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

The Kerryman (Tralee Edition) - - INTERVIEW - CON­TACT STEPHEN FERNANE RE­PORTER ON Fer­[email protected]

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.”

Photo by Stephen Fernane

Tralee’s Brid­get McCarthy at work in Áras an Phobail.

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