A Rathkeale that does not comprise two separate communities, but one community with two separate cultures. That was the vision that emerged from a “momentous” meeting which took place between members of the settled and Traveller communities in the town at the weekend, according to local community worker David Breen.
The meeting was the latest step in what Mr Breen hopes will be a firm commitment to “relationship building” between the two communities.
Mr Breen has remarked that settled people and Travellers are living in “parallel universes” and that the town is suffering as a result. Speaking at a student event in Waterford Institute of Technology last week, he warned that the town would die unless the two communities could find ways of engaging with each other.
He was also reported in The Irish Times as saying that the town could become “100% Traveller or nearly 100% Traveller in the next 10 years”.
Mr Breen admitted that he has come in for criticism locally after his comments were reported, but he stressed that they were only a small part of what he said at the event, which was organised by the Criminal Justice Society in the college.
The discussion was also addressed by prominent Rathkeale Traveller Richard Kerry O’Brien, who said he had “never seen a more racist country” than Ireland.
Mr Breen pointed out that he has been working for the past seven years to build better links between the Settled and Traveller communities as part of a project backed by the Catholic church, Church of Ireland and the local Methodist church.
This project has involved a number of initiatives such as meetings, social events and lectures, most recently one given by Fr Gerry Reynolds and Rev Ken Newell, two key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Saturday’s meeting was an opportunity for representatives of both communities had come together to talk about their respective experiences.
“This was the first time we were able to facilitate a meeting between the two groups to actually talk about themselves,” said Mr Breen, who added that the focus was on “establishing relationships to create a healthy community”.
“This was not about agendas or grievances - Rathkeale at Christmas was set aside to be discussed at another time.”
“Out of that, there is a commitment that this group is going to take the relationship building between the two communities forward”.
“It was much more even than we could have hoped for in terms of openness towards each other,” he added.