Having spent the last twenty years writing about strong women, I love to encounter them in real life, also. So, I was delighted to learn this week of history made by Eileen Flynn. She has just become the first woman from the Irish Travelling community to become a Senator in the upper house of the Irish Parliament.
Eileen and her twin sister Sally grew up on Labre Park, what’s known as a halting site, in Ballyfermot, Dublin. Conditions at the site, a mix of mobile homes and houses, could be poor. “We could go a week without heating,” she reports. Not surprisingly, this had an ongoing effect on the family’s health and on education.
Her mother died of pneumonia at just 48, when the twins were ten years old. For Eileen, hard times were just beginning. Little more than a week after her mother passed away, she was in a serious road accident, breaking numerous bones including her hips, legs, and an arm. She would spend the next two years in and out of hospital.
Losing her mother at such a young age, plus the undoubted disruption caused by the treatment of her injuries, made school life difficult for Eileen. “I was suspended eight times, I was expelled once… but thankfully at the school I went to, the teachers all believed in me.”
That faith was rewarded when both Eileen and Sally became the first Travellers from Labre Park to go on to third-level education. Eileen went to Trinity College Dublin on an access course, then Ballyfermot College, and got her degree in community and youth work at Maynooth University.
For the past ten years, Eileen has campaigned for the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women’s Forum, and Ballyfermot Traveller Action Programme, on topics including equal rights, abortion rights, housing, and anti-racism.
According to the last census in 2016, there are over 30,000 members of the Irish Travelling community, and bias against them is still very much a part of life. Eileen admits that, if anyone commented on her country accent in the past, she would claim her father’s home town of Kilkenny. “I’d never say Dublin because of being recognised as a Traveller and being refused [entry].”
When she married her husband Liam White, who is from the settled community in Donegal, she was concerned the hotel would look up her background on social media and cancel the 2018 wedding booking because of her background. “As a Traveller, it’s a fear you have all the time.”
She stood for election to the Seanad Éireann (the Senate) earlier this year but just missed out on a seat. Fortunately, out of the 60 seats in the upper house, 11 are filled with appointees by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin. Eileen was the only non-party political nominee, as the others are from the three parties which make up the new coalition.
The appointment of a nominee to represent the Travelling community was recommended in a Seanad report from early 2020, after they were granted status as an indigenous ethnic minority within the Republic of Ireland, and it was recognised that they ‘are still experiencing stigma, longstanding prejudice, discrimination, racism, social exclusion and identity erosion.’
Making her maiden speech in the Dublin Convention Centre last Monday, the new Senator Flynn said she hoped to be, “that person that will break down the barriers for Traveller people and also for those at the end of Irish society.” It is her ambition to introduce hate crime legislation in the Republic of Ireland.
I had not come across Eileen Flynn when I created characters from the British Romany and Irish Traveller communities for BONES IN THE RIVER, but I have a feeling Queenie Smith would definitely have voted for her!
This week’s Word of the Week is eudaimonia, from eu meaning well, and daimon or daemon meaning a minor deity or guardian spirit. Aristotle described it as doing and living well, leading to the word ‘well-being’. It differs from happiness as that is a subjective concept, whereas eudaimonia is based on what it means to live a human life well.
Read the illustrated version of this blog, and leave a comment if you wish, over on Murder Is Everywhere.