Shamim Malekmian reports on the Spring Lane halting site in north Cork, where years of political neglect has resulted in serious social problems and exacerbated tensions between the settled and Travelling communities. In addition, Ingrid Angulo looks at the country’s worsening student accommodation crisis.
• plus McCann and The Hog
Ellis’s Yard is a massive rubbish dump in Ballyvolane. By local reputation, it was Ireland’s largest dumpsite. You could find discarded furniture, decaying animal carcasses and even abandoned cars amid its filthy confusion.
Between 2003 and 2004, Cork City Council spent €500,000 cleaning up the site, yet illegal dumping persisted. In 2014, another cleanup effort proved ineffective. Rubbish is still piled up in sickening profusion.
The dump is adjacent to the Spring Lane halting site, adding a further inflammatory element to the stew of local grievances. Members of the settled community in the area frequently blame local Travellers for illegal dumping; others dismiss that suggestion as racist.
Meanwhile, Traveller children wander into the dump to play, exposing themselves to a myriad of potential infections.
The rubbish dumped in Ellis’s Yard is frequently set on fire. In 2018, the fire brigade were called to the site an astonishing 90 times.
The brigade’s missions were not always completely successful. On occasion, unidentifiable chemicals kept burning and the community, settled and Traveller alike, inhaled the toxic fumes that were released.
There have been suggestions that burning rubbish emits dioxins, a group of cancer-causing substances most famously used in the form of the lethal defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
A citizens’ campaign against the toxic impact of the dump was was led by Ballyvolane woman Noreen Murphy. Following extensive media coverage, the Council took action. In late February 2019, they began cleaning up the dump and subsequently secured the site. It was later confirmed that large quantities of asbestos, another carcinogen, had been found in the dump.
The story, however, does not end there.
INSIDE THE HALTING SITE
Spring Lane halting site is a forgotten slum, around which an air of mystery hangs. Nearly 40 families live on a tiny space, meant to house only 10. Child residents of Spring Lane live under the tyranny of things they can’t control, including overcrowding, poverty and the pervasive reek of downright squalor.
Last year, the European Commission against Racism and
Intolerance (ECRI), observed that it was shocking that Cork City Council had returned unspent funding, allocated to it for Traveller Accommodation. The Council should be sanctioned, the European watchdog said. Travellers are an indigenous European ethnic group, with a population of over 30,000 in Ireland.
On a recent wintry, Sunday morning, inside Spring Lane halting site, rubbish was scattered across a lawn that faced the dumpsite itself. Near the site’s green gates, two big, black garbage bags remained untied, their contents disgorged onto the ground.
Among the rubbish, a small dog, whose white fur appeared yellow, was wrestling with an empty canned-food tin. The pooch’s deep, black eyes signalled a sense of defeat.
Mistrust of Travellers in this area is rife. Members of the settled community accuse them of stealing their children’s small dogs. Martin Condon, a Ballyvolane resident, claims his neighbour had to “pay a tenner to buy his little daughter’s dog back.”
There is a makeshift, handwritten sign attached to a pole in the middle of the Spring Lane site that says, ‘No dumping’.
It is early morning, and smoke puffs out of the chimneys of Travellers mobile homes, like life is easy and manageable.
Soon, however, the small dogs start barking, disturbing horses and goats. There is a smell of fresh horse muck mixed with burnt rubbish in the air. If anyone spots you, they tell you to ‘get out’. And if you’re not leaving fast enough, they will hurl stones at you or chase you out with a stick. Around here, it seems, Travellers don’t trust the settled.
For their part, settled people fear the Travellers. Some accuse members of the travelling community of being behind virtually every local ill: from gang violence, through assaults, to robberies and murders.
In recent days, a video uploaded on Facebook showed a group of hooded men from the northside, holding machetes, threatening a rival gang. Gardaí promised to increase patrols in the Northside, following the video’s release. Locals are not holding their collective breath.
Meanwhile, a new initiative by Cork City Council – the extension of the halting site into the former dumpsite – is causing further divisions.
In August 2019, there was a fire at the halting site. Someone, it turned out, was burning rubbish. When the fire brigade sent a crew, they were pelted with rocks and stones. One firefighter was injured.
Just days after the incident, city councillors announced a new Traveller Accommodation Programme that would run from 2019 to 2024. Originally mooted in 2011, the plan had been voted down. In late December 2019, however, the scheme was passed with little dissent.
The programme requires Cork City Council to extend the existing halting site into the former dumpsite, building at least 10 new homes for the Travelling community in Ellis’ Yard..
Shortly after the announcement, the Echo, Cork city’s age-old local newspaper, ran the story with the following headline: “New Homes for Travellers beside Spring Lane halting site; Public Anger at the Plans”.
What is the furore about? Martin Condon, whose daughter goes to Múin, says he is worried that it will make the area unsafe. Some locals are angry that Travellers get free housing, while “there are some of us settled, living in conditions far worse.” Others wonder why the council won’t house Travellers in other parts of the city?
That question is turned on its head by other locals again: will concentrating a disadvantaged community in one geographical space make them even more vulnerable, more discriminated against?
In 2006, British sociologists John Muncie and Barry Goldson penned a book titled Youth Crime And Justice, which explores the notion of housing an underprivileged group in one specific area.
The researchers found that such a scheme exposed the cohort to increasing discriminatory treatments, from difficulties in securing employment to being treated as ‘outsiders’ by the greater community.
They have also warned that the area may become stigmatised as ‘crime-prone’, “thus giving rise to a policy of containment and attracting the more repressive interventions from State agencies.”
The northside is already labelled as crime-prone. Travellers are already discriminated against. Cork North-Central has the highest unemployment in Cork.
In this climate, is extending the halting site helpful? How can we alleviate hatred against Travellers? How can we solve the unique difficulties they face?
TJ Hogan is 24, with a ginger crown of hair, dapper beard and observant and quietly proud eyes. He is college-educated, with a BA Degree in Community Development. Last year, he contested a seat in Cork City Council as an Independent candidate. He ran again in the general election.
Hogan recalls that, as a child, he missed classes regularly.
“Because there was always a lot of deaths and suicides in the family,” he explains.
The suicide rate among the travelling community is extremely high: about six times greater than that of the wider society.
Hogan was a hard-working student, but skipping school landed him in a “special support class.” He mutters those words resentfully, his smile fading.
“So, I joined that class, and it was all about what a house is and to draw big houses,” he recounts. “I was taught, and I was forced to think, that people only live in houses.”
Hogan does now live in a house, with his wife Charlene and their two small daughters. But he grew up in caravan homes. He is generally accepted in pubs or restaurants with his family unless his name makes the news. “Then all of a sudden, it’s a huge issue,” he says.
“I can speak big words, I have a core level education, I’m in the paper for positive things,” he says. Perversely, that triggers discrimination against him.
Hogan is not one to be defined by his background or culture, albeit he is strikingly proud of them – not giving in to the deadly allure of victimhood. “Travellers are not very proud of who they are. They should be,” he says.
When I ask him about northside troubles, Hogan sighs and nods. We both know the story.
“The northside is a forgotten place,” he states. “It has a huge unemployment rate, young people are constantly dropping out within secondary schools, and the political system is not mobile enough to provide support or do something.”
Hogan accuses the media of “reporting only negative things about the Travellers”. He dislikes the popular show Young Offenders. “They really add to the stereotype about the northside,” he reasons,
On the current controversy, Hogan supports the extension of Spring Lane halting site – but only out of sheer necessity.
“It’s welcome because it’s so badly needed for the city and for the Travellers,” he says, “but I think halting sites are very similar to concentration camps.”
Will the scheme ghettoise the neighbourhood and add to the stigmas?
Hogan shrugs. “It can’t get any worse up there, to be honest. We have third-world conditions in Spring Lane. It’s not fair, especially for the children.”
Catherine Coffey O’Brien arrives late to our interview and insists on paying for my tea. “It’s nice to be nice,” she says, throwing her hands wide apart.
O’Brien is in her late thirties, with short blond hair and an air of endurance that you’d often associate with survivors of great trauma. But then, O’Brien is one.
As a Traveller child growing up in an Industrial School operated by nuns and priests, she has lived through the ultimate depths of inequality.
“We were considered the lowest of the lowest of the low,” she says.
O’Brien recalls being punished physically for acknowledging other Travellers on the street. Over time, she grew ashamed of her forbidden identity.
Like Hogan, O’Brien is college-educated. She is also an active member of the Workers’ Party and ran in the local election under the party’s flag. O’Brien has recently married a fellow party member; she doesn’t live on Spring Lane halting site. Nevertheless, she has witnessed Traveller/settled divisions on the northside. She is against the extension of the site.
“It creates ghettoisation,” she says unequivocally. “If I had my way, I would suggest that they put mixed-economy social housing units in the area. We could have immigrants, refugees, low-income families and the Travellers living together, so that way, we could have a socioeconomic class: that brings balance.”
O’Brien argues that most Irish Travellers have been ‘forced into’ settled life for years. But a settled Traveller doesn’t share equal rights. “Travellers have to conform,” she says.
O’Brien doesn’t hold back when speaking about the Travelling community’s cultural difficulties and faults, from domestic violence to low education to the heavy shadow of Roman Catholicism that hangs over Travellers generally.
“Especially when it comes to the treatment of women, I can’t condone it. I have sheltered and advised many women about their rights,” she says.
According to a study carried out by researchers at University College Dublin (UCD), patriarchal and religious mores lead to high incidences of domestic abuse among Travellers.
Paterfamilias in Travelling communities, often grappling with mental health difficulties, offload their own emotional issues by turning physically or emotionally abusive.
Nearly 60 per cent of male Travellers have reported poor mental health. This number is higher again for females.
The notion of divorce, still a taboo among Roman Catholic Travelling cohorts, also compels couples to stay in unhappy unions, increasing the likelihood of domestic violence.
“I’m not making any excuses for bad behaviour,” O’Brien says. Then she lights a cigarette and relays that changing said social eccentricities requires understanding. Travellers are entitled to be treated as equals. She uses a quotidian example to hammer her point home.
“Young Travellers, like everybody else, are getting all these social media ads about hotels and spas,” she says, “so, they’d book it, but when you get there, they tell you, ‘No, sorry’ because you’re a Traveller.”
Everyday incidences of discrimination cause resentment, O’Brien says, undermining settled attempts at ‘educating’ the Travelling community.
“Anyone who is a facilitator or social worker for Travellers, they’re normally settled. It’s like we don’t have competent people to educate each other,” she says. “I’m not against these coordinators or social workers, but if they were Travellers, we wouldn’t have half the breakdown in communication that we have now.”
“THE SUICIDE RATE AMONG THE TRAVELLING COMMUNITY IS EXTREMELY HIGH: ABOUT SIX TIMES GREATER THAN THAT OF THE WIDER SOCIETY.”
A NATIONAL SCANDAL
Solidarity Politician Mick Barry TD, who represents Cork North-Central constituency in the Dáil, is firmly in favour of the extension of Spring Lane halting site.
He says the scheme would alleviate northside troubles. His inseparable comrade, Councillor Fiona Ryan, voted in favour of the programme, last year.
I met Ryan while she was grappling with health problems, yet she remained outspoken about issues that stir her political conscience. Inside her snug office on Shandon Street, party members were busy preparing for the general election. A folded copy of the Echo was sitting on the young socialist councillor’s desk.
Ryan has little tolerance for anti-Traveller sentiments, to the point that she found citizen campaigning against Ellis’s Yard dump inherently racist.
“The treatment of the Travelling community in Ireland is a national scandal. I think Spring Lane, in particular, has been described as equivalent to some of the worst parts of the developing world,” Ryan says.
“Children on Spring Lane are experiencing health issues like respiratory and urinary tract problems.”
Ryan is at peace with her decision to vote for the extension of the site. “It’s certainly not an ideal solution,” she says. “But members of the Travelling community have been on that site for many, many years now. Long before there were any settled people there.”
She blames racism for what she believes amounts to the spread of misinformation about the scheme.
“The plan is to build between 10 or 12 group-housing schemes within Ellis’s Yard, and everyone else will be housed elsewhere, off the site.”
Ryan agrees that class inequality between the north and southside of Cork city is building.
“The perfect example of inequality in Ireland is in Knocknaheeny where we have Apple, one of the richest multinational corporations in the world, a corporation that through sweetheart deals managed not to pay billions of Euros in taxes here,” she says.
“And it’s sitting there in Knocknaheeny, where we have one of the highest youth unemployment rates. To me, that tells a tale of alienation, of disenfranchisement, of a system that doesn’t work for its people.”
HOUSE THEM OUTSIDE
Sinn Féin is arguably the most popular party in Cork North-Central, but Fianna Fáil politician, Pádraig O’Sullivan TD, is liked across party lines.
A school teacher for several years, O’Sullivan is warm, calm, measured and precise. He does not deny deep class divisions between two sides of the Lee. He says that he is committed to battling northside poverty.
O’Sullivan’s views, however, differ from Ryan’s. He thinks Spring Lane’s Travelling families need to be housed somewhere outside the city. He speaks slowly, often pausing, searching to find the right word.
“I’m not necessarily sure that the area is the best place for them. I believe that a number of activities that they engage in, with horses or whatever, be it cultural or whatnot, I believe this type of activity is not suitable for a city location,” he says. “There are also settled residents around the halting site who have issues with the Travellers that needs to be addressed somehow. Look, I’m not saying this particular group was responsible for it, but there are issues with anti-social behaviour and illegal dumping, that has been well-documented. There is no point denying it.”
Inside Spring Lane halting site, a small Traveller boy is hurling stones at me and my photographer with raw and immediate anger. His eyes are brimming with shame.
I must admit that I am, at least briefly, terrified of him. He doesn’t look older than 11 but he knows the language of resentment and hostility well.
Just like all the other children spread across the city of Cork, Spring Lane children get only one chance at childhood.