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LOETB plant Hazel Tree in Mountmellick to commemorate National Traveller Mental Health Day

On the 8th October 2021 a tree planting event took place in Mountmellick Further Education and Training Centre (FETC) to commemorate National Traveller Mental Health Day.  The outdoor event was opened by Dermot Muldowney, the manager of Mountmellick FETC, who welcomed all present and in particular the two local Traveller rights organisations; Offaly Traveller Movement and Laois Travellers Action Group.  LOETB’s CE Joe Cunningham explained that this event is part of LOETB’s first ever Inclusion Week, a week where LOETB celebrate the importance of diversity and the special measures that are in place and needed to ensure the centres and services are inclusive to all.  Joe also told everyone of his memories of growing up in north Galway where there were many Hazel trees.  He was followed by a speech by Sandra McDonagh, Sandra is the Managing Director of Offaly Traveller Movement, a Mental Health Social Worker and a proud Traveller woman.  Sandra has a B.Soc.Sci. from Maynooth University and was the first Traveller in Ireland to obtain a Masters degree in Social Work from Trinity College Dublin.  She spoke about the mental health crisis in the Traveller community and how although maintaining mental health can be a challenge for all members of Irish society, when this is combined with the experience of racism, exclusion, and discrimination that the Traveller community experience, the challenge is far greater.  Travellers die by suicide at 7 times the rate of the settled population, suicide accounts for 11% of all deaths in the Traveller community.  Sandra explains that ‘this isn’t just a statistic, this is real for us, the sad fact is that all of us Travellers here today know someone from our community who has died by suicide.  Our people are deeply affected by the trauma and suffering that this is causing.’  She urged the Irish government to ring-fence funding to reduce mental health inequalities and improve the health and wellbeing of Travellers and she also urged all Traveller to seek help when needed.  Sandra went on to thank LOETB for marking this very significant day for Travellers with the planting of a hazel tree.  This day marked the second ever National Traveller Mental Health Day.  It was put in place last year by the Traveller organisations to raise awareness of mental health issues in the Traveller community and how the community is disproportionately affected by suicide and poor mental health.  Last year Traveller representatives launched the annual day at Áras an Uachtaráin and President Michael D Higgins was presented with a hazel tree, a symbol of Travellers’ strength, history and resilience.  Since then other institutions and groups have planted hazel trees to mark the day.  LOETB is the first ETB in Ireland to plant the hazel tree in a show of solidarity with the Traveller community.  Sandra explained the significance of the Hazel tree to her community; ‘in the past, when Travellers were legally permitted to travel, the branches of the hazel tree were used to make the frame of our tents upon which the canvas sheet would cover’, the hazel tree branches were also used in basket making and had many other purposes.  Today, she says, ‘the hazel tree is planted here as a symbol of Travellers’ strength, history, culture and resilience.’  Sandra finished her speech to a large applause by urging the Traveller students present ‘to be proud of who you are, stand tall, think big, keep learning, keep going and reach your full potential.’ Following this two of the Traveller students, brothers Jim and Ned Cash from Mountmellick FETC planted the beautiful hazel tree in a prominent position in their centre garden.  Jim Cash, assisted by his teacher Rachel O’Neil, had spent much time in the weeks prior to the event designing and making a striking wooden plaque to sit proudly with the tree to explain its significance.  Dermot Muldowney told everyone present that these two Traveller students are part of a new documentary called Traveller Tales, which is currently on YouTube and receiving notable recognition both in Ireland and internationally.  Dermot then invited Maureen McInerney, a Community Health Worker in Laois Traveller Action Group to recite a poem, which was written by young Travellers in the Offaly Traveller Movement youth club.  The poem is about Traveller suicide as this was the topic they wanted to explore given how much it impacts on their lives.  Finally, the event was closed by Dermot introducing Annalisha Ward from Tullamore.  Annalisha, who is sixteen years old, closed the event with a beautiful and haunting song called Fiddler Dunne, which tells the tale of a Traveller man, who is outcast and marginalized by society but how he instilled in his children values of pride, justice and survival.  The kitchens in the Mountmellick FETC were bustling and busy all morning preparing finger foods and refreshments which were served in the gardens to all present.  The event was coordinated by LOETB Community Training Officer Emma Gilchreest.  Emma is the former Managing Director of Offaly Traveller Movement and former Director of College Connect Access Programme in Maynooth University, she has vast expertise of Traveller rights and Traveller Inclusion.  Emma commented that ‘although it was a serious topic matter on the day, it was also a wonderful celebration of Traveller culture and talent.  It was a very special day and everyone really enjoyed it’.

Breaking down Walls

Another senseless passing

of a vibrant Traveller teen

who could not cope

and lost all hope

while signs remained unseen

Not deserving our discrimination

Our place in society high

with inclusion our right

Devoid of a fight

Unfair stereotypes we defy

We must hold close our Traveller traditions

It is key to our cultural state

We are the foundation

of the next generation

for whom changes we now can create

We are breaking down walls for young Travellers

Smashing bricks of restriction and pain

As the strong mallet knocks

all our barriers and blocks

our empowering stance we regain

The enemy suicide defeated

we are champions we stand back and kick

Our spark now ignited

we stand strong united

as we build ourselves up brick by brick

Excerpt from ‘Breaking Down Walls’ by Offaly Traveller Movement Youth Project

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