- 11 Feb 21
Where Travellers are concerned, one of the first requirements in the battle against racism, is to effectively resist the kind of stereotyping that is far too commonplace. And that battle begins with affording Travellers more space in Irish media. So says the successful comedian and member of the Travelling community, Martin Beanz Warde.
The first time I used the phrase ‘your one', a colleague laughed and explained that I had incorrectly used the term to refer to a man, not a woman. I’m a white Canadian immigrant to this country, and even though I found it incredibly easy to assimilate, there is an underlying requirement that you pick up the slang. It’s how I avoided being harassed by a group of men outside a pub, once. It’s how, a mere few months after I moved to Ireland, my Irish friends began to refer to me as being ‘honorary Irish’. It’s how I fit in.
Meanwhile, the first time I heard another slang word – most often used by the settled Irish population as a derogatory way to describe Irish Travellers – I didn’t know what it meant or its origins. I’m very thankful that by then, I had the foresight to ask more than one person to define the term before I ever used it.
Then I didn’t.
In December of last year, a National survey carried out by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission found that 48% of young people have either witnessed or experienced racism over the previous 12 months. That spurred the Commission to launch a campaign designed to combat racism in Ireland.
In its initial phase, the #AllAgainstRacism campaign has released a series of unscripted video interviews, in which participants from different backgrounds discuss their experience of racism in Ireland. Central to the campaign is a call to people of any and every background not to let racist remarks – or actions – slide. If you see something, say something. It is time for us to speak up.
CHANGING PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
Among the participants in this unique campaign is Martin Beanz Warde, a successful – and uproariously funny – standup comic and member of the Traveller community from the west of Ireland. Martin is well aware, from his work as a comedian, podcaster and writer, just how important it is to raise awareness about the negative impact of stereotyping and racism on members of the Traveller community.
"The problem with stereotypes,” Martin reflects, "is not that they are veering towards the negative, but that they are pawned off as a generalisation. It is in this blanket viewpoint that we find the problem. Yes, some Travellers engage in crime, animal abuse, domestic violence and littering. But it’s only a minority of Travellers, much like the minority of non-Travellers that engage in exactly the same activities.
“The damage,” Martin adds, "comes from the intention of the person using the derogatory language, or giving their opinion. For me, the most dangerous comments came during the 2018 presidential election in Ireland, where one candidate saw his votes surge because of his negative stance on Travellers.”
The candidate in question gained those votes by spreading false information. He also said that it was “a load of nonsense” to recognise the Traveller community as an ethnic minority. Looking back now, the dismay felt by Travellers is understandable.
“It was a worrying time to be a Traveller,” Martin recalls, "because this person received over 342,000 votes based on that platform and stance. It later transpired that the particular points he made about Travellers in Tipperary refusing a house because they wanted extra stables were wholly untrue. There was a far more complex issue at play, which was conveniently left out of the discussion."
It is worth reflecting here on the implications of that moment.
“Because of what was happening in politics, or in the Presidential election,” Martin reflects, "people felt that their anti-Traveller sentiment was valid and justified. They felt vindicated. It was like, ‘sure isn’t he only saying what we’re all thinking?’”
For Martin, one of the keys to dismantling such lazy and insulting stereotypes is to challenge them with positive visibility in the media.
“Out of all the industries in Irish society,” Martin says, "the media have the tools to shape and challenge public perceptions and misconceptions. The media is a nexus point between the audience and the voice or topic – and we need more Traveller voices, to reach more of an audience.”
As a result of Martin’s success as a comedian and communicator, he is often asked to comment on Traveller issues.
“The focus of the media when engaging with me tends to be more on my community than on my work,” Martin says matter-of-factly. "I have had to deal with questions about my heritage, or been forced to defend a nomadic way of life. I have also been asked to ‘understand’ why venue owners and publicans might feel justified in refusing service to my community.
"Unlike any other segment of society, Irish Travellers are forced to answer for the actions of their community, which averages around 40,000 people in Ireland – and far more, if we include the UK and America."
MORE INCLUSIVE CLASSROOMS
There is, Martin Beanz Warde feels, a double standard involved. The same questions would not be asked of him – often in an openly accusatory way – were he a member of the settled Irish population.
“It'd be impossible for anyone to defend the actions of criminals in their community,” Martin says, "but the media appear to be under the impression that a Traveller from a small town in the west of Ireland can give insight into the behaviours of strangers across the globe, just because they fall under the ethnic umbrella of Irish Traveller.
“That would be akin,” Martin elaborates, "to asking an Irish person from County Kerry to answer for the actions of an Irish gang operating in Dubai. It makes no sense whatsoever."
Martin maintains that these attitudes won’t change “until we have more representation of diverse groups in media – or doing the presenting on radio and TV."
The underrepresentation of Travellers in the media inspired him to create a Traveller-led podcast called 'The HazBeanz Show', which is now part of the Warren podcasting network at thewarren.ie. Martin also writes for the Dublin Inquirer.
“So, slowly, I am making my way towards having a voice in the media,” he reflects. “But that needs to become much more commonplace for the Travellers that follow. The next generation of Travellers will be far better at performing, writing and presenting than I, so it’s important to lay the path before them, and that requires cross-community participation.”
And what can we, as a society, do to challenge racist stereotypes?
“The youth of today will find their way eventually,” Martin says, optimistically. “Society is in constant flux, and so too are public attitudes. We need to support the youth of today, from all communities, to come together and share their spaces. We need to make accessing public spaces easier for marginalised youth, and we need to create more avenues to careers that are historically seen as out-of-reach for Traveller youngsters."
“It is then up to the education system to provide more inclusive classrooms, where Traveller children actually feel part of the class and not segregated to the front desks, as was my own personal experience. As an aside, we also need to instil the belief that, after school and university, there will be a fair chance at gaining employment.
"Currently, the unemployment rate among Travellers is over 80%. In a recent survey on public attitudes, when people were asked if they would hire a Traveller, 83% said they would not, regardless of education or experience. These attitudes also need to change – and that change won’t happen unless those in power actively seek it.”
In the battle against racism, we are only starting. The good news is that we all have a part to play.