- 09 Sep 19
Only 1% of Irish Travellers go on to third-level education. PhD student Patrick McDonagh tells us about his experiences as a Traveller studying in Trinity, and what Irish colleges must do to tackle social exclusion.
While starting your journey through college can be one of the most exciting times of your life, it can also be daunting – particularly if you’re one of only a handful of Irish Travellers in your entire college.
“I first saw Trinity’s campus on a school trip to Dublin,” Patrick McDonagh recalls. “I really liked it, because it was a lovely, sunny day that really showed off Front Square to its full advantage. On results day, my choice was between going to Dublin to study history and economics, or go to London to do accounting and finance in the London School of Economics – and I knew I’d be happier at Trinity.”
Historically, Travellers have faced marginalisation in the Irish education system. The ESRI’s 2017 report, A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland, revealed that only 1% of Travellers aged between 25 and 64 have a college degree; and that 28% of Travellers leave school before the age of 13, compared to just 1% of non-Travellers. The support of his family and his secondary school in Omagh, Co. Tyrone played a major role in helping Patrick to defy these odds, and become the first of his siblings to achieve his A-levels.
“My family always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do,” he says. “On my dad’s side I have an older cousin who had studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, so I was aware that there were other Travellers going on to third-level education, and that it was a possibility.”
However, only half-an-hour into starting his brand new chapter in Trinity, Patrick got a swift reminder that anti-Traveller discrimination is still deeply engrained.
“Before I went to college, I did have concerns that someone might make a thing of me being a Traveller,” Patrick begins, “On the first day, my parents had just left after dropping me off in Trinity Halls, and my new flatmates were having a conversation. One of them said, ‘Wouldn’t it be horrible to have a Traveller as flatmate?’ A good opening for starting Trinity! I didn’t confront them at that point. With stuff like that, either you speak straight away, or you end up becoming more cautious. The next day, it came up that I was a Traveller. One of the guys who had been in the conversation apologised a few days later. We ended up getting on quite well.”
While Patrick went on to have a fulfilling undergraduate experience, the ignorance he encountered initially is just one of the issues holding Travellers back.
“I always wanted to go to university, and I was lucky enough to go to a secondary school where I was never dissuaded of that,” Patrick says. “The difference with many other Travellers is that they often have negative experiences with both primary and secondary education.
“One of the biggest issues is the financial aspect. A lot of Travellers would be on a low income. A lot of them see the big expense of education and think, ‘Oh, just stay in school until you can read and write, and then try and get a job as quickly as possible’. They don’t see education as something that will achieve anything, and that’s a huge part of the problem. More work needs to be done in changing the perception of the value of a university education, and ensuring that secondary school qualifications are completed.”
Patrick reckons that targeted outreach is the best way for colleges to combat marginalisation.
“Colleges should be going out to schools with large numbers of Travellers,” he reasons. “They need to tell Travellers that college isn’t just about paying money, with no return at the end. Equally, an issue facing many Travellers is the worry that they won’t be accepted by settled people. There are some Travellers who are too afraid to reveal that they’re Travellers in college and work – because they’re scared people will turn on them. Universities should be going out persuading people that that won’t be the case.”
Trinity College has made major progress in reaching out to students who have been under-represented in the college. Trinity Access Programmes (TAP) has tackled social exclusion through a number of initiatives, and has provided the model for a similar programme in Oxford. As well as helping talented students from working-class backgrounds attend Trinity, including Senator Lynn Ruane, TAP also provides the Gisele Schmidt Scholars Fund for Travellers.
“Traveller scholarships are important, to facilitate Travellers coming in,” Patrick says. “The numbers are so ridiculously small right now that it wouldn’t be a great expense to the colleges. I’ve gotten the Gisele Schmidt scholarship and it was good, but it’s still quite small. There’s nothing towards your fees – and, as everyone knows, Dublin isn’t the cheapest city to live in.”
Like Senator Ruane, Patrick argues that political representation is an important step in bringing marginalised groups into third-level education.
“I’d also like to see more Travellers pursuing politics. There’s very few at the moment,” he notes. “I spoke in the Seanad in July, and one of the things I suggested as an initial step was the appointment of a Traveller Senator.”
Patrick was joined in the Seanad by representatives of several national and local Traveller groups. It marked the first time Travellers had spoken there since being formally recognised as an ethnic minority in 2017.
Indeed, 2019 has been a year of firsts for the Travelling community. In April, Traveller students at NUI Galway and the Galway Traveller Movement came together to form the country’s first Traveller student society. And in January, Dr Sindy Joyce became the first Traveller to graduate with a PhD.
“It’s a great example for other Travellers to see someone like Dr Sindy Joyce,” Patrick enthuses. “It gives you more encouragement to keep pushing forward, and to show that Travellers are more than capable of doing things like that.”