Michael Collins and Patrick Reilly (seated L-R) cut the cake for Traveller Men's Health. Photo credit: Derek Speirs.

Michael Collins and Patrick Reilly

Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre is a national non-governmental organisation comprised of Travellers, Roma and members of the majority population working in partnership at national, regional, local and international levels. Patrick Reilly, Mental Health Coordinator, and Michael Collins, Men’s Health Worker, discuss the health inequalities that Travellers face, the work of the Men’s Health Team, and the Traveller-led creative initiatives that are giving visibility to Traveller men’s experiences and fostering solidarity with cultural organisations.

Patrick: The findings that came out of the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2010 showed a lot of health inequalities for Traveller men and women. A key finding was in relation to life expectancy, as Traveller men live 15 years less than non-Traveller men and Traveller women live 11 years less than non-Traveller women.

As we always say, cancer, stroke, all those diseases don’t attack me and Michael’s body any different than a settled person. But what we do see is we’re dying at a faster and a much higher rate than non-Travellers and that’s the health inequalities, going back to institutional discrimination. We look at the whole social determinants, like access to education, accommodation, employment, all these things impact on your life. If you look at mental health, suicide rates are seven times higher for Traveller men, it’s five times higher for Traveller women. It accounts for 11% of Traveller deaths. No community should be experiencing that.

These statistics demonstrate the urgent need to address Traveller health inequalities. The core of our work is the community development approach; nothing for us without us. So, programmes were established because of the need and the wants of the Traveller community.

Men’s health and mental health, you can’t separate them, they interlink. If you have poor physical health, it’s going to impact your mental health and vice versa. The Men’s Health Team does a variety of programmes, but the overall objective is to improve Traveller men’s health, raising awareness of what’s out there and giving proper accessible information to the community. It’s a two-pronged approach of working with the government and statutory bodies, but also working with the community.

Poet Geoff Finan speaks about the Gloke project at First Fortnight Festival 2021. Photo credit: Glen Bollard.

Michael: My role would be the on-the-ground men’s health worker. I’ve been working with Traveller men in Finglas, Coolock and Ballymun for a number of years now. Traveller men want to get out there, they want to mix, they want to talk. I organise different groups. I go out and meet the men, build up trust.

It’s making them aware of what’s out there. Traveller men are mad for work, they want to work. But it’s hard to get a job because you’re a Traveller. You have to hide your identity, I had to do it. Change your address from a Traveller site to a settled person’s address. Change your accent. I understand all that from Traveller men. And then when you are in employment, it’s hiding your identity while you’re employed. You’re always conscious that you’re a Traveller. If you’re going out to a certain area, a certain pub or restaurant, there’s always that fear that you mightn’t get in. Settled people think that doesn’t happen anymore. But you’ve never been put in that position, have you?

It’s about getting to know people themselves, that’s what it’s all about. I’d be the person who’s running most of the creative projects. We got a poet in, Geoff Finan. Geoff is absolutely brilliant. He’s a school teacher, he wants to learn all the time. I actually brought him out to the site and showed him where we lived, the living conditions. We got five or six Traveller men in and I got a couple of bad looks when I said we’re going to do a workshop on poetry. But it was the way Geoff done it, he never mentioned poems at all. He came in, he sat down, he put his recorder in the middle, and a couple of sweets and cakes, and just had a general discussion.

The lads started opening up a little bit, talking about their lives, their experiences, their education, where they’re living. We done that for six weeks, once a week. And at the end of it people were saying that they found it very comforting, that they could actually talk about whatever is going on in their lives. Then Geoff made a poem out of everything that everyone was saying, it’s a five-minute spoken word poem called Gloke. One of the lads that we work with, Martin Reilly, he performed it as part of First Fortnight (an annual festival challenging mental health prejudice and stigma through arts and cultural action).

So out of that, Geoff got back to me about another project with Traveller men. He recognized there was something around homelessness, not realizing what homelessness was as Travellers. For example, on the site that I live in, there’s 42 houses and 35 of them have mobiles at the back of them, people who will be sons and daughters or family members but they have nowhere else to go. That’s homelessness because people don’t want to be living there, in overcrowded conditions. There are a lot of Travellers in homeless accommodation, family shelters. They’re called hubs but they’re not counted as being homeless either. So, this is where the hidden homeless comes in with Travellers.

Patrick: What we’re doing, we’re giving Travellers the opportunity, through these creative workshops, to analyse what’s going on for them and to put it into their words. It’s about creating the space, it’s your experience and what you want to share. I remember the first project with Michael and Geoff, the vibrancy of that group. I was looking at lads and I was like, I remember trying to get that fella to do something for 10 minutes and he’d be gone. And he was in there for two hours, because the space was created, because Michael had made that link, this is Geoff, this is who we are, this is what we’re trying to do. And there was no one put on the spot to be asked to say something that they didn’t feel comfortable with, it’s the whole community ethos.

Our programmes are promoting positive health and positive mental health among the community in a safe environment. For the Grub Box exhibition, we worked with an American artist, Heather Harris, and the nine Traveller Primary Health Care Projects in the Eastern Region were all involved. The grub box would have been a traditional item for Travellers years ago when they’d be traveling and they’d keep certain important items in it and it was like a treasure chest to each Traveller family.

We looked at the issues that were affecting Travellers. So, each grub box had a different theme, older Travellers worked on the older Traveller grub box, we had LGBT Travellers working on the LGBT box, young Travellers working on their box. We were at the Croke Park 2019 Connecting for Life Conference and we put the Grub Box exhibition on display. Dundalk IT and DCU then requested us to bring it to their venues, and when COVID hit, we quickly took it from the in-person and we created a video and we put it online. It really captured through the creative lens the issues that are impacting on Travellers’ mental health.

Unpacking Traveller Mental Health, Positive Mental Health Grub Box, 2019. Photo credit: Derek Speirs.

The role of Traveller organisations is very important, being able to have that access to the community, that trust. And then working in collaboration with the HSE, with the Arts Council, Traveller-led initiatives. There’s so much that we can do together. But it’s about having the Traveller-led design from the early stages. Like a lot of times, what happens is people come to us, we’re thinking about doing this project and here’s what we have. Instead of saying, we’re thinking about doing this, and from the very start co-designing it.

Geoff was learning in the process, meeting Travellers, going out to the site. If you’re not interested in taking the time to talk, building up relationships, it’s not going to work. When it comes to your community, no one knows better than Travellers themselves. And that’s what makes a good partnership, relationship, and collaboration     .

Michael: A good example is Pavee Roads Home tracing family history and family trees for Travellers. The lads were saying, “I’d love to know who my great grandfather was, my great grandmother, where they came from.” What we done was actually talk to older Travellers. And the surprising thing for me, everything that older Traveller women told me about where they were born, how far they go back, Tony Hennessy, the professional genealogist we worked with, said everything that’s here is actually correct. All the Travellers, across the whole of Ireland, they’re like a library, it’s all in their heads. At the present moment, there are three family trees belonging to us in the National Library. Two hundred years down the line, someone belonging to me could call into the National Library and see photos, find out all the information.

Image shown: Pavee Roads Home. Visit to former Traveller stopping places outside Dublin

Pavee Roads Home: Visit to former Traveller stopping places outside Dublin. Photo credit: Derek Speirs.

It’s the likes of the National Library, Collins Barracks, the museums, where young Travellers are going to be visiting as part of school trips, it’s that pride in seeing your community. Travellers have always been hidden from society, outcasts. To show that Travellers have been part of Irish society, they’ve always been there, it’s about that visibility. That’s one reason why we welcome the new partnership between Pavee Point and the Arts Council. The aim is to increase Traveller and Roma inclusion, visibility and participation in arts, culture and heritage. There is great potential in arts and culture work to promote positive identity for Travellers. We’re seeing this with Traveller groups all around the country and this type of work can be powerful in promoting health and wellbeing.


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