It is now nearly a month since the horrific fire at a Traveller’s halting site on a back road on the South Side of Dublin city which killed 10 people, five of them children.
The fire in Carrickmines started in one of two portacabins on the small site where there were also about half a dozen caravans. Those who died were members of two related families who were all sleeping in one of the cabins; one family was visiting.
This appalling tragedy shocked the country and has forced people here to think again about how Travellers exist in Irish society. There was a great deal of angry comment in the media in the aftermath of the blaze, with calls for immediate action by the government to do more to help Travellers and to carry out safety checks at all traveler sites in the country.
Concerns raised over safety of traveller accommodation in wake of Carrickmines https://t.co/lgoArXm3Si pic.twitter.com/PMA2l0vYvM— Newstalk 106-108fm (@NewstalkFM) November 2, 2015
The funerals that followed were heartbreaking, and in the days that followed there was a great deal of anguish and soul searching among the general public as the country tried to come to terms with the tragedy.
The outpouring of sympathy for those who died and those who had survived was genuine. But the difficulty Travellers in general face in Irish society -- and the difficulty the rest of Irish society has with the Travellers -- quickly made itself felt.
Two days after the blaze two people from the site were refused service in a pub not far from the site, although the bar staff may not have known who they were turning away. One of the funerals later took place in Wexford and pubs there shut for the day. This was not out of sympathy, but because of fears that large numbers of Travellers would be present.
Much more serious was the fact that efforts by the local County Council to provide emergency accommodation for those who had lived on the site, which was closed immediately after the fire, ran into problems.
The council initially tried to place the 15 survivors of the fire -- all part of the extended family -- in a field about half a mile away, property which is owned by the council. There was enough room for traveler trailers and cabins on this field, but no hard surface or services, so the council sent staff and diggers to start work to prepare the site.
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But there was a problem. Access to this field is at the end of a narrow road of houses and no one had asked the people who lived there if they were happy with the plan. In fact they were so unhappy that they blocked entry to the site with their cars, and a stand-off followed. The residents said that, apart from the lack of any meaningful consultation, their road was too narrow to handle the traffic that would follow if a halting site was opened at the end of their street.
They certainly had a point, although they were immediately vilified in the media where outraged commentators and left wing politicians accused them of everything from gross insensitivity to outright prejudice and even racism. Caught up in the emotional tidal wave that had followed the terrible fire, idealistic young journalists and liberal commentators demonized the residents. But in contrast to this, on social media and newspaper websites there was huge support for the residents from ordinary people.
In solidarity with @itmtrav #Carrickmines never again. #C11NeverAgain. Travellers Rights are Human Rights. pic.twitter.com/uZE24zCdEE— Anti Racism Network (@ARNirl) October 28, 2015
Lengthy meetings between the council and the residents took place in the following days. The council insisted that the field would only be an emergency site, for a maximum of six months, until they found somewhere more suitable. But the residents claimed that this promise was not legally binding and pointed out that the site where the fire had happened had also started as a temporary, emergency site but had been in use for around 10 years.
The stalemate continued and within a few days the council abandoned its plan and decided that instead it would create an emergency site for Travellers on a car park it had behind a council yard about a mile away. This solution led to further outrage from commentators who said that the council should have used its legal powers to force an emergency site on to the original field. They continued to demonize the residents there.
Work is now underway on the new location and the controversy has died down somewhat, but of course the basic problem of how to deal with the Travellers remains. And it is not likely to be solved anytime soon because it is a far more complex issue than those making outraged comments after the fire are willing to admit.
The fact is that the traveler lifestyle poses real problems for the settled community, and no amount of politically correct anger can negate that.
The sympathy felt by everyone here for the members of the two unfortunate traveler families who perished in the blaze and for the extended family around them was clearly genuine. But it is a fact that many people in the settled community would be far from comfortable if a traveler halting site were opened at the end of the road where they live. And as they see it, they have good reason for feeling that way.
Long gone are the days when the Travellers were travelling tinsmiths -- hence the original name of tinkers -- and casual farm laborers who traveled around the country and did seasonal work for farmers at busy times of the year. In those days they were genuine Travellers and there was a certain romance to their nomadic lifestyle as they moved around the country in their colorful barrel-shaped wagons and camped on the roadside where they fed their horses on "the long acre” (the grass verge on the roadside).
Over the last 50 years or more, as Ireland became a modern industrial society and farming became mechanized, the skills the Travellers had were no longer relevant. They clung to the nomadic lifestyle as long as they could, but these days most of them no longer travel, with over 80 percent of them now living in houses.
Of the remainder, around half live in caravans and trailers that are permanently parked on sites at the edges of cities and towns, so even the term "halting site" is no longer accurate since they no longer travel around the country. According to official figures, there are around 30,000 Travellers in the country.
Their way of earning a living has changed. These days traveler men work in small groups and collect scrap metal, lay tarmac driveways, replace slates on roofs, remove unwanted furniture or rubbish and do other odd jobs for which they like to be paid in cash. They have vans and small trucks, and frequently there is a build up of scrap, old tires, car parts, discarded furniture, building materials and other stuff at or near their sites. This can be challenging for those who live in houses nearby.
Their tradition is to work for themselves in this way, a legacy from earlier times. But recent figures show that 84 percent of Travellers are claiming unemployment welfare.
The figures also show that 55 percent of traveler children leave school before they are 15, even though most live on settled sites. Marriage among Travellers happens at an earlier age and is usually within the extended family or the wider traveler community.
These and other factors mean that Travellers remain isolated from the rest of Irish society, and in most cases this is their choice. Outside visitors to traveler sites are usually not welcome and are often met with aggressive suspicion.
The fact is that Travellers like to be separate from the rest of society, a stance that is encouraged by traveler men in particular.
Traveller society is a patriarchy is which the man marries early, is self-employed, works for cash doing odd jobs, deals in scrap and other items, takes his children out of school early so they don’t absorb settled ways, lives on a site surrounded by his extended family, and dislikes many of the things that the settled community strives for like a nice house and a steady job.
All of this means that Travellers tend to see the rest of Irish society as alien. It means that they do not have a bond with or loyalty to the rest of society, and that means some of them see society as something to be exploited. This lack of identity with the settled community also means that scams, petty crime and creating a lot of rubbish left for others to clean up is acceptable behavior.
There are more serious problems as well. Marauding gangs of Travellers have been involved in obscenely vicious attacks on old people in isolated rural areas, although thugs from the settled community have been involved as well. In recent years younger Travellers have become involved in the drugs trade.
There are regular outbreaks of violence caused by traveler family feuds and the aftermath of bare knuckle boxing contests. These can be terrifying for people from the settled community who witness them and sometimes involve the use of weapons like slash hooks, machetes, clubs and so on.
Although no official figures for the number of Travellers in prison here are provided, various reports have put it at between five and 10 percent of the prison population, even though Travellers make up around half of one percent of the population in general.
It is important to say that the majority of Travellers do live settled, law abiding lives. But it important also to face up to the fact that a number are involved in crime, from petty to serious, and this frequently impacts the settled community.
That affects the attitude of the settled community. But probably more important in general is the way Travellers are disengaged from the rest of society. That separateness often means they have a laissez faire attitude to all kinds of rules and regulations, from paying taxes to the disposal of rubbish, rules that the rest of society is forced to follow. That also causes deep resentment.
Traveler support groups here have been calling for some time for Travellers to be recognized as a separate ethnic group in Ireland. Irish governments have been slow to accept this even though both the UN Committee for Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe have called on the Irish state to do so. This probably will happen in the near future although there appears to be little support for it among the population at large which fears that this will increase traveler separation and lack of integration.
Travellers in general have poorer health and live shorter lives than the rest of the population. Conditions on some of the halting sites are appalling with no running water, toilet facilities or electricity. Several hundred traveler families live in this way.
Successive governments have tried to address this in various ways but frequently local opposition is a problem, especially in providing serviced permanent sites or housing. Local councils across the country are supposed to play their part, and the Traveler Accommodation Act 1998 was enacted to get around councilors bowing to local pressure and refusing to fulfill their statutory obligation to provide for traveler accommodation.
But progress is still painfully slow and many councils simply have not drawn down the money provided by central government for traveler accommodation. Why? Because they fear a backlash from voters.
The recent fire tragedy has brought all this into focus again. A great deal has been said in the wake of the fire. But it remains to be seen how much will actually be done and how much attitudes will change.
The solution is likely to be gradual and it will involve movement from both sides. This is not just an issue for the settled community. Travellers also must play their part.