Terry Prone, a regular commentator on national television and radio, was at Gallagher’s Hotel in Letterkenny recently to speak on the role of media in addressing issues relating to racism and sectarianism.
The seminar, “Making Headlines”, was part of Respecting and Connecting Communities, a project of the Donegal Travellers Project and Donegal County Council.
In a characteristically thoughtful, lively and straightforward talk, Terry, chairperson of The Communications Clinic, likened the media to a hungry lion. Feed it interesting things, and it will be happy, she said. Don’t, “and it will eat you”, she added.
Hugh Friel of Donegal Travellers Project (DTP), who hosted the seminar, knows about that. A recent initiative has seen the DTP work more closely with Donegal media to promote projects Donegal’s Traveller community is involved in.
“We’re quite clear about where we stand as a lead organization and a voice for the Traveller community,” Hugh said. There are about 280 Traveller families living in Donegal.
The Building Ethnic Peace Project, which began in 2006, has focused on relationships between the Traveller and settled communities with intercultural events, seminars and other programmes to build understanding. The idea for Respecting and Connecting Communities grew from that.
“Intercultural days need to be run, but there is a bigger picture there,” Hugh said. What was needed, he said, was an integrated strategy to address conflict between the Traveller and settled communities, and he cited ongoing conflicts at Long Lane in Letterkenny and in Ballyshannon as examples.
DTP led that effort, working with the county council and the gardaí, the Health Service Executive and Donegal Vocational Education Committee. A draft strategy has been distributed to those groups and other stakeholders.
“There is a strategy there we can work on, an interagency approach for conflicts that arise,” Hugh said.
The initiative is supported by Peace III Programme, managed for the Special EU Programmes Body by Donegal County Council.
As well as the draft strategy, Respecting and Connecting Communities also included an intercultural day earlier this year that drew 150 people to Letterkenny; a talent show planned for south Donegal in the coming weeks; and the promotion of events in the Traveller community through the Donegal media.
“What we want to do is impact on the settled community and the Traveller community,” he said. The media effort was designed to make the media aware – and by extension the wider public – of projects that come from the Traveller community and the talent that exists there. “It gets people to be aware of Traveller culture,” he said.
Hugh has a broad remit within the DTP. He is an accommodations worker, a men’s health development worker, an anti-racism worker and an activist who also engages in mediation with the gardaí. He sits on numerous national committees, including the National Traveller Monitoring Committee, the Micheir Whidin, a Traveller-only forum for policy and the National Traveller Health Forum.
Born in Ballyare, Ramelton, where he lives, Hugh is clearly proud of DTP’s advances in Traveller health, though he recognizes there is more work to be done. An All-Ireland health study showed that Traveller men died on average 15 years earlier than settled men: That means that the mortality rate for Traveller men is what it was for settled men in the 1940s, Hugh said. Mental health problems are also on the rise among Traveller men, he said.
Hugh’s work takes him door to door to promote Traveller men’s health, from issues of cholesterol and exercise, to the importance of self-check for testicular cancer, to offering referrals to GPs.
“You need Traveller men to talk to Traveller men,” Hugh said. “They don’t even talk to their wives about it.” The DTP has seen results from its other health promotion efforts: A DTP health initiative targeting Traveller women in recent years has coincided with an increase in women’s lifespans.
DTP is also promoting leadership training in the community, and including young Travellers in the training. “It’s great to see young Travellers take leadership roles,” Hugh said.
And he does not absolve Traveller adults from responsibility: Hugh said he believed the education system and parents must together ensure that Traveller children stay in school. He said an education system that does not follow up on Traveller children who leave school early should be penalised, as should parents who allow their children to leave school early – sometimes as early as 12 or 13. Hugh said a high percentage of Travellers in Donegal are unable to read or write because of early school leaving.
Often schools may have low expectations for Traveller children because they expect them to leave school early, Hugh said, adding, “That is not acceptable in this day and age.” He said he would favour an investigation into what he called the injustices done to the Traveller community in terms of the education system.
“The system is wrong if it doesn’t have any expectations for the child,” he said.
Issues of racism and sectarianism have become part of a broader public discussion here as new communities have arrived in Ireland. But Irish Travellers have long been racism’s targets, Hugh said.
“It’s never been recognized within the Irish context that Travellers experience racism on a daily basis,” Hugh said. “I know a lot of people blame Travellers, but I don’t think that’s the way forward.”