Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

21 January 1999 Edition

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Ireland's Cassius Clay

By Eoghan MacCormaic

It's interesting to see the way in which the new film, Southpaw, on the life and times of Francie Barrett has been received by the broadcast media, with both heavyweights of RTÉ - Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny - devoting time to the film on their respective TV and radio shows during the past week.

Followers of Gay Byrne, and there are a few, will know that he has in the past provided a platform for the travelling community and unusually for Byrne, this was not done in a completely patronising way.

Kenny, on the other hand, always appears uncomfortable and stuffy. Kenny asked if such a film would be made had Francie Barrett been from Tallaght or Ballyfermot. The reviewer chided him, saying that that was the very point of the project: Barrett wasn't from such areas. It was being a traveller that made him different.

However, a positive slot on the national media on an infrequent occasion is no substitute for equality. Francie Barrett is different, and it is right that that difference be celebrated, that his overcoming many obstacles to represent Ireland be celebrated but don't let us pretend that a night on the Late Late or a review on Pat Kenny means he's made it.

There are some communities in Ireland who won't thank Sundown Productions for making `Southpaw, the Francie Barrett Story', despite the imprimatur of Gaybo, or the curiosity of Pat Kenny. In fact in some areas the film, like the Barretts or any other member of the travelling community or Traveller family will be met with outright hostility.

Anti-traveller prejudice is rife and can rightly be described as our internal racism. When the then Cassius Clay returned to the USA in the early sixties with his Olympic Gold he was hurt and offended to find that while he could represent America in the Games, stand on the podium and receive a medal for Uncle Sam, be celebrated as an American victor, he could still be refused food in a restaurant because of the colour of his skin. Francie Barrett must understand how Cassius Clay felt but while Cassius could `reinvent' himself as Muhammad Ali, in the family of Islam, Francie is stuck, it seems, with the traveller image.

The argument is made, often, that travelling people are their own worst enemies. It's an attractive argument and allows people who need it a politically correct hook for whatever remaining bias they might have. `I have nothing against travellers but...' is the explanation used but to describe the actions of a minority of any population group, in this case the travelling community, as making that group `their own worst enemies' is the ultimate in prejudice.

It might seem odd, but according to the experience of the travelling community itself there is less hostility to travellers in Britain than in Ireland. Francie Barrett repeated on the Late Late what other travellers have pointed out in the past, that in England no-one pigeon-holes the travelling community in the way they are pigeon-holed here. Of course that doesn't mean that there's no prejudice there... it merely means that the `subdivision' of the traveller doesn't count for so much and to the average English person, the Irish traveller is Irish first, middle and last. The traveller `label' rarely arises. If they're to be treated unfairly, at least it's equally unfairly!

It might be of some consolation to travellers - or perhaps a source of worry - that across the water they are lumped in just the same as the Norn Iron Unionist and loyalist is Paddified, with or without their consent. And maybe for the only time in their lives, the travelling community will be discriminated against, or marginalised, or harassed not on ground of their birth, family or social background, but because of their nationality. Maybe that's progress. Maybe that's the true meaning of positive discrimination...

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