Francis never told many people he was a Traveller, and even though we have been close friends since childhood, and in spite of the fact he had told me he was a Traveller, I never really knew or understood what this meant. We’re friends. We’ve always been friends. We both grew up surrounded by the popular wisdom of never trusting tinkers, gypos, or knackers, but to my regret and shame I never made the connection between these alien others of cultural myth and my friend. It wasn’t until I came to Ireland that I truly connected with that meaning when I was confronted with the awful reality of Pavee life in Ireland. In Ayrshire we never experienced the halting site per se; East Ayrshire Council and local business leaders were always quick to move them on before they could be a problem. Francis’ family were settled, they blended in, and so were never a problem unless the neighbours found out.
In Dublin, and all over Ireland, the plight of the Travellers is more immediate; more visible. There are more Travellers here; more purpose built housing, more halting sites, and more visible prejudice and open discrimination. This is not to say that things are better in Scotland. On the contrary, it is simply the case that it is better hidden and on a smaller scale. Having sat with Traveller friends in their brick-built homes and caravans, I have eaten their food, drank their tea, and witnessed first-hand the truly atrocious conditions in which they have been forced to live. Some are better than others, but I have seen sites without flushing toilets, without electricity, and rat infested vans accommodating new born babies supplied with water from leaking hose pipes. Dublin City Council never fails to charge people rent for such luxury, and never tires of evicting those who fall into arrears.
Yesterday, at Pavee Point in Dublin, I learned that eleven percent of Traveller deaths are the result of suicide – over six times higher than the suicide rate of the settled community. RTÉ never tells us that in the six o’clock news. Suicide – of which I am by no means an expert – as a result of depression, anxiety, and/or desperation is not something some groups of people are more susceptible to without something else, something seriously wrong happening – certainly not in these numbers at any rate. I can’t really write much more about this. It’s too close to home, and I’m not doing enough. I’m going to just let these things sit for a while and call an old friend before going to bed. Oichdhe mhath.