We should stand tall and fulfil our dreams instead of listening to people knock us...’
TRALEE’S BRIDGET MCCARTHY IS A PROUD AND EDUCATED TRAVELLER WOMAN WORKING HARD FOR HER COMMUNITY. BRIDGET CHATS TO STEPHEN FERNANE ABOUT THE CHALLENGE OF OVERCOMING PREJUDICE, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF INSTILLING A STRONG EDUCATIONAL ETHOS IN TRAVELLERS
BRIDGET McCarthy is a classic example of why one should never judge the majority of Travellers from a minority viewpoint.
An educated and assertive woman, Bridget has looked at life from both ends - at one end is the sense of dislocation from society, while at the other is a determination to convert this dislocation into skills that can help a new generation of Travellers facedown the preconceptions.
In spite of a lifetime feeling on the margins, Bridget is a proud Traveller woman. Raised in St Martin’s Park, she is also a proud Tralee woman even though it’s a town she hasn’t always enjoyed an inclusive relationship with.
Bridget is a Traveller Community Health Officer based at Áras an Phobail in Boherbee. She and her colleagues work closely as part of a team at the Kerry Travellers’ Health and Community Development Project (KTHCDP) covering places like Tralee, Killorglin and Milltown. She works with Travellers of all ages liaising with health officials like paediatricians, public health nurses, GPs and the mental health services. Cervical and breast check screenings are also arranged by Bridget.
It’s an initiative that is producing positive results, nationally, with over 80 percent of Travellers interviewed saying they received health information from a local primary healthcare worker and from Traveller organisations such as KTHCDP. Moreover, 25 percent of Traveller women (compared to 13 percent of the general population) had a breast screening. Similarly, 23 percent of Travellers had a smear test compared with 12 percent of the settled population.
“A lot of Travellers are uneducated around their health needs and the services available to them,” said Bridget.
“Whatever appointment they need we remind them and support them. We remind women of the importance of cervical checks and vaccinations for their children. It gives us a great sense of pride because people trust us and we’ve built up a relationship with them. When people are on the up again, it’s a huge achievement for us to have helped that person.”
Bridget left school unable to read or write. She married young and had her family soon after. A longing to return to education was an ambition that refused to leave her. Today she values her education. In 2010 she became a Traveller Community Health Worker, but prior to this she worked hard knowing education is the first line of defence when tackling prejudice. Only 13 percent of Traveller children complete second level education compared to 92 percent in the settled community; while just 1 percent of Travellers have a college degree.
“I attended a junior workshop here in Tralee where I met a woman called Pauline O’Shea. She enhanced my confidence by showing me how to read and write. I did my Leaving Cert and from there I applied for the primary healthcare position and did my training. Ever since I was in school I was told I would never amount to much. My children today are still experiencing the same discrimination that I did all those years ago. You have to keep on top of it and hope for the best for your children.”
Bridget talks articulately about the educational deficit in her community and how parents come to her concerned that their children are falling through the system. She stressed a need for more educational assessments for Traveller children and says supports like KTHCDP help point parents and children in the right direction.
“It’s slow work and the numbers should be far higher for assessments for Travellers. Education is so important and many Traveller children go through the system without their parents ever being told they have things like dyslexia or dyspraxia. They’re not getting the support at primary school level and by the time they reach secondary school they are completely lost. This is when a lot of discrimination is experienced as the children are not able to keep up with the changes in school. It’s a barrier. They will probably complete first and second year but after that they leave because they can’t handle the stress of it. We work with parents closely to put an educational plan in place for their child.”
‘Perception’ is a key word when discussing the relationship between Travellers and the settled community. I ask Bridget how she feels about the settled community’s view of Travellers. She gives a straight up reply that there is a troublesome element in all walks of society and that no one group has a monopoly on bothersome behaviour. Her response to the Travellers’ relationship with the settled community seems a more rational one than some of the more abstract and convoluted textbook theories that dominated discourse during the recent Peter Casey controversy. The latter was a time when many people talked on behalf of Travellers - about what they needed and what they wanted. But Travellers’ own voices were often the last to be heard.
“People have to change but I don’t think in my lifetime it’s going to change. I don’t think the settled community is anywhere beyond their current perceptions. My children hang around with settled children in the estate where I live. By the time they reach 12 or 13 you can see how the settled children stop playing with Traveller children. It’s as though they stop recognising them. Whether they have a bond or not it seems to stop at that age. It’s sad because if two settled people grew up together in the same estate, chances are they might never forget one another.”
It’s estimated that out of a Labour force of approximately 4,500 Traveller women in Ireland, 81 percent are without work. Some within the settled community might point to the fact Traveller women decide to marry young and have families. But it wasn’t too long ago when the same argument was made about women in the settled community. Breaking the glass ceiling of opportunity should be a goal for all women. Trends change as much as ambitions do and Bridget is a prime example of a new generation of Traveller women.
“Being realistic, if this project wasn’t here I don’t think I would have a job either. I could probably get jobs cleaning, but I’m better than that now. I think a lot of Travellers are better than that. Our training is continuously enhancing here. Long-term we would like to see more Travellers working in front line job positions. It’s not unrealistic to think that.”
Back in September Peter Casey was endorsed by Kerry County Council when 14 councillors voted for him to run for the office of President of Ireland. Shortly after this endorsement I interviewed Peter Casey in the corridor of council buildings. He struck me as a genuinely polite man but with a hint of naivety and little in the way of a coherent plan for the position he sought. Subsequently, Casey’s questioning of Travellers’ right to ethnicity polarised public opinion. Irrespective of one’s own standpoint, Casey gave voice to animosity and received 21 percent of the vote for his troubles.
But the irony for me personally, is that I enjoyed a far more engaging and intelligent conversation with Bridget than I did with Peter Casey.
This in itself blows many of the negative perceptions that surfaced about Travellers during Casey’s campaign clean out of the water.
“I don’t think he [Casey] knew what he was talking about when he made those comments.
“It was stupidity on his part. It felt bad for us as he was trying to put us back down again after we came such a long way to be accepted as an ethnic group. To think he could say that we had no right to claim ethnicity.
“The fact he was voted in by a majority of the councillors in Kerry, I don’t know what to say about that. They must be seeing different pictures than what we’re seeing.”
Bridget’s hope for the future is that they can continue the good work at KTHCDP.
She is immensely proud of her ethnicity, saying, “I can stand and say that ‘I am a unique person’. That’s what it means to me. We are a uniquely individual people. We have a right to be that.”
She talks of discrimination as ‘a long shadow’ that continues to affect all walks of life for Travellers.
Lastly, while our conversation started with me asking questions, it concludes with Bridget asking some pertinent questions of us all.
“Do many in the settled community know any Travellers? Have they ever sat with a Traveller? Have they ever had a relationship with a Traveller?
“Most of the time they are judging us all on what they hear. You have to ask the question ‘what do they know about Travellers?’
“If you don’t know a Traveller how can you judge one? You can’t just go by what’s in the papers. If that’s the case then you’re judging every mother’s child.”
Tralee’s Bridget McCarthy at work in Áras an Phobail.