John O’Sullivan is a men's development worker with the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG) in Cork. Like most other groups advocating for Travellers, TVG is Traveller led, and works to facilitate community development for over five hundred Traveller families living in Cork today.
We arrive at the TVG offices fifteen minutes early. At reception we’re told that John is leaving his kids to school, so we are shown to the kitchen to wait. Waiting with us are a welcoming and friendly group of women, chatting loudly over cups of tea - a women’s health programme is taking place today. Having been offered several cups of tea, we absorb the photographs on the office walls. Some are images of men’s and women’s groups, others from within Cork’s halting sites - families in mobile homes, men running horses, children playing. Each tells a fascinating story.
Over the last fifty years, there has been a curbing of Traveller’s traditional activities, their nomadic culture and love of horses restricted due to a state logic perceived to be adverse to their core values. While much legislation has focused on the assimilation of Travellers into mainstream accommodation, education and employment, the uptake remains low. Within Traveller communities, employment and literacy rates remain problematic and Traveller-specific accommodation is a hotly debated topic at a national and county level.
These issues have been exacerbated and have perpetuated potentially damaging social issues - with concerning health and crime statistics being further compounded by the prejudice Travellers face in their daily lives. In 1992, three Traveller women from Cork took action. Feeling that Travellers were being left behind by society, they gained the support of University College Cork who conducted research with the aim of Making Travellers Visible in society. Through visiting families across Cork and collecting data and stories, this pivotal piece of research has guided the work of TVG in meeting the community’s needs.
John arrives and offers us another cup of tea, before showing us to his office.
“In 1963, the Itinerancy Commission brought out a report to reform the way Travellers lived. The language of that report suggested that Travellers were backwards people, wildlings living in the countryside that needed to be assimilated into society for their own good. There was no acceptance that Travellers are a separate minority.”
“In the 90’s, policies were being drawn up which greatly impacted the lives of Travellers nationally. However, while there were committees discussing reform on issues such as housing, there was little to no consultation with the Traveller community in Cork. In those days, Travellers were pushed to the margins of the city, out of sight and out of mind, which is why TVG was established. A group of Traveller women, concerned mothers and sisters, came together and became organised. They undertook a needs assessment from two small flats on the north side of Cork and mobilised the community to make their voices heard.”
“TVG became a space where Travellers could come together in their peer group and feel comfortable that they wouldn’t be refused or discriminated against. Somewhere they could talk about the events that were impacting them on a daily basis. Making Travellers Visible showed the needs of the community, and geared TVG’s work towards trying to meet those and create better outcomes for Travellers in Cork."
Despite their unique culture and heritage, being amongst the first ethnic inhabitants of Ireland, Travellers were only granted ethnic minority status in 2017. Despite reluctance to acknowledge Traveller’s distinct ethnicity, cultural stereotypes have long prevailed, and act as a barrier to progress in alleviating the practical and social issues faced by Travellers in Ireland today.
“As a Traveller growing up, you know that you are different - you face discrimination on a daily basis. You would go into a shop and be followed around it, or be with your parents as they were being refused a service. I was brought up not to dwell on that, to take it on the chin and move on with things. Those kinds of experiences give you resilience whether you want it or not.”
“The term ‘Knacker’ is used left, right and centre. If someone used the ‘n word’ to describe a black person there would be outrage. People don’t seem to recognise this kind of thing as racism - which it is - or recognise their own prejudice.”
“Our horse project is a good example. If you speak to most Traveller men or boys, most would like to keep horses, however only a minority within the community can - those with access to grazing and places to keep them. A community horse project would help stop horses wandering onto the roads, and give Travellers a safe space to come and get training on how to keep them. We identified a site which was approved by the local authority. We put together a really detailed planning application, but the amount of opposition we received was unbelievable. We had harrier clubs, fishing boards, tourist boards all complaining that it would negatively affect them.”
“What was concerning was that it was shot down with no real practical reason for refusal. There is a stereotype that Travellers are irresponsible horse owners, but this is another stereotype perpetuated by a minority. For every person, settled or Traveller, that owns a horse, there are always going to be a few bad apples that have mistreated animals. On the other hand I know Traveller men who treat their horses as well as they treat their children.”
“Maybe people genuinely think all Travellers are the same - unfortunately only the bad seems to stick.”
The criminalisation of roadside camping and more stringent laws against trespassing mean that it is increasingly difficult for Travellers to be nomadic in Ireland today. As a result the halting sites in Cork, the last of which was built in 1990, are overcrowded, with families doubling up in bays where access to electricity and running water are not guaranteed. While initiatives such as Traveller specific social housing have had funding set aside for them by the Irish Government, there has been very limited uptake. Of the €13m of funding made available to Irish counties for Traveller specific accommodation in 2019, only €4m was drawn down.
“We are constantly lobbying the local authority through submissions and local consultative committees for new Traveller accommodation. Recently there has been a lot of debate because Travellers are turning down Traveller specific accommodation.”
“When you go into the local authority looking for accommodation, you are given the option to select Traveller specific accommodation or standard housing. In many cases, Travellers are being told at the housing office not to tick the Traveller specific accommodation box in their housing application because it doesn’t exist. Then the local authority are able to manipulate the statistics and point to figures that suggest Travellers who were offered Traveller specific accommodation turned it down. Therefore why refurbish or build new sites?”
“Maybe local authorities see Traveller specific accommodation as a failed concept, something that is more problematic than its worth. While a huge demand for Traveller accommodation exists, it seems that the political will to provide it at the local level does not.”
“Where does that leave a Traveller in Ireland today - if you can’t live the way you want to live, if you are being forced into standard accommodation, isolated within settled communities where you aren’t welcome. That is a very lonely place. Travellers have taken standard accomodation and given it up because they couldn’t handle the stress of isolation.”
“There are lots of issues caused by the overcrowding of halting sites, but when you ask Travellers what is important to them, it is kinship. Living in your community, having that support of your family. That connection with your community, the support of your peer group. People who have shared experiences with you, who go through the same things as you on a daily basis, share a love of horses and other similar hobbies and interests.”
“I remember being at an accommodation committee a number of years ago, where a Traveller man representing his family was questioned by a local committee member as to why he had no electricity, no running water and had turned down standard accommodation. When asked why he was putting his family through this he replied that he didn’t expect the committee member to understand his culture and the needs of Travellers - as they weren’t members of the Traveller community. Standard accommodation and assimilation isn’t the answer.”
“A local Councillor told me that if we were waiting on the local authority to reform Traveller Housing, we would be waiting a long time - we would need to get creative in how we look at delivering accommodation for Travellers long term. As for every one person that wants Traveller accommodation built there are two or three that don’t.”
Another issue facing Travellers is a lack of formal education. A long-held distrust of mainstream schooling, fuelled by discrimination and misunderstanding, has led to poor attainment levels.
“When you look at the statistics, mainstream education has failed Travellers.”
“There was a long-standing tradition in the community that children would not go on past primary school and while this has changed, the number of Traveller children going on to get Junior and Leaving Certs is very small. There are huge levels of poor attainment in education. I meet a lot of young people that have a very negative outlook on school - they aren’t accepted in mainstream society so why stay in mainstream schooling?”
“We run literacy programs for Traveller men in prisons, and many of them have said the first meaningful education experience that they’ve had has been in the prison system. Meaningful, as they were given a safe space to learn in their own peer group, helping each other out and asking each other questions, with a Traveller man as a facilitator.”
“Personally, I started out in a segregated school with other Travellers. We were bussed in and out of our site in Cork, put in a prefab on the edge of the school where all we were doing was colouring. With no attempt to teach us the mainstream curriculum, it was more of a babysitting service. My mother came out to the school to see exactly how we were getting on. She and other mothers were under the assumption that we were being educated and when she saw that we weren’t my mother wasn’t standing for that.”
“She went around all the mainstream schools in Cork to get me enrolled - I became the first Traveller to be enrolled in my new school. When other Travellers saw that my mother had taken me out of the segregated school and that I was now thriving in a mainstream school, within a year most of the children my age were going to the same school as me and getting a better education.”
“Unlike most other Travellers at the time, I went to secondary school, getting my Junior Cert and Leaving Cert. My community was encouraging as they could see that I was benefiting from it. When I was fourteen or fifteen I would have got a bit of stick from my peer group, telling me I was wasting my time and that I wasn’t going to get a job out of it - that was their attitude. Proving them wrong drove me on.”
John’s sister Chrissie was one of the three women who helped organise and found TVG. As a result, he has been closely involved with the organisation since its inception - attending protests and marches as a child. This connection and his passion for serving his community has led to his current role working full-time to provide health and education workshops, family support, advocacy and outreach work through TVG.
“After I finished school I tried a few different jobs alongside being involved with TVG. As my sister was a founding member, I was always in and out as a young person, involved in groups and going to protests and marches.”
“In 2005, a development group leader who had been working with me in TVG encouraged me to go back to further education. Taking that advice, I got my diploma and took on a part time role as a development worker with TVG. There was a piece of funding left over from a post that someone had left, meaning that they were able to give me a short-term contract. The position I took on continued to grow and throughout my education I was able to come in and do placements with TVG as part of my course, which developed into a full-time role.”
“Most of our work responds to the needs of the community - literacy programmes, health and employment training, prison outreach, family guidance and drug and alcohol support. Through these activities we hope to create better outcomes for Travellers in all aspects of their lives. Through mentoring and educational support we want to see more Traveller men working as paid role models. More Travellers are sitting on committees and speaking up about what is impacting their community, more fathers capable of helping their children with their homework.”
“Reduced levels of suicide and an increase in the uptake of mental health services is something we are working towards. Being a Traveller in Ireland today isn’t easy. Along with prejudice from the settled community, there are a lot of conflict dynamics and politics within Traveller communities. As a result, mental health and substance abuse are real issues, and need to be tackled. Children can be impacted by exposure to a lot of stuff that goes on within the community. As a result there are huge waiting lists for children’s mental health programmes. If these issues aren’t addressed early, adverse experiences such as trauma as a child, can shape your adulthood and lead to further problems.”
“It’s not a bed of roses, and many Travellers rely on a strong faith. Somewhere along the way people lost that faith, challenged by the different issues the community goes through. Perhaps it is a generational thing, but young people seem to have less of a connection to the Catholic Church in Ireland. Growing up, I always believed that my faith would serve me well - if I was resilient and could turn my hand to something, I’d be ok. It’s hard to see young people without that hope.”
“We continue to strive to make Travellers visible, and when new policies are being drawn up we have been good at getting our ducks in a row in terms of knowing when consultations are being made and mobilising the community to use their voices. Every six weeks we hold clinics with local elected councillors to bring them up to speed with information on Traveller issues that they might not be getting through the various committees. It’s about knowing the pathways to take and finding a way to make change through the different structures available - but you can meet brick walls constantly.”
“As a worker you can get incredibly burnt out by that. You are working for your community, trying your best to address needs that you know are real but it can be so hard to achieve any meaningful outcomes - each small victory is hard won. But we continue to endeavour to create positive change for our community.”