On the Dáil’s Doorstep, a Cry for Help with the Mental Health and Suicide Crisis Among Travellers

For now, the rain has held off.

A crowd several rows deep listens as David Keenan, on the stoop of a green wagon right in front of Leinster House, strums on a guitar and sings gently into a microphone.

Banners for Traveller groups are scattered through the audience, silently supporting the speakers and singers at the protest on Tuesday.

The Traveller community is suffering a mental health and suicide crisis, says Maggie McDonagh, spokesperson from the National Traveller Mental Health Network.

In 2010, the All Ireland Traveller Health Study by a team from UCD found the suicide rate in boys and men from the Travelling community to be 6.6 times higher than the national average.

Traveller groups feel that number is now an underestimate and the data needs to be refreshed, says McDonagh.

“We feel as a community, what we’re living through, what our families are living through, that those statistics are a lot higher,” she says.

Around the green wagon are Travellers from around the country, representatives of advocacy groups, politicians, allies, onlookers.

Cameramen adjust their equipment on the steps of nearby buildings as reporters pull representatives out of the crowd for interviews.

At the back of the crowd, Marianne Ward-O’Leary Maughan stands below the banner for Tallaght Travellers. “People are upset. They’re let down,” she says. “But Travellers have been let down by the state since the year dot.”

Nothing has been done for Travellers since they received ethnic minority status in 2017, she says.

“We’ve had children as young as 10 years of age die through suicide,” she says. “When does the government wake up and recognise that we’re losing our children?”

Awaiting a Response

At 11.20am, McDonagh was sat in the tearoom of Buswells Hotel, with her hands clasped on a pile of laminated posters.

At the end of the day today, she plans to hand a letter into Leinster House. The last letter sent in December by the network – a collective of Traveller organisations around the country that advocates for culturally appropriate health services – asked for action, for funding for Traveller mental-health supports, and for a meeting with the Taoiseach.

“The letter we handed in was acknowledged from his office, but no meeting was agreed upon,” she says, prodding the posters for emphasis. “So we’re protesting today on the accountability.”

John Paul Collins, a men’s mental health worker for Exchange House Ireland, the national Traveller service, says that the high suicide statistics are what drove him to work in mental health.

“I have to try and do something, myself, awareness campaigns, to get the word out there,” he says. Not enough Travellers know about the services out there, he says.

A lot of work has gone into organising today, he says: filming videos, writing up press releases, and spreading the word.

There’s a buzz about, says McDonagh. “Travellers are coming from right around the country, coming together. We’re standing as a collective, a collective voice, and staying we’re standing up now, this is not right.”

John-Paul Collins holds a banner for Exchange House Ireland. Photo by Claudia Dalby.

Collins expects to see a few hundred people come out. “There’s been a lot of traffic on social media. So we’re expecting a good few.”

McDonagh sweeps her hands, ushering people out of Buswells and into Molesworth Street.

Anne O’Brien waits a little, finishing her tea. She’s not worried how many show up, she says. “Every one person coming can make a difference.”

Just being here feels good, she says.

“Because at least like, you’re putting yourself out there,” she says. “And letting people know that we’re standing up for ourselves. And we’re not going to go away until our problems are sorted.”

The Gathering Crowd

At one side of the landmark green wagon, John Paul Collins cups his neck with one hand, squinting as the crowd grows, and glancing anxiously at the iron gates on Kildare Street.

“We’re basically just hoping for some sort of meaningful response, and a promise to a meeting, whatever that might be,” he says, before someone recognises him and pulls him in for a chat.

A man hammers the green wagon’s tongue securely in its stands. Cameramen crouch and lean around him to catch the promising shot.

Some attendees lean back on the black railings lining the basements of Molesworth Street, to smoke or chat with their groups. Others hover alone.

Standing alone near a parked car, Orla O’Neill says she has come to represent St Stephen’s Green Trust, which gives out grants. “We would consider racism and discrimination against Travellers as one of the most endemic, kind of, issues within our society.”

But enough talking has been done on the issue, she says, tightening her mouth. “It’s time for Travellers to protest about the lack of action.”

From the centre of the crowd, McDonagh, in a marine-blue blazer and large black sunglasses, calls directions to the protest into the phone in her hand.

Some familiar faces from the Dáil mill around, to the right of the green wagon.

From the opposite side of the street, Shay L’Estrange, a coordinator with the Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project, has been noting who was present, and who wasn’t.

“Unfortunately, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are nowhere to be seen on the day, and they’re the ones controlling most of the power at the moment,” he says, and shakes his head at the sky.

“I wouldn’t expect them to come,” he says. “I think it’s easy throwing out a couple mealy-mouth words in the Dáil, but when it comes to standing with the community at an event like this, I don’t think they’d be anywhere to be seen.”

The speakers climb to the entrance to the wagon. “What do we have to do?” shouts Senator Eileen Flynn, who in 2020 became the first woman from the Irish Travelling community to be appointed to Seanad Éireann, her voice straining.

She looks at the Traveller activists standing in a small semi-circle next to her. “I know you’re tired. But keep holding on there. Because change, I hope with all my heart, with all your voices, is just around the corner.”

“Enough is enough. It ends now!” she shouts, stabbing her finger towards the sky. “Before many many more lives have to end through suicide.”

Applause builds from the crowd and echoes off the tall buildings of Molesworth Street.

What Follows?

Around 1.10pm, Keenan has finished his songs. A group of women approach him, asking if he’d be free to perform at events. He hands them his phone number.

Attendees start heading away from the green wagon. McDonagh is surrounded by reporters, supporters and friends, hoping to catch her before the event is over.

Michael Collins perches on the wing of the trailer. In a few moments, he’ll help others to haul the green wagon back onto the trailer. For now, he pauses to watch the crowd trickle down.

Music, especially seeing traditional Traveller music played in public, makes you feel better, he says. “A lot better than you’d normally feel.”

There were more TDs here than at the last protest, he says. “I think they’re starting to listen, aren’t they? I hope they’re starting to listen.”

It’s wrong that Travellers experience racism and discrimination, he says. “Especially younger Travellers coming up behind us now. It’s not a nice situation for them to be in. [If] we can’t do something about it now, will it ever be done?”

McDonagh says Keenan’s singing went straight to her heart, as did seeing the crowds that came out.

“Travellers and settled people, standing together, standing as one, saying this is enough. You know, that is powerful in itself,” she says. “Very, very powerful.”

David Keenan sings to the crowd. Photo by Claudia Dalby.

John Paul Collins says he’s glad the event got coverage from national media.

“This will be seen on the news, it’ll be seen across social media. So it has been a positive two hours,” he says. “If we saved one Traveller’s life, or one Traveller accesses the service, it’s been worthwhile coming today.”

Keenan says he’s regularly called to sing at events like these. “I was singing at a very young age, and it was what my mother wanted for me to keep going.”

Three years ago, he lost his 23-year-old brother to suicide, weeks after his mother’s death he says. “She was dying of cancer and it just, it took a lot out of him. Took a lot out of us all, but poor old Jim, he just kept everything in.”

Traveller men find it shameful to talk about mental health, he says. “There’s no shame for no one to come out and talk. Because it saves a life, at the end of the day.”

“It’s nice that we can go out here, and get these two hours, to give our word out, because it’s like talking to a wall to the Dáíl,” he says. “I’d love if our word was listened to.”

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Author:

Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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