John Connors, Irish Traveller: a man you don’t meet every day

05 April 2016

By Bernard Rorke

Much controversy followed the recent appearance on TV of John Connors, the quiet-spoken star of the hit crime drama Love/Hate and advocate for Traveller rights on Ireland’s Late Late Show.  Connors gave a moving account of the impact of racism upon his community, but what was controversial and sparked media debate was the hectoring and shrill reaction of the show’s host, Ryan Tubridy to hearing a few home truths about the state of hate in Ireland.

Tubridy seemed unable to comprehend the depth of anger and profound sense of hurt experienced by people who face prejudice every day, and his reactions veered from the obtuse to the downright disrespectful. Connors spoke softly of the anger he feels within: “You get it from the moment you’re born, as a Traveller, society telling you you’ll amount to nothing – and that does build up in you as a rage, that you will never be accepted, that no matter what you do as an individual you will always be the same to them: a drunken, thieving, smelly knacker.”

Caption: The rage within

When Connors spoke of media bias fuelling anti-Traveller prejudice, Tubridy interjected “Nonsense …. Absolute nonsense …. It’s a fair crack of the whip most of the time … do you not think you sound like a victim, sort of defensive victims?” In a tone that verged on the petulant, Tubridy then asked: “Tell me, on a typical day, what are you, personally John, deprived of in society?”

Caption: Late Late interview: Connors explains prejudice to host Tubridy

Connors quietly described his direct experiences of prejudices past and present. He explained how hateful is the K-word, “knacker” used day in, day out in Irish society about Travellers: “When somebody calls me a knacker, I jump immediately and I feel fear … fear and shame, because straight away, you’re made to feel different. Straight away, you’re marginalized … it’s a fearful thing.” He recalled as an eight-year-old being grabbed and thrown to the ground by a teacher who called him a “dirty, smelly knacker,” and the early realization that as a Traveller he would always be blamed.

Connors described the damage done by decades of state-driven efforts to assimilate Travellers since the 1963 government’s Report of the Commission on Itinerancy. The report sought a solution to the “problem of itinerants”, contemplated “itinerant children being taken from their families and placed in institutions,” and looked for the assimilation of Travellers and their “absorption into the general community.”

Connors makes the case that this official denial of Traveller identity paved the way for people to dehumanize Travellers, and described the policies which followed as ethnocide, “systematic oppression by the State that forced us off the road” and onto the margins and edges of towns, suburbs and cities: “We wanted to live our way of life but we were forced into your world, we’ve to deal with your world and now suddenly we’re not flourishing in your society and it’s all our fault when we were forced in there, off the road.”

As for the consequences of those policies today, Connors asserted that the tragedy in Carrickmines amounted to “murder by negligence, fuelled by racism.” The fire last year at the temporary halting site in south Dublin which claimed the lives of 10 people, including five children and a young pregnant mother, occurred while Connors was making the recently screened documentary I am Traveller. In the film, Connors visits the site of the fire with 15-year-old survivor also called John Connors who describes how he got five-month-old Mary Connors – who subsequently died in hospital – and four-year-old Thomas Connors out of the blaze.

Connors spoke of his anger at how soon this tragedy was forgotten about, and how nobody wants to ask questions about how the willful neglect by the council contributed to the loss of so many lives. Even more shocking and still incomprehensible to many were the protests from ‘settled’ residents, protests which prevailed to prevent the traumatised survivors being accommodated anywhere nearby.

Caption: Connors meets with survivors of the Carrickmines tragedy

When Connors looked online in the aftermath and read hate-filled comments saying 10 less knackers, it made him realize “that the State’s policies, backed by the media, have completely dehumanised Travellers. Travellers are dehumanised because when you can say things like that about 11 people who were burned to death like that, there’s something wrong.” It caused Connors to reflect in another interview that his documentary has “hardly scratched the surface” of how deep runs the hatred towards Travellers.

At a couple of points in the Late Late interview, the plainly baffled Tubridy remarked that Connors sounded angry and aggrieved, at one point Tubridy actually said “listening to you now, whether you like it or not, you sound like an activist.”

What was heartening was the amount of criticism of Tubridy’s handling of the interview. Connors added his voice to those critics, accusing Tubridy of "denial of racism" on the programme in a powerful Facebook post. The actor listed examples of some of the worst incidents of discrimination faced by Travellers, before addressing Tubridy directly.

"See Ryan you and me live in different worlds. My world has shaped me in such a way that I have the ability look past stereotypes, question popular opinion, think for myself and have empathy for people who have it hard or are experiencing injustice. You live in a comfortable bubble. Enjoy it … If you didn’t like the anger I showed then ask yourself why."

Tubridy’s baffled incomprehension in response to Connors impassioned testimony spoke volumes about ‘settled privilege.’ Connors has often warned that the daily humiliations, the racist insults and exclusion are stoking a deep rage within the Traveller community, and what was powerful about this short interview was that so much of Ireland’s dark past and troubled present was laid bare. For the future, he insists that the rage within must be quietened with acceptance, for the time for equality and dignity is long overdue. And for starters there needs to be state recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority; Connors told Kitty Holland of the Irish Times “that without formal recognition of our identity, and a willingness on both sides to confront stereotyping and discrimination, real change will be a long time coming.”

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