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Old Prejudice Lives On in a Multiracial Ireland

November 18, 2001

Old Prejudice Lives On in a Multiracial Ireland


BALLINRUANE, Ireland — As expected, class rolls were small this September at St. Joseph's National School, a yellow, two-room schoolhouse in the countryside near Galway.

Years of rural depopulation have taken their toll, and Brid Connolly had planned to teach just 12 pupils. But that number nearly doubled when two families of Irish travelers — nomads who roam the country in trailer homes — stopped their caravans nearby and registered their children at St. Joseph's.

What came next could almost have been predicted: local repugnance, a mass exodus of Ballinraune students and the likelihood that this class at St. Joseph's will be the last. Civil rights groups say it is just the latest example of entrenched discrimination that even progressive governmental action has been unable to overcome.

Never in her 35 years at St. Joseph's did Ms. Connolly think it would come to this. "It would be bad enough to close under normal circumstances," she said.

In modern Ireland, where immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and Central Europe are rapidly becoming part of the cultural landscape, the Irish travelers, who began wandering here more than 800 years ago, remain the principal social outcasts. Disparagingly called "tinkers," a reference to their former role as tinsmiths, repairing pots and pans as they moved from town to town, they are all too often publicly perceived as a tribe of thieves.

The national government regularly runs publicity campaigns to prevent racism from taking root against its new immigrants. But social workers say that Ireland's new-found desire to be tolerant and diverse does not extend to travelers. Although they are generally Roman Catholic and full-blooded Celts, the travelers have come to be regarded with disdain, like the Gypsies, or Romany, of Central Europe.

In 1998, Parliament passed a law requiring local authorities to provide accommodation for their traveler populations by 2004. For travelers living on the road, "accommodation" means resources at maintained "halting sites," like hot and cold running water, garbage collection and enough space for children to play safely. That would defuse much of the animosity from the rest of Irish society, because conflicts usually arise when travelers stop in communities worried that they will leave an unsightly mess when they move on.

But few of Ireland's city or county councils have even completed a plan on how to provide traveler accommodation. In 1995, a government task force recommended that 3,100 halting-site berths should be provided by 2000. Only 127 were completed.

Moreover, one mainstream politician has proposed new legislation that would increase the power of local governments to evict travelers from areas where they are not wanted — including confiscating their caravans — even if those authorities are not providing the halting sites that are required by law.

"All the sanctions are on travelers, as opposed to the other side of the equation," said Brendan " Caolßn, an expert on traveler culture at Pavee Point, a support group based in Dublin.

Little statistical data exists about travelers' way of life, or what role they play in modern Ireland. Based on informal counts by its staff, Pavee Point estimates that 24,000 travelers live in Ireland; thousands more have emigrated to Britain. In 1994, a survey of the greater Dublin area found that 53 percent of traveler families had no hot water, no electricity and no showers, and that 28 percent had no toilets. More than half of the traveler population is under 15 years of age, because travelers have large families and a life expectancy about 10 years shorter than the national average.

A few miles from St. Joseph's, Anne Ward lives with nine of her children in three small trailers on the side of a road. Ms. Ward, looking much older than her 37 years, said that her husband lived in Britain, and that she supported her children on a $230 weekly welfare check. She said that finding places to stop these days was much more difficult than it was a decade ago. The family would like to move into a house, but faces waiting lists of several years for public housing.

A life on the road severely limits travelers' access to educational and health services, and their exclusion from mainstream society creates a sense of alienation.

The children have had little formal education, and teaching at St. Joseph's frequently resembles child care. During one recess break, the five children ran to the blackboard and shoved each other aside in a race to show off their ability to write their names. But Martin Ward, 11, had trouble reciting the alphabet on his own.

At the same time, the children love the school. "I can do English, I can do maths, I can do sums, I can do everything," Martin said, while his brother, Tom, 5, tugged at his leg.

The children have difficulty concentrating because they are unfamiliar with a classroom setting and because "they're still only with their own family," said Bernadette Jordan, a part-time teacher who works with Ms. Connolly. "It's not a school setting." Ms. Jordan said she thought that some of the children might have learning disabilities.

The Ward children were not all that surprised when their classmates gradually disappeared, Ms. Connolly said. But they do miss the camaraderie of normal school, and the opportunity to relate to children outside their extended family.

"We used to play with them," Martin said. "We used to play football and catch."

Ms. Ward said that her children got along well with fellow students and neighbors at their previous site, where they attended school for three years. They will have difficulty finding another school once St. Joseph's closes, she said. "They'll pretend that they're full."

Maugie Francis, the Department of Education official with responsibility for travelers, spelled out the rationale behind the apparent segregation in Ballinruane in a recent radio interview. "It's important to remember that the rights of traveler parents and their children were protected in this case" because they were allowed to attend the school of their choice, Ms. Francis said. The other parents, she said, were merely exercising their right to choose a different school.

"In the context of parental choice, I would suggest it's not educational apartheid," she said. "In a sense, the problem has been solved."

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