23 June 2018

Limerick and Killlaoe
Diocesan Synod 2018:
Report on Rathkeale
Pre-social Cohesion Group

The Limerick and Killaloe Diocesan Synod today hears a report on the work of the Rathkeale Pre-social Cohesion Group (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Limerick and Killaloe Diocesan Synod takes place later today [23 June 2018] in Villiers School, Limerick. During the Synod, I hope to speak to the following report, which is included in the book of reports (p 50):

Report on Rathkeale Pre-social Cohesion Group

The Rathkeale Pre-social Cohesion Group began working in Autumn 2013, faced with the dilemmas in a town that is the first in Ireland with a majority Traveller population. Today, Rathkeale is moving rapidly towards being a 100% Traveller town.

Although most Travellers are not present on Census night, and the ‘trader Traveller’ men are absent from the town for most of the year, up to 80% of private property in the town may now be Traveller owned. Yet the poorer Travellers continue to find difficulties in accessing government services and supports. For its part, the mainstream community has moved in large numbers to the surrounding area, but continues to regard Rathkeale as its town.

The Pre-social Cohesion Group has tried to fill many of the gaps left by other agencies and bodies, engaging with cross-cultural awareness education for members of both communities, encouraging greater openness to mutual understand, and organising workshops and meals together. Ráth Caola Le Chéile, a community group, has emerged from these workshops and focuses on getting to know each other’s cultures and ways better.

Travellers have taken part in Tidy Towns efforts, and a project to renovate the Roman Catholic Parish Hall was initiated by a mixed group of travellers and mainstream community members, engaging in the fund-raising together.

Both communities have come together for an annual retreat in Glenstal Abbey and for major feasts in the Church calendar, including Christmas lights and carols events, a shared Christmas dinner, Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and a Good Friday ecumenical event.

The project has given comprehensive support to non-literate Rathkeale Travellers accessing State and other services, and this is a pressing need. The project facilitated meetings between Gardai and Travellers to discuss approaches to discuss the 2017 Christmas return of Rathkeale Travellers.

The Mainstream Community has yet to come to terms with the loss of the town, while the Travelling Community sees its social and civil place through the lens of discrimination. Travellers consistently report prejudicial and even racist behaviour at an official level, and some claim being threatened with loss of benefits if they complain. Rathkeale Travellers see education, especially second level education, as attempted assimilation and resist sending their children to secondary school.

The Rathkeale Travellers see themselves as a group apart and avoid association with other Traveller groups. They report being excluded from hotels, cafés, restaurants and public houses, but proprietors consistently report that the exclusion is based on behavioural issues rather than discrimination.

Many people say there has been a softening of inter-community relationships as a result of the pre-cohesion project, and there have been significant gains. But these are fragile and rest almost on trust, which remains fragile. Within both communities, the conviction that the future can be different is weak.

Funding and staffing remain a problem as is planning for the future. But the project offers a unique voice in this situation, speaking from a faith perspective, and offering a voice and presence from the three main churches at the heart of life in Rathkeale.

Patrick Comerford

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