are removed from their families by Gardaí in, what was later shown to be a racist exercise.
  • 2015: The National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy Steering Group was established. This is the first national level steering group that had Roma representation
  • 2017: The National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy was published. This is the first national policy document that has an explicit focus on Roma inclusion.

In January 2018, Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre in partnership with the Department of Justice and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission launched the Roma Needs Assessment.

Research was undertaken with fourteen Roma peer researchers, thirty interviews and eight focus groups with Roma, service providers and consultations with relevant experts. These issues included: no gas, water or electricity, overcrowding and rat infestation within accommodation.

• Respondents reported high rates of feeling discriminated against – accessing accommodation (93.3%); social protection (84.3%)

• 81.1% of respondents reported having felt discriminated against in the street /public  setting – women were identified as particularly vulnerable to racist abuse.

• 77.5% of respondents reported being stopped by An Garda Síochána for ID.

When we hear the repeated cycle of poverty, racism and discrimination, they are concrete slabs that are too heavy to lift off your shoulders. If fact the cycle means every new generation carries a new layer of oppression and exclusion. What it really means is material poverty is persistent. It passes from grandmother to mother then to child. It’s marbled with a systemic, generational poverty of racism.

‘This is my home. I would not consider anywhere else home, I grew up here.’

Roma in Ireland A National Needs Assessment, 2018

The research points to approximately  to 5,000 Roma living throughout Ireland with 70% living here over  5 years and 14% living in Ireland over 15 years.  Over 63% of children in the study were born in Ireland and Roma live in every county of Ireland. “We know from this study that there are 3rd generation Irish Roma who are part of Ireland now and want to be accepted in our society and to be active in decisions affecting our lives. ‘During the research I met members of my community who  could not put food on the table and who were living in houses that were completely unfit for human beings.  It was very upsetting,’ said Gabi Muntean, Community Worker, Pavee Point.

Key recommendations of report

  1. Enhance humanitarian responses for Roma families living in extreme poverty to ensure that

adults and children are not living without food and basic accommodation facilities.

  1. Take effective measures to tackle anti-Roma discrimination and racism with a priority focus on Roma women.
  2. Provide support to Roma in ensuring documentation for social protection applications.
  3. Review the legislative and policy restrictions that impact on the provision of medical cards for Roma with no income.
  4. Introduce a standardised ethnic identifier using the human rights framework in routine

administrative systems and in the Census.

The assessment, tells an appalling story of  our racist history.  It is actually an ongoing, racist reality.  There is intentional neglect of poor people and minority ethnic groups such as Roma. Policies continue to tell people they are perpetually less. The findings of this report, highlight the old and false ideology that if you are poor or wanting – you are to blame. Attributing blame to peoples abject circumstances, without acknowledging the implicit racist values and regimes, ignores our collective sense of humanity & human rights.

We must remind ourselves that ubiquitous poverty, steals the imagination, of what is possible. With poverty, our inferiority, persists. Racism renders our subjugation. While removing someone’s dignity, it also erodes agency. It creates a sense of loss & dependency. Racism towards Roma continues to strangle generations.  The key findings of this Roma needs assessment are not resourced within a timeframe. Ireland as a society, will be complicit in the global attack on Roma.

As highlighted in the report,  despite a history of torture and exclusion, poverty in all its pervasiveness, hasn’t managed to steal the Roma community pride or dignity.

Traveller Ethnicity & Disability & the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (UNCRPD)

Looking at the photographs of my grandmother & my parents, it’s hard to believe that my own family would be camped on the roadside in 2018. Don’t be fooled, it’s not a choice. Who’d live like this in the middle of winter. We were in a site with my husband’s family. It was unsafe. Then we tried doubling up, sharing in a different site with my sister. It was too much tension on both families. We got put into private rented accommodation. Away from my family. Nowhere near my husband’s family. The money, the flight of stairs, trying to carry three of my children who have special needs. It was too much, just too much. His back is nearly broke. The trailer –  people think I’m a strong woman. The truth of the matter, the hotel room they were giving us, the children, it didn’t feel right. It was not safe. Now on the road, having to move at least every two weeks. Chaos, stress, pressure, you name it. We live it.  It’s not that we want to live in a palace, we just want somewhere safe, clean & that is suitable for my children with disabilities”. Mary Margaret, a mother of five children.

The correlation between bad accommodation & its impact on health is well documented, particularly in relation to our community.  The All Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010, emphasises that it is amenities that matter more than the type of accommodation

It is usually considered naive to make general sweeping statements on any subject matter.  However, for the majority of Travellers and our families, there is some certainty in suggesting that similarly to Mary Margaret, at one time or another, or indeed at the present moment, a large proportion of us lived, or continue to live in poor or inadequate accommodation.  It is hard to believe regardless of all the failed accommodation policies over eighteen years, that there are a significant number of families around the country that find themselves back living on the roadside.  Worldwide evidence suggests where there is racism, there is poverty. Where there is poverty, there is disability & endemic health-related issues over several generations.

According to the 2017 Central Statistics data, there are 643,131 people with disabilities in Ireland. Irish Travellers have higher rates of disability, when compared with the settled Irish population.  Almost 1 in 5 Travellers (19.2%) were categorised as having a disability in 2016, up from 17.5% in 2011.  A total of 5,963 Travellers self identified as having a disability of some sort in 2016, with 18,717 disabilities/ impairments recorded.  The most common type of impairment or condition, described was ‘difficulty with pain, breathing or other chronic illness’ with 2,658 persons, followed by a ‘difficulty with basic physical activities’ (2,363).  These figures have increased since 2010. The All Ireland Health Study was published eight years ago but none of its recommendations were implemented.  Several UN treaty-monitoring bodies, European institutions and equality and human rights bodies within Ireland, querying the delay as to why the recommendations were not implemented.

Intersectionality is about different identities merging.  The term recognizes that some individuals experience more than one form of discrimination at a particular moment.

Traveller women experience racism and sexism.  Gay Travellers experience racism and homophobia. Travellers with impairments/disability/chronic illness or poor health also experience simultaneous forms of discrimination. Intersectionality increases the severity of discrimination and leaves people at the intersections, further exposed to significant levels of exclusion, racism and hate crimes.  Often in the moment it is difficult to understand whether you are being discriminated against because you’re a person with an impairment / disability, or whether it’s racism because of your Traveller ethnicity.

Ireland is the only EU country yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities (UNCRPD). Eleven years after its introduction, we are finally told that 2018 is to be the year when the Convention will be ratified. Resources and monitoring remain open and unresolved.  Bear in mind it took various attempts by Traveller organisations & UN bodies to achieve Traveller Ethnic Status recognition.  Thirty years of lobbying; devoting energy, sacrificing other areas of your life in the belief that a new generation will benefit from all those years of activism.

Similarly with the UNCRPD, activists from the disability movement and the wider community sector have been lobbying for this piece of legislation for over eleven years. Whether it’s incremental change, or an impervious attitude by the Irish Government, the wait has stolen our best activists as a result of being emotionally, politically, physically and psychologically burnt out. This is what activism does. It steals years from your life and you may not be around long enough to see the results. Engagement with politics, particularly in the area of disability and human rights, is far from glamorous and often one is left feeling dissipated, rather than emancipated. Civil servants, policy makers and politicians move or work in different areas but our lives seem remain static. Fundamental and basic needs for living are often deemed luxuries. Hot water; a toilet that flushes, basic human rights facilities.

People don’t choose to make themselves sick, impaired or disabled. People don’t decide living in a hotel room with five children, is easier than living in a small trailer outside a town near a roundabout. In the context of racism & disability lives are lost while we wait for change regarding Traveller accommodation policies.

The Convention states its purpose as being “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”. The Convention speaks directly to Travellers with its focus on respect for diversity, commitment to support cultural identity and concern about multiple discrimination.  It also references the need for an anti racist ethos and practice from disability service providers.  

Spring Lane site in Ballyvolane, Cork is an example of how the convention could improve people’s lives. It is home to over thirty-five families. In the late nineties, the site was an emergency response, to the accommodation needs of ten families. In 2018, it is over-crowded and desperately in need of refurbishment. The conditions are appalling. Those living there include a number of children and adults with disabilities.

In Munster, a family with a child who has a progressive condition is seeking more appropriate, accessible, accommodation. The local authority has said; they will refurbish where this family are living, rather than offer them appropriate facilities. In this context, appropriate facilities means wider doors in the bathroom and the entrance. 

€55 million provided for various types of Traveller accommodation which remains unspent since 2000. Traveller accommodation targets have not been met at any point, since they were made mandatory by local authorities 18 years ago. (www.paveepoint.ie )

The European Convention of Human Rights Act 2003, mainly addresses civil and political rights. Ireland has signed up for the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, to name a few.

The failure to incorporate the economic; social, or cultural rights which Ireland has  signed up to in legislation, or in the Constitution is concerning. The Irish Government’s opt-out clause was to put the rights to non-discrimination into legislation in the Employment Equality Acts and the Equal Status Act.  There seems to be less enthusiasm with regard to human rights legislation.

Ireland regularly reports on our implementation of these human rights commitments to the UN.  Ireland’s responses are usually a comic form of fudging, denying & the occasional perfunctory promise of doing better.  The Irish Government was never ashamed of its continuous failure, to respond to accusations of racism towards the Traveller & Roma community. 

Contrary to our lived reality, official recognition of our ethnic status has not eradicated racism.  Our hearts swelled with hope in the belief and enthusiasm that as a country and as a community we were entering into a new relationship with a much deeper understanding of respect, rights and recognising diversity.

The familiar tropes of exclusion were reignited and confirmed.  On the 1st of March 2017, a few months after the crescendo of the night in the Dail, four Travellers were attending a human rights course, in Maynooth University.  The four in question decided that they would go for a drink locally in Maynooth when their day of studying was finished.  They were denied service and told “only regulars were being served on the night in question”.

The group applied to the District Court for damages, with legal representation provided, supplied by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. They were vindicated.  Racism has not gone away. 

The National Traveller & Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017 – 2021 recommended, that “there should be adequate provision of accessible, suitable and culturally appropriate accommodation available for Travellers.” The establishment of a statutory Traveller Agency with powers to approve and enforce the Local Authority five year Traveller accommodation plans, is urgently needed. In the meantime,  while the various statements for the Minister in relation to the ratification of the UNCRPD, Mary Margaret is having to drive a round trip of fifty kilometres each week to insure her children with disabilities are linked into services.

Two words a minute

Two Words A Minute

       The experience is reoccurring. Regardless of any context. It’s there. Planning or preparing for a response is tricky but predictable. Access needs cover an extensive checklist. However naming this complexity brings its difficulties. If named, it becomes magnified and problematized, which lends itself to an opt out clause. By not naming it, it seems unfair and unreasonable. It’s obvious. There’s no hiding it. Ever present and all encompassing by way of self-confidence, self-esteem and self-awareness. The fallout brings shame and embarrassment, as well as a strong possibility of being ignored.

            Those of us who are non – verbal or have speech impediments are often relegated to the periphery to conversations, be they personal, communal, local or national. Loss of speech can happen at any time during one’s life. This experience brings a certain type of judgement, the inference being a lack of in articulation, capacity & an underlying suggestion of incompetence. There is usually an implication that suggests a lack of personhood. The general response to those of us who are non-verbal or live with speech impediments is systematic indirect or unintentional discrimination. Blatant discrimination happens frequently. It is a regular, ordinary, mundane occurrence.

            In attempting to open a dialogue on this subject, moving from the personal to the collective experience requires balance and reflexivity. My voice works, my speech impediment is prevalent. It’s not a stammer. Other than my mobile phone, assistive voice operated technologies, are outside my own experience. My analysis and opinion come from a lived perspective  and sharing certain realities of my friends who are non-verbal or use assistive technology. Ideas, speculation and opinions on this subject matter, come from a place where pride, ownership and agency are precious, philosophical and political possessions. The purpose of this blog is not to suggest that my voice should be pathologised by the listener or the reader but rather an attempt to open up a debate about the realities of some impairments. There is a school of thought that proclaims people with impairments should not focus on a personal, individual issues that affect our daily lives. Less we get drawn into a medicialised topology. Nonetheless, that culture of holding it in, denying it, pretending that it has no impact on my daily reality as a person living with a significant impairment is redundant.

            As a young child with cerebral palsy, speech therapy was considered more important than any other part of the school syllabus. It didn’t matter that my reading, writing, maths, etc. were all being affected by prioritizing my speech therapy sessions, over and above my essential learning. The focus on my speech was about fixing, controlling, minimising, containing, modifying and bullying. My memories of these sessions are full of excruciating moments of humiliation. Also being ridiculed. These moments have found a path into my adult life. These memories related to my speech pattern are relived over and over.

            This indirect, unintentional & often blatant form of discrimination has had a detrimental effect on my confidence & self-esteem. My everyday interactions have an internal monologue running in my head, saying, “They are not going to understand”. Often people shout in an effort to get my speech to hurry up. Other behaviours include patronising slow one-syllable sentences. Other responses include having to repeat myself five or six times while still trying to hold the person’s attention by way of the context of the conversation. Competing with background noises makes the interaction over very fast. The strongest voice is not only the loudest but it assumes a place of great importance and superiority.

            In disability politics, be it activism or academia, the concerns and expressions of people with speech impediments, or people who are non-verbal are often ignored. In the broader areas of society, those of us with speech impediments or who are non-verbal are not part of, or reflected in the media. If we are there, the interest is focused on not what we are contributing but more upon the software that we are using. Assistive technology or voice-operated software is front loaded over & above other central elements to your participation. The microphone is firmly kept away from us. As a society, despite our perceived progress and insightfulness on various aspects of diverse bodies, communities and lives, we still snigger or comment at someone on the radio who has a stammer or a particularly distinctive accent. People like us are not part of any public discourse.

            At a conference or job interview, the anxiety gets built up. When asked about access needs, there is no room on the page for “I am non-verbal” or “I have a speech impediment”. Your silence becomes a form of absence. You are ignored, despised and very often forgotten about. The nuisance factor is prevalent. Patience often conflicts with good practice by way of time constraints & a projection of complete irrelevance. Ordinary run of the mill conversations become major ordeals. General chitchat is outside of your reality. Learning from childhood, you sit in the back of the classroom. During adulthood this behaviour lends itself to sitting in the corner. A routine plays out, where falling behind in conversations is a metaphor for general falling behind in life. Falling behind becomes normal.  According to anecdotal evidence people who are non verbal or who have speech impediments are ten times more likely to experience hate crimes in the form of verbal and physical violence on a daily basis.

            On the rare occasion when you are asked an opinion, the silence is synonymous with that of a goalkeeper protecting the net. Breaths are held in. The pressure, the anxiety. Running private dialogue in your head is one that says, “Hurry up or shut up”. Then nothing happens – your machine is broken or the battery is dead. The two words a minute software has let you down. Those of us with speech impediments, the words just wont come. They are stuck in the pit of your belly.

            It happens very fast – the isolation, the fear, the boredom, the agitation, the distress and discomfort in their faces. The reverberation lies somewhere between attention and intention. They made the effort to listen & interpret but you, with your speech impediment or swanky technology, just couldn’t deliver.

            The body language says ‘hurry up. Put that machine on fast’. The nuances of frustration from interview panels or conference organisers are very difficult to hide. Jokes are made while you are typing or trying to figure out an easy way to express yourself. The rapport between the interview panel or the conference delegate’s amounts to filling that silence or removing the discomfort of watching somebody communicating differently. In the moment, the concern or compassion is never for you.

            Developing a feminist toolkit as way of managing has become the best strategy. The toolkit is filled with an eclectic set of experiences. Each new situation brings the old pain but new learning. The most relevant tool is a reminder never to silence your voice for the convenience of others.