As a kid I noticed a trait developing in myself, one which has lasted in some capacity right up to today. If I ever found myself in a situation where anyone was making a complaint I would run. I still find it excruciating to sit at a table when people complain about their food. I get embarrassed if I am a passenger in a car where the driver has a fondness for horn honking. If someone skips the queue I smile and say 'my pleasure'. I just can't seem to speak out. I hate conflict and often mistake scenarios where one should speak their mind as a situation of conflict.
I am now on day four of my epic 'no smoking' adventure and I have found myself to be extremely irritable today. My freezer won't freeze and that has put me in the foulest of humour. Who was it that said 'Water, water everywhere. And not a drop to drink'? The frigging country is frozen solid and yet the perfectly good mince I bought two weeks ago grew mould as it sat in my ineffectual bloody freezer.
Where am I? Oh, yes. My irritability has prompted me to write a blog about something about which I would not normally comment, probably because I would be afraid of the conflict it may result in. It is something that I feel needs to be said, political correctness aside.
On the weekend the Sunday Independent reported something which made me ponder. Last year the Irish state provided €130m in funding for Traveller groups for a variety of projects. This does not include any national benefits also received such as social welfare. The figure quoted above came about after the United Nations asked Ireland to prove that it was not a discriminating country.
I have never been one to discriminate. Being a gay male I have had my fair share of exposure to discrimination, bigotry and acceptance issues. Growing up I lived not far from a dedicated halting site which had been the centre of controversy for many years. My parents were always respectful to travellers who knocked on our door regularly. Of course I would have viewed them with a sense of difference but I never found myself looking down my nose. As I developed into an adult and became more sensitive to 'difference' I lost any potentially latent bigotry and simply embraced the 'vive la difference' mentality.
On St Stephen's Day, as is customary in our family, a few of us jumped in the car with no particular plan and just drove out of Limerick. The roads were still in a dangerous state so going anywhere too far wasn't on the cards. We headed though the city centre and then out the other side and decided to hit Adare and the West Limerick area. I suddenly found myself in the most surreal Irish country town.
Rathkeale is located about 30km from Limerick city. It has gained notoriety in recent years for two reasons. One was a bizarre incident where locals discovered what they believed to be the image of the Virgin Mary in a tree stump in the local graveyard. At the time hundreds of people held nightly vigils and many more turned up to pay their respects. The other reason for Rathkeale hitting the headlines has been the fact that the small village has a significant traveller community. In fact 45% of the community in Rathkeale are travellers.
What strikes you the moment you enter Rathkeale is that this is no ordinary town. It is impossible not to notice the fact the the village has an unprecedented number of what one may consider to be luxury vehicles, and big luxury vehicles at that. Everywhere you look there are 4x4's, Jeeps, Range Rovers, Mercedes, BMW's. I saw two Hummers sitting on the side of the narrow main street. These vehicles are everywhere. As you move through the town you are struck by something equally bizarre. The town is full of large newly developed homes. These are buildings erected purely for the travelling community which are then boarded up permanently while the supposed inhabitants reside in state of the art mobile homes which are docked on the front lawn.
What we need to understand about the situation in Rathkeale is that the residents are made up of exceptionally wealthy travellers who have made their money through various business interests both in Ireland, the UK and Europe in areas such as furniture, antiques and car dealing. These are the very people who are claiming off the state, who are receiving millions from the government in special funding aimed at 'aiding' the traveller community. These are the people who have homes built for them which remain empty and boarded up. These are the people who seek acceptance and integration within the settled community.
One of the saddest things I saw in 2009 was the appearance of two couples on the Late Late Show who were in the middle of court proceedings to have their homes repossessed. These honest hard working individuals were victims of the boom. They were no doubt the recipients of those wonderful 100% mortgages. Whatever of it. They are loosing their homes. No help from the government. No help from the banks who dumped them in it in the first place. They will be evicted.
To witness the homes sitting idle in Rathkeale as the the Hummers and 4x4's cruise the village streets one is reminded of the image of a peacock showing it's feathers. Next year we will probably fork out another €130m in funding in order to prove to the United Nations that we are not a discriminating nation.
Events from the last year have highlighted that maybe the Irish community as a whole suffers from the very same fear of conflict that prevents me from speaking my mind on occasion. We spent years watching the government pump money into the property industry during a boom could only go bust. We said nothing. We watched the banks, crippled by greed, being bailed out by taxpayers money. We whimpered but on the whole we said or did nothing. We knew for years that members of the Catholic Church were abusing children both emotionally, physically and sexually. We said nothing. When the brave few finally opened their hearts and described their pain, still there were deniers.
Take a trip through Rathkeale some day. It will stun you. But it may just give you a perfect landscaped view of the Irish psyche. Shocking examples of breaches in law, political governance, social etiquette, financial ethics and childhood innocence take place regularly in full view of a nation of ostriches with their heads in the sands. Maybe its time we stopped fearing the repercussions of speaking out and said what we think.