‘I am Eileen Flynn and I am a Trav­eller’

Hate crime and a Trav­eller Bill top the agenda for the first fe­male Trav­eller in the Oireach­tas

The Irish Times - - Home News - Kitty Hol­land

Sen­a­tor Eileen Flynn (30), the first Trav­eller woman in the Oireach­tas, is proud of her iden­tity. But she tells of a life­time of hid­ing it.

Hav­ing grown up in Labre Park – the old­est Trav­eller hous­ing site in the State – in Bal­lyfer­mot, she has nei­ther a Bal­lyfer­mot nor a Dublin ac­cent.

“Anywhere I’d go out in Dublin, if any­one asked where I was from I’d say I was from Kilkenny be­cause of the coun­try ac­cent. I’d never say I was from Dublin be­cause of be­ing recog­nised as a Trav­eller and be­ing re­fused [into pub­lic premises]. It was sur­vival.

“My fa­ther is from Kilkenny and I know parts of Kilkenny so when peo­ple ask what part of Kilkenny I said Thomas­town.”

Like many in her com­mu­nity, she has re­peat­edly been re­fused en­try to shops, bars and other premises. After she got en­gaged to Done­gal man Liam White (now her hus­band) in 2017, she changed her name on so­cial me­dia to its Ir­ish spell­ing. “When I was book­ing my wed­ding I was a bit ner­vous the ho­tel would look me up and find out I was a Trav­eller [and can­cel the book­ing]. As a Trav­eller, it’s a fear you have all the time.”

The wed­ding, in Let­terkenny in 2018, went with­out a hitch and the ho­tel staff “were all lovely”, she stresses.

“But even the day after the wed­ding I was wor­ried maybe some­one from my fam­ily didn’t get served, and mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing was okay. It’s al­ways there, that fear of be­ing re­jected.”

It has a life-long im­pact. “I am a per­son who talks out, but I suf­fer re­ally bad with anx­i­ety. Feel­ing that re­jec­tion in so­ci­ety, it’s hor­ri­ble. I still have low self-es­teem go­ing into a place.”

In re­cent days, how­ever, she has ex­pe­ri­enced noth­ing but warmth.

As she speaks to The Ir­ish Times in a cafe in Le­in­ster House, she is ap­proached sev­eral times by peo­ple con­grat­u­lat­ing and wel­com­ing her, fol­low­ing her nom­i­na­tion to the Seanad by Taoiseach Micheál Mar­tin,

as one of his 11 nom­i­nees.

She has had phone calls from teach­ers at St Gabriel’s Pri­mary School in Bal­lyfer­mot, which she at­tended as a child. She even re­ceived a let­ter of con­grat­u­la­tions from the lo­cal Fine Gael branch at home in Ar­dara, Co Done­gal.

“It’s been a lovely ex­pe­ri­ence, the last few days,” she says.

Ac­tivist

When she was 10, she lost her mother, aged 48, to pneu­mo­nia. Nine days later she was se­ri­ously in­jured in a car crash – suf­fer­ing bro­ken legs, a shat­tered an­kle, bro­ken arm and bro­ken hips. She would be in and out of Crum­lin hos­pi­tal for the fol­low­ing two years.

She at­tended St Do­minic’s sec­ondary school and then Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin through an ac­cess pro­gramme for dis­ad­van­taged young peo­ple. She has a de­gree in com­mu­nity and youth work from Maynooth Univer­sity.

She has been an ac­tivist for more than a decade, work­ing with the Ir­ish Trav­eller Move­ment, the Na­tional Trav­eller Women’s Fo­rum and Bal­lyfer­mot Trav­eller Ac­tion Pro­gramme, and cam­paigned on hous­ing, mar­riage equal­ity, abor­tion rights and anti-racism is­sues through­out.

“I still feel very close to my mother. Los­ing her at a young age had a dra­matic im­pact on my life.

“Be­ing in Crum­lin hos­pi­tal, with­out her, the nurses were al­ways so lovely to me, but I knew then I wanted to be some­thing. It in­spired me to go on, for my mother.

“My fam­ily, my com­mu­nity, are very happy for me, my twin sis­ter Sally es­pe­cially. I feel a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity on me now, that I am [seen to be] rep­re­sent­ing 40,000 Trav­ellers.”

At the top of her agenda is work­ing to get hate crime leg­is­la­tion en­acted, along with the Trav­eller Cul­ture and His­tory and Ed­u­ca­tion Bill that had been in­tro­duced by for­mer sen­a­tor Co­lette Kelleher.

‘Sugar things up’

“I am not go­ing to be a sen­a­tor that is po­lit­i­cally cor­rect all the time. I didn’t get the high ed­u­ca­tion some peo­ple in here did. So I don’t sugar things up and I say things as I see them. I will al­ways be true to me.

“And I know I can’t speak for other marginalis­ed com­mu­ni­ties, but I want to speak with them.

“I am not a mi­grant. I am not a refugee. I am not a Mus­lim woman. I am Eileen Flynn and I am a Trav­eller.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: BRYAN MEADE/ ALAN BETSON

Sen­a­tor Eileen Flynn ar­rives home to Labre Park in Bal­lyfer­mot after at­tend­ing Seanad Éire­ann for the first time. She is pic­tured with her twin sis­ter Sally. And in­set, out­side the Dáil.

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