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Racist Ireland's Olympic-Sized Shame

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The racism was straight out of the traps when Ireland's Olympic boxing heroes won silver and gold in London. It was disheartening, predictable, and widely supported.

Last week, 25-year-old women's boxer Katie Taylor captivated Ireland with a stunning performance in the Olympics' first ever female boxing competition, a competition she had fought and lobbied to introduce to the Games. Taylor, a hugely inspirational figure for sport, women, and the people of Ireland, very deservedly took home the gold medal, garnering major international media attention on the way.

Not all the coverage was positive. Australian newspaper The Age responded to Taylor's success with a lazy rehearsal of Irish stereotypes: "punch-drunk Irish", "Guinness and whiskey have sent the Irish off their heads" and, to the bafflement of many, "nor is [Taylor] surrounded by people who'd prefer a punch to a potato." The USA Today newspaper also used some convenient paddy-whackery and wild inaccuracy in their piece on Taylor's victory: "On the emerald-green isle, pints of Guinness flowed freely, perhaps enough to replenish the Irish Sea. The 'punters' inside betting parlors wagered pounds as if they were bits of candy." (For a start, Ireland uses the euro, not the pound. But anyway...)

The Irish ambassador to Australia was outraged, and fired off an angry letter to The Age newspaper, which was forced into an embarrassing apology. Meanwhile, the backlash against USA Today also led to a wounded climb-down.

But the ugliest racism wasn't directed at Taylor, and it didn't come from a convenient villain in the form of a foreign journalist. The real bile came straight from within the heart of Ireland itself, and it was aimed squarely at silver boxing medallist John Joe Nevin. For Nevin might be an Olympic hero, and he might be the golden boy of Irish boxing, but he is also an Irish Traveller. Travellers, who lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, are Ireland's oldest indigenous minority community and a significant minority in the UK as well. Everybody knows it's okay to hate them.

It started, as so many controversies do today, on Twitter. Shortly after Nevin took silver, a popular Dublin restaurant sent a "joke" tweet that Nevin's family would soon be coming for the lead and the copper - in effect, calling them thieves. The joke had already been widely circulated by text message. The restaurant was pilloried for its casual racism, and promptly made an unconvincing apology. But it wasn't long before many other Twitter users started to ask what the problem was. Sure, wasn't it all a bit of fun? Don't you have a sense of humour? Some Twits even suggested that there was a ring of truth to the comments because Travellers are, to borrow another insidious phrase in Ireland's daily use, "thieving gypsies."

Mullingar, Nevin's home town, had cheered on their local wonder boy of boxing during his Olympic bouts. Travellers and settled people mixed together, side-by-side, with the excitement around Nevin breaking down the many barriers that divide the two communities. Some watched in local pubs, but Nevin's family weren't among these crowds; because they are members of the Travelling community, they were refused service. Many think that was fair: one Traveller, of the many who were in local bars that day, appears to have assaulted one barman - ergo, no Travellers could possibly be permitted in a pub (meanwhile, of course, the rest of the teetotal town piously prayed and nobody said so much as a bad word to anyone else).

Incidentally, Nevin's family were served in The Covert bar later that day, and by all accounts, the atmosphere was electric.

Nevin expressed disappointment at the racism directed at his family, but said he was heartened by the groundswell of support in his home town and wanted to put the incident behind him. He hopes his victory might build a bridge between Travellers and settled people.

Being denied entry to bars (or shops, or hotels, or hairdressers) is a common problem for Ireland's Travelling community, but it's the least of their worries. Over the last few years, Irish Governments have savagely slashed the most basic education services for thousands of Traveller children - children who never chose to born into a widely reviled and vilified community. It effectively ended even the charade of a decent chance for many, but there was no clamour for a reversal.

There are approximately 30,000 Travellers in Ireland. Evidence shows that Traveller women live 11.5 years less than the general population, while Traveller men die, on average, 15 years sooner. Travellers are disadvantaged in terms of access to health services. Suicide amongst Traveller men is six times higher than the general population. Infant death is significantly higher.

Travellers were, until well into the 1990s, segregated from mainstream education; many mothers tried to have their children educated before that time but were not supported by the State. The legacy of educational disadvantage, as in many working-class communities, is that parents are illiterate, the children do not receive the same supports as their peers in wealthier households, and there is little or no tradition of education. Illiteracy amongst Travellers is still high in Ireland. The argument that a nomadic lifestyle is incompatible with standard education is bunkum: plenty of countries, including Kenya and Mongolia, have managed to provide systems of education for nomads. There's no reason Ireland couldn't use a simple network of education centres for traveller children.

In any case, the point is largely moot, as the majority of Travellers have effectively been forced to settle and integrate. Nevin is a settled traveller. But even when on their best behaviour, being identified as from a Traveller family closes doors - as seen by the treatment meted out to Nevin. Travellers are forced into authorised housing sites, but basic amenities are regularly substandard. There are often committees and reports on Traveller issues, but one of the most recent had to be relaunched, two years after publication, because of lack of interest.

Unemployment is rife, as very few people will give a Traveller a job, yet Travellers are routinely labelled as dole cheats. Perhaps understandably, alcohol abuse is higher than in the general population. It would be worth wearily reciting the rest of the statistics if anybody cared, but nobody does.

It's always a one-way conversation in Ireland. The dismissive cry of "PC brigade" - as though political correctness is a cursed nuisance that stops us from being abusive to vulnerable people - rings out any time a "bleeding heart liberal" points out the systematic discrimination, vilification, and poverty endured by Travellers, and the conversation immediately turns to what Travellers must do in order for the settled community to accept them: they must be free of any taint of crime, the tiny minority of wealthy Travellers must all pay their taxes, Traveller gang feuds must end, and the problem of domestic violence must be curtailed. Although, amazingly, the same problems have also been recorded amongst many settled people, these are indeed serious problems across certain sections of the Travelling community.

However, if a Traveller commits a crime, the settled community wails that the entire Travelling community are somehow collectively responsible. Travellers, rather than the police force, are told that they themselves must tackle any crime committed by a Traveller, or face the opprobrium of the nation, and legitimately have their genuine social needs for health, education, and housing, ignored. Although they may try, vigilantism is no mean feat for the thousands of law-abiding Travellers who are struggling to simply hold their families together, a struggle that doesn't tend to leave a lot of time for focus groups, community activism, or even much self-reflection.

Generations of travellers, including Johnny Doran, the well-known Furey family, and the Keenans, have made an enormous contribution to Irish music, while Ireland's famous storytelling tradition would probably have been long extinct without the contribution of Travellers. Their contribution has been vital to the very essence of Ireland, but is so widely overlooked that many Travellers themselves are unaware of it. Even when a Traveller, such as John Joe Nevin, achieves a spectacular and monumental feat, he is promptly put back in his place. What message does that send to Traveller children? Why should they feel any loyalty to the society that, even if they won an Olympic medal, seems to hate them, exclude them, and vilify them?

The same settled people who would be horrified by attempts to paint all black or gay people the same either don't care, or are perfectly happy to overlook, the fact that the majority of Travellers are decent, law-abiding citizens. They think it's perfectly okay - funny, even - to make jokes at the expense of an oppressed minority, and anyone who disagrees is being "overly PC" (and they don't recognise that mocking oppressed people from a position of privilege isn't humour, it is bullying). They couldn't care less that a decent human being, who has committed no crime, faces regular misery and humiliation when he wants to go to the local shop, just because he is a Traveller. People who could otherwise lay claim to decency are indifferent to the suffering of a child who learns early on that the world hates her. This is the frightening lack of empathy that comes with the dehumanisation of racism.

The settled majority are rarely, if ever, interested in addressing how the problems in the Travelling community came about, or taking a look at their own prejudices. It's much easier to take the lazy option and write off Travellers, en masse, as lying, cheating, thieving, drunken, antisocial, welfare frauds, choosing early graves, hell-bent on mayhem, and enjoying a wonderful life at the expense of the taxpayer - ignore all the evidence that clearly says otherwise. Social media conversations are dominated by vilification of Travellers, even from well-educated people, who may occasionally pause to concede that there might be a decent Traveller in there, if only they weren't buried under a pile of reprobates.

So ingrained are these prejudices that Traveller rights organisations, absurdly, constantly have to trot out every time the media reports on a crime committed by a Traveller or Travellers, pointing out that they abhor crime, and that not all Travellers are the same. But perhaps nobody should be surprised that the same psychological principles that lead to some self-hating Jewish people, or the internalised homophobia of certain gay people, might also translate to Travellers.

Too many people in Ireland assume that the problems afflicting the Travelling community are caused by something intrinsically wrong with Traveller culture ("Travellers have culture?" some will ask, ignorant of their many positive cultural and linguistic contributions to Ireland), and if they could only be a little bit more like us, then they'd be okay. It's a notion assumes that we have the right to rule Travellers, and directly informs public policy: it is the very definition of racism.

For the Olympic record, Nevin is not the only boxing champion to endure racism at the hands of his own countrymen. After Muhammad Ali took gold for the United States in 1960, he was refused service in a Louisville restaurant and told: "We don't serve Negroes." Ali famously threw his medal in the river. Both Ali and Nevin were good enough to win Olympic medals for their country, just not good enough to be served in a public place. That was America's shame. This is Ireland's.