Chris McDonagh is a Campaigns Officer at Friends, Families and Travellers and also runs @TravellersAgainstRacism. Chris is an Irish Traveller and grew up travelling around the United Kingdom. Here he writes on his personal experiences of growing up within the Travelling community, both good and bad.
Growing up as an Irish Traveller in England was difficult. From a young child I remember the hate and prejudice that was aimed at my family, just for being what others saw as “different”.
Some of my earliest memories are of being spat at or having our trailer attacked by people who had nothing better to do, while the men were away from the camp working, and I remember the fear and disgust I felt. I didn’t have a clue what we had done wrong. An innocent child should not have to feel like that. This was the early 90s.
I was around five years of age, when I wandered away from the camp. I remember I wanted to spend my pocket money (50p!) on some chewing gum which had the rub-on tattoos inside the packet. I was walking for what must have been around 20 minutes before I realised, I was lost. I started to panic and I didn’t know where I was, or the way back to the camp, so I sat down on the kerbside and broke down in tears. I must have been crying for 10 minutes and worrying what I was going to do when some people approached me. It was a couple of boys from the local settled community and they all surrounded me. I was afraid as they were all older than me and I felt intimidated. They asked me my name and when I told them, one (with red hair) pushed me onto the ground whilst racially abusing me. Thankfully, someone passing in a car stopped and told them to leave me alone and took me back to the camp, but unfortunately I don’t remember her name. But I will always remember her face. She was a guardian angel sent to help me that day and I wish I could thank her now. She helped a lost child get back home.
Moving from camp to camp was a life I grew up in and it was a life I enjoyed. I enjoyed seeing new places and exploring new things with my brothers and cousins and we would make dens in the woods and forests, and pretend we were ‘cowboys and Indians’, eating berries and making bows using birch branches and a string. Life was simple but it was good.
We moved to a new camp in Manchester and the local children decided to come over and see what was going on. They were stood on the outskirts of the camp when myself and a few cousins walked over to greet them. After saying hello, they then asked were we ‘G*ppos’? Can you imagine walking up to somebody you’ve never met and them using insulting words to describe you, or your children? This behaviour is a learned trait and this word was obviously used to describe Travellers and Gypsies by somebody close to them. We had to grow a thick skin and learn to get on with things from a very young age, and I don’t think it is right for a child to have to do that. A child should be playing with their friends and learning about the world, but we were being taught how to handle racism and how we should expect this abuse from members of a ‘civilised’ society. We had to toughen up and grow up much quicker than members of the settled community. Not by choice, but by necessity.
In the mid-90s, we moved into a brick and mortar house due to a family member’s ill health, and the constant harassment by the police, local authorities and random members of society. By then, myself and my brothers started at a new school.
On my first day I remember walking into the classroom and introducing myself and immediately the inevitable whispers and looks started. I was seated at my own table and given a book to draw in. The rest of the class were taught whilst I was left to my own devices. Soon break time came, and we all went out into the school yard. Everyone went their own way, until I was left alone in the middle of the playground. My brothers were in a different part of the school as they were older. I looked around at everyone with friends and felt alone. A boy approached me who was in my class and introduced himself to me. We immediately became friends and he was the first person my age who helped me understand that not everyone was the same. He showed compassion and the hand of friendship at a time I felt alone and outcast. I realised that not everyone was the same, though I still had to put up with racism and abuse from students and teachers alike. We are still friends to this day.
Another day we were learning about our times tables, and the teacher told me to stand up and recite my 3 times table. When I did, he made me stand at the front of the classroom and told me I was speaking wrong, because I said ‘three’ different to him. I am an Irish Traveller and speak with an Irish accent, so of course I am going to sound different to an educated man from the settled community. He told me to repeat after him and speak the same way he did, and I remember looking at the floor and my face burning with shame whilst doing what he said. He didn’t attempt to stifle the laughter from the other children. I can still feel that shame today if I think about it.
The reason I have shared these few examples from my childhood is because despite the change in times and what is now deemed acceptable or appropriate, this type of behaviour is still happening. Children, who are so pure that they don’t have the sense to understand, and adults from minority ethnic communities, are still experiencing this abuse and hate on a daily basis. The times have changed, and what was once deemed acceptable is now rightly being challenged, but the hate that Traveller and Gypsy people receive is not. The media print stories that spread stereotypes, programme makers are making programmes that not only show us in a bad light but spread blatantly untrue ‘facts’. The authorities that are supposed to protect us as members of society close down sites and reject our planning permissions when all we want is somewhere to live. We are under attack from all sides and it has always been this way. This is the way I have grown up. Outcasted and neglected, accused and denied basic human rights. The world is slowly moving on and more people are getting equal opportunities, but we are still ignored. We are still abused across the board. We have had over 500 years of prejudice and hardship, how much more must we endure? When will we finally be recognised for who we are? We are human beings too and we deserve equality. Our children deserve a chance to live without fear of being abused, and the opportunity to be whatever they want to be without stereotypes and hate following them. I fear I won’t be here when that day comes, and I have come to accept that. But for the sake of my children, I hope our time for acceptance comes soon.
I would like to make a personal request. As somebody who hopefully now has a better idea of the kind of suffering Travelling people endure, I hope you want to help us make a change. And you CAN help us. You can help us by spreading awareness of the easily remedied issues we face (there are many), you can challenge the anti-Traveller/Gypsy hate and rhetoric when you see it, whether it is online, on media sites, on your local MP’s manifesto. Help us campaign to get sites for us to live on. Help your children understand that we are people who have been trod on by society for over 500 years, and that treating us different because we are seen as ‘different’ is wrong. Because we are not different. We are people too. We have needs and aspirations. Feelings and fears. We are all people in this world and we should celebrate each other’s cultures. We should be celebrating each other as friends.