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“Knackers out” was the chant.

It was repeated by many in many different towns and villages throughout this country. We were pelted with stones and other missiles by residents who didn’t want Travellers in their area.

During the early 1980s, the anti-Traveller march by men in balaclavas on the Tallaght bypass left a psychological mark. The violence, the breaking of windows, the terrorizing of children, security men hired by the local authorities lifting trailers leaving only emotional debris and havoc in our lives.

The Trespass Act of 1994 followed by the Housing Miscellaneous Act of 2002 made nomadism illegal. Traditional stopping areas were blocked off by large boulders and stones. Families were pushed into overcrowded and un serviced sites.

The trauma didn’t stop there. It continued into our life cycle, damaging health, education, and employment.

To understand why local residents were objecting, I attended a meeting. Passing as one of them, a concerned citizen from a nearby town, was a dangerous experience.

The hall was full. The shouting was frightening. The descriptions of our community were appalling. We were “dirty”, “unhygienic”, “inbred”, “not interested in education” and didn’t pay taxes, they said.

This was a time when our ethnicity was denied and racism was rife. In that hall, there was a small number of residents interested in social justice issues. Their voices were drowned out.

Silently soaking up the anti-Traveller racist atmosphere did not make racism any easier to comprehend. These aggressions towards our community are rarely documented in Irish history.

But this racism that indigenous people experience is the nucleus for racism towards migrants and refugees. It’s an extension, not a hierarchy.

We know this from the health status and living conditions of aboriginal people in Australia, the Maori people in New Zealand, the Native people of America and Canada.

Nuances get lost in the scaffolding of endemic and systemic racism. “Send them home”, one of the slogans aimed at refugees and migrants, tells us that the far-right vocabulary has remained unsophisticated and somewhat primitive.

In the current climate of anti-immigration rhetoric, particular memories are stirring in me. Words and phrases are being regurgitated.

That residents’ meeting in the 1990s, listening and observing the toxic talk, resonates with Ireland of 2023. “Lack of consultation”, the “price of property” and “lack of resources” were all screamed at local politicians and local authorities at the mere suggestion of a Traveller site in the area.

Politicians knew Traveller rights were not a vote catcher. The atmosphere of the time was to pathologize Traveller ethnicity.

It’s shameful but not surprising that the racist rhetoric and xenophobic ideology remains so close and familiar, so universal. Globalization, war, environmental issues, poverty, the displacement of people – mainly from the Global South – have triggered greater movements of people.

In 2002, the Immigration Control Platform put forward candidates for election. On that occasion they were unsuccessful. But attention turned to migrants.

Travellers might be de-valuing our property, but these people were taking our jobs. The Immigration Control Platform were unashamedly open and public about their views.

In 2016, the National Party of Ireland was founded.

As is traditional in Irish politics there have been splits and factions since. Nationalism and fascism merged. Tension is building.

These forces have seized on the state’s failure to provide adequate housing for the island’s population as a tool to foment fear, hate and division.

The state’s failure to provide accommodation and the pain it can cause is familiar to Travellers.

Traveller accommodation has had no real investment for 25 years. Two or three generations have had to move into their families’ bay area – meant for one family unit, not an extended family – in a site.

Several families, particularly young couples, have had to make difficult choices around living on a roadside, isolated and with no amenities or living in local authority apartments away from the family and community infrastructure.

Many landlords haven’t wanted Travellers as tenants or refused tenants who were in receipt of rent allowance.

In September 2019, one of the visible signs that the far-right were gaining traction came to us from Oughterard, County Galway.

A hotel was earmarked as a centre for migrants. Over a thousand people from the town and the surrounding areas marched in opposition. The centre never opened.

In January 2023, we saw East Wall, Drogheda and Ballymun – the protests, the chants, “Send them home”.

This far-right ideology is not new. This insidious denigration and de-humanizing of entire communities, this spewing of hatred, has always been reflected in our society and its apparatus.

Their chants amplify and reverberate with hate. The velocity of their hyper-masculinity, their toxic slogans, illuminate their defiance.

Groupthink is dangerous. In current parlance, this is known as echo-chambering and nothing is allowed to challenge the notion of a pure, settled, white Irish identity.

Rosaleen McDonagh

Rosaleen is a playwright from the Traveller community. She holds a Doctorate from Northumbria University. She is a Human Rights Commissioner and a member of Aosdana.

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1 Comment

  1. A very good article showing that today’s “new issues” are just old wine in new bottles.

    Particularly amusing is the comment about people complaining about property being “too expensive” back in the 90s when you compare today’s prices with those back then.

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