By Miriam Kerins
“Ethnicity will mean the world to me. All through the years Travellers have been given tags by others and this is the one tag we want to give ourselves; and I for one welcome it.” Prolific words from a human rights activist, independent woman and proud Traveller Maureen Ward, a lady who not only wants to influence an entire generation, she also wants to educate her community, empower them and provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to reinforce their rights in society. “It’s important to say that as a community we’ve been hiding who we are and if people know this is who I am, maybe more and more Travellers won’t be hiding their identity and be more proud of who we are.” Says Maureen.
Maureen has spent years working as a voluntary human rights activist.
Each day, all across the world we see and celebrate people advocating for human rights and we often wonder what spurs them on to do it, what drives their passion and what pressures do they often encounter during their day to day battles. Therefore, as the Irish Government has, following years of campaigning, finally resolved to recognise Traveller ethnicity in this country, leading to an organisation like Pavee Point to state that such recognition would be viewed as ‘a major step forward for Travellers, cultural diversity and equality in Ireland,’ we caught up with Tullamore County Offaly-based, feisty single lady Maureen Ward who has spent years working as a voluntary human rights activist, and, in her role as chairperson of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) has visited such far-flung places as Brussels to attend the People Experiencing Poverty Conference, and travelled to Poland representing her community, as well as speaking in Dublin at a United Against Racism march. In addition, Maureen sits on the European Anti- Poverty Network (EAPN) in Dublin where she acts as Treasurer “attending meetings every five to six weeks.” Sure you’d wonder where this busy lady manages to find time to tackle her day job, her hobbies and get on with her life.
I feel (as an ethnic group), there will be a fairer system in place such as equal opportunities.
“I’m coordinator of the Tullamore Youth Project which is one of Youth Work Ireland’s Midlands Special Project for Youth (SPY) programmes. We target areas that don’t have community centres or young people’s resources and my day starts with a planning and evaluation of the clubs with the Community Employment staff and the part-time youth worker to look at the plan for the week ahead; we see how last week went, and look at what changes need to be made and what resources we will need to make them. Then at 4pm to 8pm we divide ourselves into groups with the youths doing two-hour sessions in anything from cookery to personal development. It’s a needs-based but youth-led set of activities but we will always keep things in our budget.” Says Maureen who clearly enjoys her job. “I went back to Maynooth (to study) in the late 90s and received my Diploma in Youth and Community Development. I did this over three years while I worked full time with Galway Traveller Movement and I got great support from them.” Explains the woman who is so passionate about making sure people know she is a proud Irish Traveller she arrives at our photoshoot modelling one of her own unique designs. “I love arts and crafts and I love carpentry. I know my way around a jigsaw and other tools,” laughs Maureen, adding “This t-shirt I’m wearing today says Sunni – meaning to see, Glori – meaning to listen, Granni – meaning to understand and Grati – meaning to work with,” so when she says she “believes when opportunities come along it’s about taking them and making the most of them;” she means it and wasted no time spreading the word in a very colourful and creative manner. “My first t-shirt (I designed) was when I met (the president) Michael D (Higgins). I got an invitation to go to the Aras as chair of the ITM and on Paddy’s Day, I was invited again so I made a t-shirt to make a statement so that others would know I was an Irish Traveller. That t-shirt was black and white and there were 200 white buttons sewn onto a background of black. I wore it as a piece of art to show that everything is not black and white. We are people of the road. I was born on the side of the road, a place that’s just three miles outside of Loughrea, County Galway.” Says Maureen who decided that she wanted to realise a dream to go back to her roots and visit her birthplace. “My mother made a little wagon for me and it was the replica of the one I was born in. It has all the original details and it was important for me to take that little wagon and place it as a symbol on the exact spot where I was born. My mother brought me there and I placed the wagon on that exact spot and I took a picture of it. I did this because it is very important for me to know where I came from.” Says a smiling Maureen, who, despite being petit of stature has a loud, proud voice; a voice than can not only influence but can also raise awareness of her cause. This is a position that is not only rewarding it’s also one that requires a lot of patience because championing and promoting social change can often take an awfully long time and effort. “One of the reasons I got into human rights in the first place was because of my mother. She was a strong woman and an advocate for education. Back in 1965 she spoke of the importance of education and made sure we all got an education. You can see her on an RTE showreel of Reeling in the Years that dates back to 1965. I’ve always felt that I was part of an ethnic minority and if I go outside of the Republic of Ireland being a Traveller is recognised as an ethnic minority and I got involved (in the campaign) because of all the cuts that were made in funding for Travellers, for example in health and education systems and as an ethnic group I feel those resources may now be made more widely available and accessible. I feel there will be a fairer system in place such as equal opportunities. As a human rights activist, it’s not just all about Travellers’ rights; I’m for fair play across the board;” insists Maureen who also has a soft spot for animals, especially horses and her little rescue Yorkshire Terrier called Penny.
I’m a real daddy’s girl. My happiest moment was when I got to dance with my father. I treasure that memory.
However, it’s not all work and no play for this feisty lady who enjoys being an independent woman, saying “I do all my own DIY. I’ve no problem climbing up a ladder. I’m very happy with my life and if I want children around me I’ve got my nieces and nephews. We’re a close family and I’ve got a large circle of friends. I can go to any part of Ireland and I can meet my friends.” However, our lovely cover girl did disclose a little-known family secret and tell readers that while everyone knows how close she was to her darling mother, a lot of people wouldn’t realise that she was actually “a real daddy’s girl.” Recalling a happy family gathering, Maureen says, “My happiest moment was when I was at my brother’s wedding and I got to dance with my father. He died within a year of that day and I treasure that memory. I was actually called after daddy’s mother Mary but my auntie wanted to call me Maureen and she called me that, so when she died, the family continued to call me Maureen.”
As the Irish Traveller community will finally have the recognition they’ve campaigned and fought for, we at Travellers’ Voice have no doubt the delightful Maureen is already getting to work on her next worthy project. Watch this space…