The Travelling folk and a secret donation

The Travelling folk and a secret donation Presidential candidate, Peter Casey

Everyone, it seemed, deplored Peter Casey’s rather unkind remarks about Travelling people being essentially a community which camps on other people’s land and has no genuine claim to a separate ‘ethnic identity’.

Whether Travellers are a separate ethnic group is a matter of dispute. But it is certain that they are a disadvantaged group, and have been since at least the Famine time. Some Travellers may be descendants of settled Irish people made homeless by the Great Famine.

It’s interesting that mainstream Ireland is so pro-Traveller now. Fifty years ago, who supported the Travelling people? The Catholic Church (and the admirable Victor Bewley, of Dublin’s famed cafeteria).

Most specifically,  too, the much-disparaged Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid.

I have personal experience of this. Soon after I joined the Irish Press, as Woman’s Editor, in 1969, my colleague Anne Harris, encouraged by our editor Tim Pat Coogan, spent a week with the Travelling people in Dublin, including begging for alms with them.

She then wrote a series of articles about life with the Travelling people. It was compelling reportage – a day-to-day description of their lives, neither disparaging nor sentimental – but telling it like it is.

Soon after the articles were published, an envelope landed on Tim Pat’s desk, containing £100 in notes: this was a lot of money in 1969, when, if I recall right, a nice flat in Dublin 4 could be rented for about £8 a week.

The donation came from John Charles, with a discreet note that it was an anonymous gift, “for the poor travelling people”.

With Tim Pat’s blessing, I think we were allowed a few quid to go off and have celebratory drinks at Mulligans pub. The rest duly went to the Travelling people, as directed.

Fire brand

Anne, of course, later became the ground-breaking editor of the Sunday Independent (and her first husband Eoghan, the leftwing firebrand of RTÉ, now a more reflective columnist therein).

I don’t suppose any of our contemporaries would have a good word to say about the late Dr McQuaid today: but he did have a compassionate feeling for the Travellers, and, as the Dictionary of Irish Biography notes, was, all his life, a discreet, even secret, donor to the poor.



It was reported that Joan Freeman’s daughter felt obliged to come out as a lesbian to counteract rumours that Ms Freeman might be a conservative.

Heaven forfend that anyone in public life in Ireland should bear such a stigma – a conservative!

Poor old Edmund Burke. His conservative philosophy – that we should value traditions, family, history, community, religion, “the little platoons” of local life over big government – wouldn’t get much of a hearing today.


One Milkman which may not deliver

Anna Burns, the Belfast writer, won the Man Booker Prize this year, and on a humanitarian level, hers was a deserving cause. She had been so low in funds that she sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. But the prize money of £50,000 enables her to clear her debts, and when her victory was announced, her publisher, Faber’s, printed 100,000 more copies of the book, which promises more again in royalties.

The book, Milkman, is described as perfectly in tune with the times – evoking a claustrophobic period of the Troubles in the North, with feelings of menace and violence in the air. It has also been called “challenging”, which is literary-speak for “difficult”.

I’ve started to read it and got to page 50 – I feel you should always give a book at least 50 pages – and I quite see the critics’ point of view. It is indeed evocative of that atmosphere of threat, violence and foreboding, and it is also “challenging”: the characters have no proper names and the stream-of-consciousness style is favoured.


Passages of sociology sometimes interweave with the narrative, and the sectarian identity of Christian names is described in a list of allegedly banned forenames in the narrator’s community: “Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Lance, Percival, Wilbur, Wilfred, Peregrine, Norman, Alf, Reginald, Cedric, Ernest, George, Harvey, Arnold, Wilberine, Tristram, Clive, Eustace, Auberon, Felix, Peverill, Winston, Godfrey, Hector with Hubert…also not allowed.”

More prohibited names followed included Keith, Rodney, Roger, Harold and Eric. She is perhaps conjuring up the restrictive element of Belfast (though it remains anonymous) culture.

Fair play to Anna Burns – whose win, it is said, has also whetted an appetite for more novels set in Northern Ireland.

But whether I shall get to page 348 is still in the balance.