I was well into my adult years when I realised a word that I, and every other Derry child I knew, had been using as an insult was actually a name. The word, which I won’t repeat here, was used to denote people or actions that were trashy, uncivilised, poor or dishevelled.
You could be called this word if you had scuffed trainers, or if your school uniform had gone a little threadbare. I was called this word if my hair was unkempt, and I used it on others if they took a few crisps too many from a charitably proffered packet.
The word meant cheapskate, ingrate, reprobate and wretch. It was delivered with a laugh or, sometimes, real venom.
But the word was not just a word. It was, in actual fact, the surname of a local family of Travellers (henceforth Mincéirí, a preferred term for the community). So pronounced was the prejudice we’d grown up in, this surname had passed into common parlance as a synonym for uncivilised depravity among children too young to have ever made the connection for themselves.
The power of that word, and the throwaway cruelty of it being repurposed as a slur, struck me with shame when I discovered its origin. I was reminded of it this week when I read that Pontins had drafted a blacklist of “undesirable guests”, explicitly to stop Mincéirí from staying at its resorts.
That list – provided by a whistleblower to the Equality and Human Rights Commission – contains 40 familial names, including the very surname to which I’ve been referring. It also included my own surname, and those of so many other Irish people that the clumsy hatefulness of the document quickly spread around social media and beyond.
There was, admittedly, something comical about how breezily indiscriminate their policy seemed. That the document containing the names came with a jaunty clip-art wizard declaring, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”, or that whoever had tabulated the list had seen fit to misspell Sheridan and Walsh while they did so, only added to its oddness.
The fact that they’d apparently included most of Ireland’s most popular surnames in a blanket ban seemed to transcend offensiveness and approach incoherence. Mincéirí only account for around 0.7% of Ireland’s population, but you would find it hard to travel too long in Derry without encountering hundreds of Dohertys and McLaughlins – ditto O’Briens, Murphys or Nolans elsewhere in the country.
It even led to the irony of the Labour MP for St Helens North, Conor McGinn, revealing that Pontins had recently lobbied him to support its sites being reopened, despite the fact that by virtue of his being a McGinn, the document “would have banned me & my kids from staying there if they had”.
There is of course justification to the charge that blacklisting names like this is offensive to Irish people far and wide. The history of Irish names and epithets being weaponised by British wags is long and grim. The fact that terms like “throwing a paddy” or “paddy wagon” are still used, even unwittingly, without any care for their anti-Irish connotations, is not lost on us.
This context could, and should, have given pause to Irish people about our own former status as second-class citizens – not as a point to score against incorrigible Brits, but as a means of empathising with the current plight of Mincéirí who suffer under the same prejudices. Unfortunately, many of the Irish responses amounted to more glib and mocking condemnations, layered with another, unspoken subtext for Pontins; horror, even amusement, that they couldn’t tell us from them.
On its most literal level, this was fatuous, since the whistleblower had been clear about how this discrimination was enforced. “If a person had an Irish accent and was calling from Ireland,” he told iNews “then strangely that was OK. But if it was an Irish accent and the postcode was for a caravan site or an industrial estate in Britain, then that was a big red flashing light.”
Reframing Pontins’ discrimination as lingering anti-Irish sentiment in Britain allows us to adopt the comforting mantle of the aggrieved, handily side-stepping the fact that toxic anti-Mincéir attitudes in Ireland are not merely commonplace, but ubiquitous.
A 2017 survey found that just 9% of Irish people would be happy to accept Mincéirí into their extended family, while the same poll found that 70% of Mincéirí had experienced discrimination from the gardai, and more than half from pub or hotel staff. Dr Sindy Joyce, writing for the European Roma Rights Centre, explains that Mincéirí routinely suffer job and health discrimination, their life expectancy is still akin to that of the broader Irish population in 1945, and they are seven times more likely to die from suicide.
Beyond such harrowing statistics, all Irish people will be familiar with the sheer breadth of discrimination Mincéirí face, because we have grown up around, and participated in, that discrimination all our lives. We know the slurs, the jokes, the names, and we know that no one in Ireland is more Othered than members of the travelling community. We know the common stories of shops, pubs and hotels shutting their premises in the event of Mincéirí weddings or funerals nearby. The problem is that too many of us think that excluding Mincéirí is perfectly acceptable, and Pontins’ chief affront was catching a few too many of us in the crossfire.
It’s tempting to think of Pontins’ racism as a British crime against the Irish, a convenient way of positioning ourselves as the victims of oppression rather than complicit in a coalition of anti-Mincéir prejudice that spans both countries. Losing that nuance is just letting ourselves off the hook, and choosing to minimise their suffering is yet another insult to lay upon the Mincéirí community.
All those years ago in Derry, after I’d discovered what that word had meant, I discussed it with some old friends. Some were dubious. Surely, they argued, it was coincidence. They’d never met anyone with that name and in any case the spelling was slightly different, so maybe I was being too sensitive. Just as many, however, were incredulous that I hadn’t known back then. They knew at the time, they said. That cruelty had been the point.
We might understand, even forgive, the cruelty of children, provided we attack it, root and branch, wherever it arises, and dismantle the prejudice from which it springs. If we’re not prepared to do that, then let it – and the Pontins list – stand as black marks on all our names.
Séamas O’Reilly is a writer from Derry. His first book, a memoir about his childhood, entitled Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is due to be published next year