It’s easy to be sympathetic when you don’t have to sacrifice or change. It’s also easy to be sympathetic when you know it won’t ever mean admitting you’re wrong.
Ten people died last week in a fire in Dublin. Five adults, five children- two families. As far as I know, two people survived- a boy of 14 and his four year old brother. Their home destroyed, as well as their neighbours’.
And on one level, the way the country reacted was appropriate: with shock and condolences to the families. Our Taoiseach (that’s a Prime Minister) has asked that flags be flown at half mast during the days of their funerals- which, in a small country, feels appropriate. Sympathy has poured out from everywhere. In all the media- the papers, the radio, the TV news- we’ve heard the story of the families destroyed overnight. Of course we have. And I do believe that it’s mostly genuine. Our hearts do go out to those children, their parents, and all the people left behind.
Okay. You see, here’s where things get difficult. More difficult.
The two families were members of the Travelling community. The way that Ireland treats its Traveller citizens is shameful. I’m not going to try and say things like “last acceptable prejudice”- anyone who’s paying attention can tell that plenty of prejudices are acceptable. But there is an exceptional shamelessness to the way that Irish settled people discriminate against Travellers. I’ve heard people who felt like they should couch their racism against other groups in polite language using the most blatant anti-Traveller slurs with no indication that anyone would have a problem with it. In Ireland- that wonderfully inclusive land of equality, or so we’re led to believe- Travellers are them.
I remember that when I lived in my last apartment, people would regularly warn me about the Travellers living up the hill from us. Of course, that wasn’t quite the word they used to describe them. People were concerned for me, of course- don’t you know that they would be causing all sorts of hassle? Don’t I know I should be careful, living close to them?
(I shouldn’t have to point out that nothing ever happened, by the way. Or that even if it did, it wouldn’t matter a damn or make racist generalisations acceptable.)
An aside: I use the term ‘racist’ to describe anti-Traveller prejudice. This might seem odd to people from outside Ireland, given that most Travellers are as pale as I am. However: discrimination against Travellers in Ireland is based on their ethnic origin. Travellers are a distinct ethnic and cultural group. The Settled community have immense power to institutionalise the ways in which we marginalise and discriminate against Travellers. Travellers may be (mostly) white, but in Ireland they sure as hell aren’t White.
Okay. Here’s what I’ve been leading up to.
While we were busy ostentatiously displaying our grief- over people we wouldn’t have given the time of day to if they were alive- we never stopped hating them.
The day after those ten people died, their relatives were turned away from a local bar where they tried to buy lunch.
Some of the comments on the article I just linked to (I’m not going to blank out names, by the way, as they were posted publicly on a far more popular site than this):
To too many people in this country, those two men aren’t people. They’re not individuals. They have no characteristics of their own except one- and that’s a word I’m not going to write here.
It gets worse. A lot worse.
You see, more than one home burned down that night. Fifteen people now need somewhere to live- and emergency accommodation is being made ready for them to move into on Thursday.
I’m trying to think of what would happen if settled Irish people, survivors of a tragedy that had flags flying at half-mast throughout the country, were provided with somewhere to stay. What welcome they would receive from their new neighbours. People who had sighed sadly along to the radio news, shaken their heads when they heard of the two babies who died along with their parents and siblings.
I can’t imagine them blockading the area in protest.
I can’t imagine people reacting like this to hearing about it:
This is not our Last Acceptable Prejudice. Travellers are not the only group of people we treat this way. And it is always unacceptable. But this week, the way that Irish people feel about our Travelling community is on display for us all to see. In a way that most settled Irish people spend our lives ignoring. In a way that I spend most of my life ignoring.
We have normalised our hatred of Travellers to the extent that we clap each other on the back for kicking a grieving family out of our businesses and turning them away from our communities. We act as if everyone born a Traveller is tainted, tar every single one with the same brush, and then act like it’s nothing to do with us when some want nothing to do with settled people. We treat an Irish culture like its people are vermin. We leave people to rot in horrifying living conditions and when those conditions kill them all at once- instead of over years in drastically reduced life expectancies– we pretend to care.
We pretend to care until the moment we are called upon to allow one of them to be in the same space as one of us.
I’m ashamed. And if you’re a settled Irish person, you should be too.
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