A friend of mine is from near Carrickmines. He told me last night about how there was a fire in a house in the Rockville estate a few years ago, and how all the neighbours rallied round because everyone was so sad that a dog died in the fire. It’s nice to see a community band together in the face of tragedy. I don’t know much else about Rockville Drive except that according to property price register the last two houses sold there in 2010 and 2012 sold for €305,000 and €250,000 respectively, so by 2015 prices their houses are probably worth a few bob, and that the current residents are adamant they don’t want the Travellers who managed to survive the Carrickmines fire in which ten of their family members perished, to be housed temporarily on land beside them.
The bias in the media towards the Carrickmines families is a reflection of the discrimination that Travellers face in wider Irish society on a daily basis. In June of this year a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, in which five Irish students died. It was without any doubt a tragedy. The tale of young people faultlessly snatched in the prime of their lives while innocently enjoying themselves made for saturation media coverage in the weeks that followed. If you search the Irish Times website from 15th to the 21st June 2015 for “Berkeley Balcony,” the week following the accident, it turns up 63 results including reports of what happened, extensive coverage of their families planning to bring the victims remains home, the Dáil being adjourned as a mark of respect, former president Mary McAleese’s letter to the New York Times regarding the US coverage of the story and Minister of State for Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan laying a wreath at the scene saying he had “never seen such an outpouring of grief and sympathy” for the victims and their families and friends. Deenihan was correct of course. For days afterwards, Liveline, RTÉ, Newstalk, were all at pains to provide live coverage of the latest instalment of the grieving families’ stories. The Irish Times had two feature pieces one the balcony collapse; one profiling the survivors and one profiling the victims and a story of how a charitable foundation donated $150,000 to the families. The detailed itemisation of their academic credentials, sporting achievements and popularity are gut-wrenching to read. I know where they were from and the nice schools they went to like Loreto in Foxrock and St. Andrew’s in Booterstown, and the colleges they went to afterwards, and what sports they liked to play. The point of it all, I suppose, is to make sure that their short lives are marked in some way.
I know very little about the ten people who died in the Carrickmines fire, other than that they were all part of the same extended family, and five of them were children under the age of ten. If you search the Irish Times website from the 9th to the 15th October, the week following the fire, it turns up 33 results. Six of these are actually covering how the Rockville residents do not want the now homeless survivors being accommodated temporarily near where they live. A couple are actually articles about Garda Tony Golden who was shot in Omeath the same weekend as the fire, some are results from the Letters page, two are about the homeless man who died in the city centre the same night, and one is about the election. Kitty Holland’s coverage is probably the nearest to a comprehensive profile of the story and its aftermath in that particular paper.
You don’t need to do much analysis to demonstrate a bias in how the stories of settled versus Traveller deaths are covered. It is literally a case of hitting a search button and counting the results in media websites. Radio broadcasts have been just as bad. Carl O’Brien reports here that one in five people would deny citizenship to Travellers. Colette Browne’s column noting the discrimination and antipathy towards Travellers is excellent but very much the exception to the rule in Irish journalism. What attention that was being paid to the unfortunate fire victims has now been switched to covering the feelings of the settled residents who the council want to house them beside. Imagine if following the Berkeley tragedy, the neighbours didn’t want the remaining J1 students housed in their building. There would have been outrage. The point is not that Berkeley didn’t deserve coverage, but that the lives of those who died in Carrickmines and the family they left behind are worth as much as those who died in Berkeley and their relatives.
Irish Travellers are simply not accepted by mainstream Irish society. Policy approaches are grounded in how to solve the Traveller “problem” and have swayed between enforced assimilation to complete exclusion and marginalisation. Intergenerational poverty is embedded alongside low educational attainment and unequal access to healthcare and housing.
They are isolated and forced to live in poor conditions because their culture does not tally with what settled communities view as normative ways of life, and are regularly positioned as deviants. There has been a blanket failure by Governments to provide adequate housing, or even transient sites allowing nomadic lifestyles to be facilitated, and there has been a refusal to acknowledge their different ethnicity. Anti-trespass laws specifically designed to exclude Travellers from particular areas are enforced with vigour. Traveller children can be legally denied school places because of parental legacy rules prioritising children whose parents attended the same school – a bar that is much too high for many members of a nomadic ethnic minority. A community in South Dublin sees a family of adults and children who have survived the trauma of a horrific fire in which ten of their family members have died as a threat to their way of life. While journalists covering this story are quite happy to report how the Rockville residents are defiant in their belief that they are not racist against Travellers – they just don’t want Travellers beside them, Colette Browne aside, no one is asking why this family were living in prefab structures that most people would associate with use as temporary offices on building sites? Why had they been living in accommodation that was designated as “temporary” ten years ago?
Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said the Carrickmines site met fire, health and safety regulations in a statement afterwards. Perhaps it did, but there are serious questions to be asked about what exactly those fire regulations were. Imagine if that fire had taken place in a school and not the home of Travellers – there would be demonstrations outside the Dáil in protest. There are hundreds of Traveller families in similar accommodation and many without access to water or sewerage facilities, in prefab akin to less-sturdy single story tenements and the Government simply doesn’t care. What use is the Knowledge Box to you when you’re living in a death-trap?
The deaths in Carrickmines are heart-breaking and the settled community who voted in the shower that housed them in prefabs have a responsibility to make sure that this never happens to another family and also to confront the anti-Traveller racism that would see them and their children on the streets before the land beside them.