Interview by David Jo Murphy.
Never underestimate the power and influence of role models and respect!
That was the message I came away with after interviewing Traveller Pride Community winner Thomas Maughan. As an angry young man who had been denied a place for his family on the housing list for years, Thomas Maughan arrived into the offices of the Cavan Traveller Movement and had a meeting with Bernard Joyce that would change his life. This meeting set Thomas on a course of learning, personal development, and community activism that led him to his current roles (there are many) and to becoming the winner of a Traveller Pride award.
Throughout our interview, Thomas spoke warmly of his hometown Cavan, and a family connection to the area that goes back at least as far as his grandfather Black John Maughan. Black John was a horse trader who also sold boots out of his van and was a familiar and well-regarded figure throughout the towns and farms of County Cavan. Black John had a great reputation as a nice, well-respected gentleman and when he was finally laid to rest he had a guard of honour that stretched the whole way through Cavan town and up to the doors of the church. John Maughan said that his grandfather’s reputation and courteous way of dealing with people paved the way for John to become involved in community activism and gain a seat on housing committees and various other positions of responsibility in Cavan town.
Thomas is a healthy and energetic young man heading towards the big 40. He has a glow about him that you only see on people who love what they are doing in life. Thomas said repeatedly throughout our interview that even though he has bad days and things can be tough for Travellers in Cavan, it is all worthwhile when he can make a difference to people in the community, especially when it comes to issues such as housing and helping families to get school places for their children.
Thomas explained that he never thought he’d rise to a role whereby he is in such a position of respect in Cavan. His early years in Cavan were “Very happy,” and in school, he mixed well and had lots of friends in the settled community.” But when Thomas was 10 his family moved to St Margaret’s in Ballymun (Dublin) in search of work and John started school in Gardiner Street. This school was a shocking segregated experience for him and Thomas said that “No learning took place, it was a Traveller only class with boys aged from 10 to 14 years all in the one class, we were kept separate, there was no teaching and we’d be looking out the window at the settled kids playing, whereas at school in Cavan everyone got on with each other and mixed together.” Later in life, Thomas moved back to Cavan to rear his own family and he is soon to become a proud grandfather. Thomas said that although Cavan is much better for Travellers than other areas of the country he was “shocked at how bad things had gotten,” since he left. “Schools are not doing enough to keep Traveller kids involved; if 30 kids go to school, only five or six will see it through to completion. Only three did the Junior Certificate last year.”
In response to the situation, Thomas helped to bring the Yellow Flag programme to Cavan and recently St Felim’s National School celebrated achieving their Yellow Flag. Thomas said that it was a great day seeing all of the local kids from around the world sharing their culture and heritage with each other. Education is something that Thomas is very passionate about, it literally changed his life when he returned to his studies as a mature student in his thirties and Thomas and his wife made sure that their kids received a good education.
Thomas is one of the busiest people I’ve met, juggling nearly a dozen roles on various committees, boards, and Traveller representative groups. But the role that he speaks most fondly of is as coordinator of the Cavan Traveller Men’s Shed. Unusually this is one of the few Men’s Sheds, that don’t have an actual shed!
Yet it is also one of the busiest Sheds in Ireland and has become a role-model of success for Traveller Men’s Sheds that many groups around the country are hoping to learn from. Thomas said that they are always up to something, “Soccer during the summer, handball in winter, camping and fishing trips throughout the year and pilgrimages up Croagh Patrick and to Lough Derg.” They are also quite a techno-savvy group who use WhatsApp to organise meetings and Thomas spoke very highly of the vital roles played by Terry Maughan and Eddie McDonagh. “These two men are great at organizing things and getting the group together, even if I step away for a few weeks I know the lads will keep things going.”
Thomas said that the Men’s Shed has been vital in terms of mental health and well being, “We’ve had quite a few men giving up cigarettes and paying more attention to their health. During some of the sports tournaments we organised health testing and it has been a huge success in terms of getting the lads out of the house in the evenings.” They have used the Men’s Shed as a base for taking on further training and Thomas has helped the men to undertake suicide awareness training, first aid, adult education and know your rights training.
Thomas is particularly proud of the role that the Men’s Shed has played in bringing the Cavan Traveller community together socially. “Before the Men’s Shed the men would barely see each other except for dropping the kids off at schools or bumping into each other in town. Now they socialise all the time and attend christenings and birthday parties with each other, even though they might not necessarily be from the same families and there are lots of settled lads taking part as well, especially lads who went to school with the Traveller men and who stayed friends afterward.”
Thomas Maughan paid a great deal of respect to his role models, particularly Bernard Joyce who set Thomas on the path that he is on now. Thomas also mentioned how he has been inspired by the powerful influence of Traveller activists such as Brigid Quilligan, Catherine Joyce, and Bernard Sweeney and he is steadily making his mark and fighting for Traveller and settled people’s rights in Cavan.
Keep an eye on the name Thomas Maughan, as this proud Traveller is out to change the world one person at a time, and Travellers’ Voice is both proud and grateful for his valuable time and the opportunity to tell his inspiring story!