In recent days several Traveller children, one aged 9, have killed themselves. Maybe someone has a formula of words to console for this. I don’t. I have merely the words of a grief that is clear-eyed only because it is old and constantly refreshed since the days of my own childhood.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Traveller Mental Health protest at the Daíl, organised by a coalition of Traveller activists and organisations. The protest was to call attention to and demand action on the ongoing, worsening Mental Health crisis in the Traveller community, which the state is ignoring.
Although suicide rates are high in general in Ireland, particularly among the poor, workers, and marginalised groups, the rate among Travellers is highest of all by a long way. This is a result of many generations of racist oppression by the Irish State and, influenced by the state, anti-Traveller racism in Irish society in general.
In third class in my Primary School there was one Traveller. He was sat at the back of the class on his own by The Master, who beat him more or less every day. It was a punishment to be told to ‘go and sit beside the Tinker’. That boy died by suicide at 16.
Another time I saw three of The Masters beat a Traveller child one to another with closed fists in the corridor. That boy jumped in the Argideen river at the age of 22.
Strongly Influenced by their educators, who taught them sadism above all, some settled children relentlessly bullied the Traveller children, in school and out of it. When this relentless violence against them sometimes provoked a direct or displaced violent reaction from them, it was them who were blamed, who were tarred with the Cain-like reputation of violence. Sound somehow familiar? That’s because the trick works on adults too.
Only The Masters poisoning the adult mind into populating comments sections with calls for anti-Traveller pogroms are tabloid columnists, far-right youtubers, ambitious county councillors and marginal TDs and other such sociopathic and amoral elements in our society.
Hypnotised by these demons-in-the-machine, we focus on the violence of a few Travellers, all the better to be able to deny our complicity in the exponentially greater violence the settler-state inflicts on Travellers. People who loudly harass the downtrodden are doing so perhaps to drown out cries of conscience, if conscience they have.
Thus does oppression frame and punish its victims for the crimes it commits against them. It is the same experience all over the world for indigenous and nomadic peoples, as is well and heart-breakingly documented everywhere from Manitoba to Alice Springs.
The Traveller suicide crisis has been called an epidemic. This is true, but it is also part of a pandemic on a world scale, a result of a world war against indigeneity & nomadry that has been ongoing since well before 1492. And if we agree that it is an epidemic, then we must ask where is the source of the outbreak? Who poisons the minds of 9 year old Travellers to to the extent that they cannot go on living? And who distributes secondary but no less fatal poisons of sadism and bystander syndrome among the general population?
The answer is the state, always the state, through its schools and its police & legal apparatus as much as through its legislative halls and of its media channels. It is the state – indeed the Settler State – that poisons the springs of human relations, over and over, all over the globe.
There are many more stories from my primary school. There are tens and tens of thousands of examples at a national level. Travellers were and are broken as children by all kinds of institutional brutes – Gardaí, priests and nuns, teachers….
These countless appalling tragedies are not really suicides. They are murders carried out by society in which the victim is tortured into carrying out the final act themselves.
The killers in uniform who ruled with an Iron Fist over 9 year olds in primary schools are guilty of mass murder of children. They stand condemned for all eternity. So much is clear and obvious. But all the rest of those in Irish society who knew and know about the attempted genocide of Travellers and their Culture and do not speak up are accomplices to murder – it takes a village to break a child.
Institutional abuse, in which all who know about it are complicit, intended to break children and captured adults (see Direct Provision for the updated version) until they can no longer bear to live, is a mode of government and administration in 26-county Ireland, it is the dark and ever-beating heart of our state, which has had a malign and toxic influence over Irish society as a whole. While far from the only victims of our Sadean state, Travellers have always been targeted for the most savage abuse.
Despite the sad subject, the protest at The Daíl was lively and somewhat uplifting as is often the case when good people get together to do something positive about something negative. As well as Travellers, who of course made up the backbone of the protest, there was a smattering of activists from various social movements and a few flag bearers and a few TD’s from SF and PBP. However, the great bulk of the left and liberal social movements were notable by their absence – as is unfortunately so often the case in the struggle for Traveller rights.
To speak of my own profession, as an Irish writer, among people who one expects most of all to speak up for the oppressed, the eloquence of a culpable silence is, in the vast majority of cases, the only thing we hear. Our folk singers of course, the real poets in this land, are guilty of no such complicity.
So many who can take to the streets for Palestine and George Floyd – rightly so of course – do not seem to have heard of the 100 year campaign of genocidal violence by the Irish state against our own Ethnic minority. Among Irish Travellers there have been many many George Floyds. This lack of interest in the oppression of Travellers is a really significant and glaring blindspot, an ever-present elephant-sized hypocrisy that holds back the left here as well as betrays The Travellers.
I will be first to admit I don’t know what to do about all this. But not knowing how to cure a cancer should not prevent us from diagnosing it. The very least we can all do is break the silence and do not allow social and institutional crimes against the Travellers to be carried on without any kind of consequence.
I do know too that ‘Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’ and that this applies to the struggle for Traveller justice as much as it does to anything else.
When 9 year olds are killing themselves – on all our watch – we are not free in Ireland and we are certainly not at peace.