Cork women help launch Ireland's first Traveller Graduate Network

The launch of Ireland’s first Traveller Graduate Network takes place today. JENNIFER HORGAN talks to one of the founding members, Breda Hogan
Cork women help launch Ireland's first Traveller Graduate Network

Breda Hogan, who is one of the women behind the Traveller Graduate Network.

“I’VE sat in rooms where I haven’t identified as a Traveller and heard people describe us as ‘knackers’, saying all we’re good for is fighting. You’re sitting there, stuck in the situation, deciding whether you should say anything at all.”

Breda Hogan is one of four Travellers behind the launch of the first Traveller Graduate Network (TGN) in Ireland. She’s currently acting Traveller Education Co-ordinator at MTU whilst her co-founder Leanne McDonagh is on maternity leave.

It is the first alumni network of its kind in Ireland set up by and run for Irish Travellers. TGN plans to promote inclusive learning environments and encourage more Irish Travellers to strive towards the benefits that third level education brings.

They are set to work under three pillars: TGN will educate Traveller students on third level options; encourage Travellers into third level; and improve employment opportunities.

NETWORKING AND MENTORING

There’s a reason why 71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. Success doesn’t get handed to people in isolation. As the saying goes, ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.’ It’s in others’ shadow that people live.

Travellers, like other minorities, often lack the socio-economic and educational connections of more dominant demographic groups.

TGN reports that just 1% of the travelling community graduate with a chart level education.

Once they graduate, Travellers report difficulties in finding employment, recalling another less inspiring Irish saying - it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

A dearth of Travellers in employment and education makes it harder for Travellers who want to progress because they lack mentors - those who have blazed the trail before them.

TGN is ready to tackle these problems head on at a national level.

BREDA’S STORY

Breda Hogan is very aware of how difficult it is to keep Travellers in education, knowing the cultural and societal obstacles they face – largely because she faced them herself.

“I did an experiment. I sent out 20 CVs. On the first ten, I put my halting site address and on the other ten I put my home address. They were identical CVs. I got no replies to the first ten. I got six replies to the one with a home address.

“A lot of employers say they’re equal opportunity employers but when they see Spring Lane Halting Site, it’s an absolute no.

“TGN is about making connections, giving Travellers a fair start.”

Breda mentions two influences that kept her in education. The first was Leanne McDonagh who she met when she was 13. Her co-founder came to her school because she was running an initiative to work specifically with Traveller children on art projects.

“I remember thinking how amazing it was that she was a teacher. I mean, out of 44,000 Travellers, I know two teachers today. So, it was amazing for me. She was a Traveller, but she was a fully qualified teacher. Now I work alongside her. It’s mad.”

The two, alongside Gavin Hennessey and Ann-Marie Quilligan, will now work to help other Travellers coming up behind them.

“Three quarters of Travellers who have any kind of qualification will work with Travellers in NGOs and Traveller organisations. We are trying to break that. Get them into mainstream employment. What we see is if they can’t get employment, they have no choice but to work in Traveller-related contexts.

“They are needed in Traveller communities, but they are also needed in wider community. They have the knowledge and skills to contribute to many different fields and professions.”

As Breda highlights herself, she is also in a Traveller-related job and that’s a big part of why she’s enjoying it.

“The only job where I haven’t felt prejudiced against is the job I’m in right now. My office is very inclusive but again, I’m in Traveller-related context.”

FAMILY SUPPORT

The other influence that kept Breda in education was her family.

“A lot of Traveller families don’t encourage their children to stay in school because they want to protect them from being hurt and discriminated against in education and in the workplace. They feel like they will be happier in their own community. They don’t want their children to waste their time.”

Breda’s mother, although unable to read or write herself, always encouraged Breda to stick with it. And that she did. Breda completed school, obtained an Honours degree in Business Administration, and is currently completing a Masters in Digital Media.

Breda recognises the importance of family for all Travellers.

“Family is everything in the travelling community. So, part of TGN’s work will be to provide wraparound supports. We will need to reassure parents that their children will be OK if they carry on their education, that they’ll be looked after and treated fairly.”

TGN will hold focus groups, speaking to parents about their concerns. They will also address literacy issues in families, helping parents to fill out onerous college applications for example.

“Once the Traveller has a qualification, we will then help with employment. The main aspect is networking. Travellers have very low rates in getting into employment. When you don’t have anyone in business, you need to have connections, to share connections.”

CHALLENGES FOR TRAVELLER WOMEN

Breda is also aware of cultural drawbacks for females in the community.

“Family is the core of Traveller life; if anything is wrong in the family, everything else is dropped. The girls in the family will take up the role of mother.

“Balancing that kind of life and that responsibility with education or employment is very stressful.”

Ann-Marie Quilligan, a social worker in Tipperary.
Ann-Marie Quilligan, a social worker in Tipperary.

THE FUTURE

The group of four, taking this on as a personal project, certainly make for an exciting team.

Whilst Leanne and Breda work together in MTU, Ann-Marie Quilligan is a social worker in Tipperary and works with younger kids in primary education, tackling the use of reduced timetables in schools.

Reported on widely last year, this relates to the tendency in some schools to set low expectations for their Traveller students, sending them home early against educational policy.

Up until the ’90s Travellers were educated in segregated settings, leaving school early with low numeracy and literacy. They are still disproportionally represented among those that leave school without qualifications.

Gavin

Gavin Hennessey who is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for AXA Insurance.
Gavin Hennessey who is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for AXA Insurance.

, the fourth member, is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for AXA insurance in Dublin. He offers that corporate connection and will play a significant role in its networking aspect.

“All four of us are highly educated but work in Traveller-related fields,” he said.

“We’re all proud to be Travellers and our education has only made our connection to our culture and traditions deeper. 

"What’s sad is that Travellers often have identity issues. Traveller children shout about being Travellers in primary school but by secondary they go quiet.

“Then they end up like I was, afraid to identify for fear of being discriminated against.”

As a result of TGN’s work, Breda and her co-founders anticipate that a third level education will become a natural and achievable goal for all Travellers.

In addition, Ireland will see more Travellers entering the workforce with an abundance of degrees, Masters and PhDs. This is a future TGN is excited about.

The Traveller Graduate Network officially launches at MTU today, April 6.

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