Mary O’Sullivan

My name is Mary O’Sullivan. I am an active worker within my own community. The main project so far has been the barrel top wagon cultural awareness exhibit, now housed in the Cork City Public Museum. We have made links with Heritage Ireland in connection with Heritage Week, and we’ll be following that up again this year (2007). I have five children aged twenty-six to nineteen, I really enjoy the work that I’m involved in, and am delighted to be included on the web page.

S: I’m trying to get family trees for all the different names in Ireland, but also to talk about families, and how one family’s different from another, and, you know, what makes the Sullivan’s the Sullivan’s and different from the McDonagh’s or the Carmody’s or whoever else they aren’t, and whoever they are, and who they marry in with, and all the rest of it. But as I do that, and talk to people, I’ve realised that what I understand by history is often very different from what the people I’m talking to think of as history as well, you know? So it’s a learning curve for me, to try and expand the way I think about the past, and what’s important to me mightn’t be important to you, and what’s important to you mightn’t be important to me. But whatever’s important to you is your family history, obviously. So I’m trying to get that down, trying to get some sort of angle on that. But the question that leaped to mind there was, how did the Carmody’s come in? Because there seemed to be absolutely no connection between the Carmody’s and the Sullivan’s, and then suddenly they’re all marrying in like mad. How did that happen?

I think, like, thinking back now, that they wouldn’t have travelled a lot together, as in moving around. And when that happened, it happened, I suppose – I would have been five when we moved to Cork. I was born in Skibbereen. So we were around that area, and the Carmody’s would have been, sort of – like, that’s the area they would have travelled, sort of West Cork, Skibbereen, Clonakilty.

S: The Carmody’s?

The Carmody’s. And the two families then, met up and travelled together, and we actually ended up, my mother and father would have ended up, I suppose, basing themselves in Cork just down the road there, behind the Travel-Lodge, in the lane. And the Carmody’s and the Sullivan’s, that’s where we would have ended up, in a sense.

S: Okay. So, if I’m getting you right: the Sullivan’s travelled West Cork, Carmody’s travelled West Cork.

At one stage.

S: Okay. West Cork isn’t that big. How come they weren’t bumping into each other?

They probably were, but they would never have, sort of, in a sense, connected. And at some stage, they did. So they ended up travelling together, and moving to Cork together, because we ended up in the lane behind the Travelodge, together. Because there would have been my mother and father, there would have been Hannie and her husband, Mary and Dinny,

S: Remind me who Hannie’s married to?

Hannie and Mikey Carmody.

S: Carmody. Right, okay.

Dinny and Mary Carmody, and Nellie – she was a widow. So we would all have been housed from that lane.

S: Yeah, but at that point, they were already married.

You’re talking about – I suppose, I was only five, so I wouldn’t have had any sort of memories or references from before that. Hannie would definitely – obviously! She was married to Mikey.

S: Yeah.

But from my own thinking back – that’s my sort of interpretation of it.

S: Yeah. Cos the Carmody tree I have, is the Carmody’s marrying Coffees. Isn’t that right? Isn’t it Carmody’s and Coffees, on the tree I have there? I thought it was? Before they got in with your crowd?

Probably, yeah.

S: I think it was. And then suddenly it’s –

The Carmody’s and the Sullivan’s.

S: Exactly. And then the Stokeses. How did the Stokeses get in? What were they even doing in this part of the world?


S: Yeah.

They actually moved to Cork for a period. And we’ll say – start off with Johnny Sullivan’s daughter. She married a Stokes. They would have been the first, interlinked, sort of, union.

S: Were they matched, or did they meet up, or?

No. No. They wouldn’t be matched. If you can picture a field, an open field, where Travellers actually pulled in. Tramore Road. And you had McDonagh’s, you’d Stokeses, you’d – Sullivan’s! Because my Uncle Johnny would have lived in Drogheda, for years.

S: In Drogheda!


S: See, that would explain how he got to know McDonagh’s and that.

They did. Then they moved. They used to come up and down to Cork, visiting my father, because at that stage, we were – settled. And I can remember way back, that my uncle used come with his wife and children, some of the children, whatever.

S: Which uncle is this?


S: Oh. Johnny married to Crisheen Vale.

Yes. And they’d come up and visit and they’d go, and then, one summer they actually came, moved up, and stayed. So you had them over in the field in Tramore Road, and then you had Sullivan’s, Stokes, McDonagh’s, Foley’s, living in that field, living in that space. So that’s where it sort of, would have –

S: And even then there’s certain names that I would associate with Cork, that you’re not mentioning as being in that field. Such as Coffee, and Driscoll. Is that because they would have been in a different field, together?

Driscoll, now, would be sort of synonymous with the north side.

S: Of Cork City?

Of Cork City. So, like –

S: So, the blow-ins were on this side? Would that be right?

Mmm .

S: Okay. So the Driscolls, kind of, were longer in Cork City?

Well, they would have been, now, around West Cork as well. But when they settled, they settled in the north side of the city. And I don’t know – if you look at the River Lee. I don’t know why they settled on that side and –

S: You’ve the same phenomenon in Dublin, where you have different families on different sides of the river. They’re families that don’t marry in with each other.

But I think there was some conflict, at some stage.

S: Yes, I would imagine!

That’s why, I think, it was sort of, there, and here.

S: Yes, because Driscoll, if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t come into this at all – does it? Oh! Okay, you’ve Nellie married to Philip Driscoll, and Rainman married to Nora. And that’s about it, though.

That’d be it! Yeah!

S: So at one point they were marrying in with Driscolls, and then they just stopped.

Mmm. I think the whole conflict thing is why.

S: Right. Because it doesn’t necessarily have to be conflict. I think that in Dublin one of the reasons why you get just completely different family groups on the two sides – you have the Collinses and the Joyces would be the Finglas area and most of the northside would be that big, big, big family, including McDonaghs and Stokeses and Nevinses and all the rest of it. And on the side where I live, you have the Walls and the Flynns and the Connorses, who are Wexford Travellers, Wexford and Wicklow and that end of the country. The two have nothing in common, they don’t marry each other – that’s why I was surprised to see, as well, that in your tree you have families from both of those big groups. You have some McDonaghs, Stokes, on one hand, and you’ve O’Brien, Purcell – was there a Connors?

Connors, yeah.

S: And were all of those marriages made here in Cork? Or would those people have been travelling, and met up with people elsewhere?

No. They were here.

S: They were here. Interesting! Would people have met, like, at fairs, or something like that?

No. I suppose on the site. We lived in the site, the Black Ash site, for ten years, and they would have – like, the Connorses, now, for instance, would have left. They lived in Dublin, between Dublin and Belfast. And they would have – one of the Connors boys would have sort of come up to the site, just appeared, and ended up staying there. And then his brother would have, sort of, at a later stage, come on, come on the scene, and they ended up marrying the two sisters.

S: So he just showed up on his own?!


S: As an individual?!


S: Very suspect! (Mary chuckles) Just on his own?

Appeared! And he would have stayed – obviously he had no place to stay. But he would have stayed with my husband and myself.

S: Youse put him up? He was a total black stranger?

Well, he would’ve – who would he have known? He would have known, like, Mikey Sullivan who married Mary Joyce. He would have known the Joyces. And he ended up staying.

S: And marrying your –

Sister in law. And the brother then married her sister.

S: How did that happen?

He just came up to see him, and he would have gone away and he’d come back, and then ended up staying.

S: There wouldn’t be many Connorses in Cork, sure there’s not? Did they stay in Cork, or did they move on?

The two boys? Oh, they stayed. They would have stayed for – years. A good few years. The first of the brothers is still here, but the second would have gone. Travelled. He’s in Belfast. But he would have known – you see, Mary Joyce, she would have had family members, cousins, nephews, whatever, coming up and down, to Cork. So I think that was the draw.

S: They were coming up and down to Cork, presumably, in connection with some sort of business?

No. They’d come up maybe for a week or a month and stay. Pull into the site and then go home. Or they’d come up for the summer.

S: Okay. But they must have been working here. They had to eat some way.

Scrap. It was really heavy. The Travelling men, at that stage, could really have been, really the main part of their money, or economics, or whatever, would have been scrap. Because we weren’t really far from the dump. The dump was just – Jesus, five minutes away.

S: So that’s why that site was there. And that’s why so many people came to it, as well.

Well, the reason the site was there, was that they wanted to put it in the most likely place people wouldn’t see, sort of, five minutes away from the dump, down a country lane. That’s the reason the site was there, where it was situated. But, yes, that’s the main –

S: Yes, but in a way it suited you, that it was so near the dump.

Well, it suited the men. It certainly didn’t suit the women in the summer! The flies! Oh, my God, I’ll never forget it!

S: And is that site still in existence?

No. We negotiated – see, they needed the site for the link road down here, so we negotiated with the Corporation. See, there was a debate whether the Council owned it, or the Corporation, so the two of them got together and haggled it, whatever. Then we haggled with them, for the bungalows here. So they built the bungalows here, and we just moved.

S: How many bungalows is there?


S: There must have been more people than that on the site, though, at the time?

Not permanent.

S: Okay, there was a core seven families. And what way are the seven families – well, maybe they’ve changed since – the seven families who were there originally. One of them is your…?

I’m in number one. Mikey and Mary of the Joyces would have been in number two –

S: That’s your uncle. Your father’s brother.

Yeah. His daughter and her husband were in number three.

S: Your father’s brother’s daughter.

My brother Michael and his family lived in number 4. Then Margaret and Christy Leary. Who would be Hannie’s daughter.

(daughter mumbles something)

No! Chrissy and Mikey had that house before Connorses! Margaret Leary, who would be Hannie Carmody’s daughter, Bridgie’s sister, married to Leary.

S: I’ll tell you what I’ll do in a minute, I’ll draw a picture of this, how those people are related to each other, because that’s interesting too. So these were seven couples and their children, who wanted to live next to each other.


S: You wanted to.

And then six, number six, was Maggy and Dan. Gerry and Cathleen Harrington’s daughter.

S: Okay. It was very tightly related. And of those seven originals, how many are still there?

Myself, Maggy and Dan, and Cathleen and John.

S: Of the seven, three are still there. How many years on?

Fifteen, going on sixteen?

S: Okay. And the other people that have moved in, are they – were they linked in before they moved in?

They would have been. I’m now number 1, still. We have Sue next door, who was the partner of Cathleen in number 7, Cathleen Harrington’s, brother. Then you have my daughter Louise in number 3, and Connorses are in number 4. Bridgie Carmody, Margaret O’Leary’s sister, is in the next one; Maggy and Dan; and then Cathleen.

S: So let me just get this right. The site you’re talking about, you lived on it for ten years.

Ten, twelve years.

S: Okay. And during that time you had a number of core families, who were basically Carmodys and Sullivans. Those were the core surnames. And Harrington, as well? What were the core surnames at that time?


S: Sullivans mostly. Okay. And then you had other families that kind of came and went, and some ended up marrying in and staying, such as the Connorses and the McDonaghs.


S: Higgins. Stokes, sorry.

Stokes, Higgins, and Connors.

S: Didn’t you say that Higgins was a country man?


S: Okay. How did he end up on the site?

Through some sort of conflict with his own family, or whatever, he ended up moving into a trailer on the site. Two brothers. One first, then the other. Same, now, with the Connors.

S: Okay. But it was more understandable with the Connorses, because I presume they were Travellers?


S: So the Higginses, not being Travellers, how did they end up on a Traveller site?

They would have known the boys, my husband, now, and Jimmy, Katie’s husband Jimmy. And I think it was a sense of getting out of the area they were living in, because there was too much sort of trouble around, and I suppose –

S: But they were from Cork?

Oh, yeah. Local. I think it was a sense, too, of, sort of, they seen something, and I’d say now, something, as in, a sense of community within the site. Like you’d always look out for children.

S: I don’t have a question as to how attractive a Traveller site is. It is, obviously. But the question is how –

Not the one I was living in! Christ!

S: Well, not in the sense of all mod cons, but in the sense of the human values that are in it, it’s clearly an attractive place from that point of view, if you’re coming from an estate where nobody looks out for anybody else. But it’s not an obvious thing for country people to do, since they – as a general rule – tend to keep their distance and so on. But these guys didn’t. Did they know your husband beforehand through some kind of business?

They would’ve – I mean like – they would’ve known nearly all the fellows on the site.

S: But they must have known them some way, through some – Did they do the same kind of work? Did they drink together? Play cards together?

No. What would it be? They would have hunted! They would have gone hunting together!

S: Okay. That was it. By hunting I presume you mean going out with dogs, for rabbits?


S: See, that’s the kind of history I think is really interesting: how people come to get together in the first place, how they break apart. All those things. That’s human history.

Since you started this, like, I continuously go over in my mind about my uncle that I would never have seen. Grey Man. He just went and – that was it!

S: Remind me, because I don’t have any of that stuff on tape.

The fact that he – this is, now, through stories, listening to stories, from Hannie, now, and even Jimmy –

S: Which Jimmy?

My brother Jimmy. And at an earlier stage, listening to conversations that went on between my father and mother and people who would come to visit. It seems that he – he’d a nerve problem, and they were here, actually based in Cork, and out on the Straight Road, pulled into a field. And his wife sent him into the mental, which was just across the river, big redbrick place. And she decided to go to England, and she got him transferred from there to England, to some other place. And that’s the last we heard. Nothing, no children –

S: How many kids were there?

From off the top of my head, I can only think of two. Two boys.

S: And were they very young at the time?

They would have been.

S: So presumably she made another life for herself over in England.

But it bothers me, like. I’d like to find out, if I could, where he actually ended up, or what happened to him, or…

S: Mmm. Well, and your cousins. Sure, she may have remarried and they may have took on the name, and – you never know, sure you don’t?

I remember my Aunt Nellie came out to the house one day, and she said she was going up to the mental to see if she could get them to trace through the books, to find out where he went. And I said, ‘I’ll go with you! I’ll go with you!’ And she said, ‘No, no.’ And I said, ‘I’ll go with you!’ So she brought me on. I was only about eleven, twelve, and – I’ll never forget. It was like – I can think clearly back, now. Standing in front of the – did you ever see a horror film? Standing in front of these two big huge brown doors? And it was as if I was only about that size. And the door opened –

S: Don’t think for one minute that that happens by mistake! They’re designed like that, to make you feel small.

Oh, my God! But we went in, and it was pure gloomy inside. Like, they had a line of patients, standing up against the wall. They were getting ready to take out. Either take out, or give medication, or something like that. I will never forget! It was as if – God! It frightened the life out of me. That’s the memory I have then, of that. And do you know what she said to me then, before I went in? She took off her scarf, she used to always carry a scarf around her neck, and an awful lot of older Traveller women used to do that, in case they had to go into a church, or a priest’s house – they’d put on the scarf. And she always had this. And she took off the scarf, she tied it around me head. (Whispers) ‘They don’t like people with red hair’. Ah! thanks very much! When I think back now! And here I was with the scarf, I was trying to cover the red hair, because it was long, at that stage. I was covering, putting it down the back of my top and all! But I sat inside the office and they were talking, sure, I’d no interest in – I just wanted to get out of the house, and go over with her! But she did – there was no record of where he went, you know?

S: That’s very peculiar! But when you think about it, Ireland in the 50s and 60s, the number of people who went missing through the cracks is pretty staggering – I presume you’ve seen The Magadalen Sisters.

Exactly! And if you look back, the Borstals, where children were put: the amount of unmarked graves!

S: Song for a Raggy Boy.

Oh, it would frighten you!

(mumbled dialogue between Mary & her two daughters regarding someone brought back for burial)

S: Why was he called The Grey Man?

It happened to my father, as well. It seemed to actually be some sort of a genetic thing, that my father would have gone grey at about twenty. So that’s the nickname that stuck to Grey Man, like.

S: To go on to just family history generally, I believe you and Hannie talked about a lot of family history in connection with the waggon project.

Oh God, yeah!

S: So I would also presume, then, that having done that, you must have thought about things that you would had at the back of your head before. So – tell me your thoughts on family history, now that you’ve been thinking about it.

In relation to the wagon project?

S: Well, no, not necessarily.

What it brought up?

S: Yeah! Exactly. What did it bring up. What is family to you? What is history to you? What insights did you get?

Oh, my God! The most important insight was that I am so glad I was born in this generation! Because, like, in the building of the wagon, and listening to people’s stories around it – they had one tough life! And it actually allowed me to appreciate my mother a lot more, even though I would have already appreciated her as a mother. But, my God! I mean – I can only imagine, because I would never have experienced it, life on the road in a wagon, especially in the winter. Summer was lovely. Beautiful! Perfect! Perfect thing to go travelling, in a wagon or anything else. But winter! Stories! Even the stories, now, from the older women. My God! It actually allowed them to reflect on a part of their life that they had almost forgotten about. It regenerated the whole sort of reflection on how they actually survived. Survival! That was it! Especially in winter. And I suppose what it meant to me on a cultural level would have been that, that was something that came from within the community.

S: What was?

The actual building of the wagon. And the form of accommodation. The local authorities had nothing to do with it, and they couldn’t comment on it, they couldn’t restrict people, they couldn’t – do you know what I mean? It came from within. People actually built it, by their hands.

S: Yes. It was wasn’t imposed on them.

There was no, sort of, professional builders or anything like that. I think that was one of the most important things that came out of the waggon project, because halfway through it, that very thing I just said occurred to me: this is something that came from within the community. It was built, like, the tools they used were practically non-existent, they just used what they had, and they built a form of accommodation from scratch. And that had a huge cultural impact on me. Because local authorities, now, have the will to actually house or not house, or move on, over the trespass law, Travellers. It’s as if our culture is actually being completely erased. And to see that, even to go up to the museum, now, and see it – the boys took it apart, put it back together, rebuilt it –

S: It’s like a ship in a bottle there now!

And to see it in the museum is like – Jesus! I’m just so proud of the fact that any Traveller that comes around, anywhere from the country, can go on to the museum now and see that aspect of who we are. Because, as I said, like, society, the government, is, I suppose, the main people that are trying to assimilate us.

S: Well, the government is made up of, you know, Joe Buffer gets elected and becomes the government, you know what I mean? You can’t really separate the two either. They’re not –

Well, I think the fact that the trespass law affected me, in a sense, because we’re involved in so many women’s groups that we brought it up as the subject to discuss. And then the women themselves decided to actually put a petition together, and take sheets out and get every Traveller, have their signature down.

S: Did you only ask for Travellers? Or did you ask the public at large to sign?


S: I say that because I was involved in collecting signatures for an anti-discrimination law, and I was very pleasantly surprised at the positive response I got from passers-by. I was really surprised. I honestly expected to get a lot of hatred.

I felt like that, now, the day of the (St. Patrick’s Day) parade. I was sort of half fearful of the reception we were going to get, of the wagon going down through the parade Cork City. I was saying, Oh my God, we could get very negative reaction. But I was shocked. It actually restored my faith in humanity a bit, as to the reaction that we did get. Because –

S: Did you hear what happened in Kerry? The exact opposite! They wanted to do something like that there, and the parade organisers said they would cancel the parade if the Travellers insisted on having a wagon in it, and that everyone would know it was their fault that the parade had been cancelled. Which of course wasn’t going to be their fault, it was gong to be the organisers’ fault. So they decided not to go through with it.

Who decided?

S: The Traveller group that was going to put in the wagon.

And would they not bring that to the European -?

S: Well, I did mention that to them. But I only got this story there not long ago, I didn’t speak to anyone else about it.

[Daughter brings out some photos. Most comments mumbled)

S: My God, do they look ethnic! Look at the plaits on her!

The week we moved into the house.

S: So, put names on these people for me?

Tom, Margaret Coffee, my sister Margaret, my sister Nora, Mikey – Where am I?

S: You know, I have a 50/50 chance of being right! It’s pretty good odds! But I don’t know which is which. You’re both adorable.

That’s my sister Ann. I’m like an Ethiopian in appearance! Were they feeding me at all?

S: (laughs) You’re much too pale to be Ethiopian!



S: The layout of how the people are connected to each other, living here. So: group housing. What do you think of group housing, since you live in one for the past fifteen years?

Well, for the younger ones, they’re going to move anyway.

S: You say the younger people will move out. (To daughter) Alright, younger person. Oh, you’re just being rebellious! You’ll grow out of it!

If I got the chance this minute, I’d be gone! I’m going to Spain in January for a year or so.

S: Are you really going to do that? Do you think she’s going to do that?

She doesn’t think I’m going to do it, but I am.

No, I’ll back you 100%.

S: Do what in Spain?

Find a job over there, and work there for a year.

S: Doing what? How good is your Spanish?

Not very good. – The group housing, they are too closed in, for kids.

But you see, you’re talking from your age group. But when I came in here, this was a very safe place for to rear children.

S: That is what I would think, yeah. I would see it –

You could go out and just walk around. Everyone would watch for the kids.

Well, I suppose I see it that way now, for the smaller children, but when I was a child growing up, it was very closed in.

But I think you’re talking from the perspective that, you were in school and the friends you made, you were cut off, in a sense, up here.


Because if you were living in Douglas, they’d be out with their friends from school.


S: Okay, so now we’re talking about two different things. One is group housing, and the other one is that group housing tends to be in the back of beyond.

Restricted to – !

S: And it keeps the Travellers in the group housing apart from other estates. So they’re actually two different questions, as to where the group housing should be, and whether group housing is a good thing.

I think in the sense of the community it’s a good thing, on that level. But then you have the issue of interfamily conflict and stuff like that, that would have gone on, over the years. And from that sense of it, like, you can’t – you haven’t got the option to get up and move, because, like, even thinking back now to the work I’d be involved in, the whole trespass law, the impact of that is only sort of showing itself now. And it’s showing itself in a violent sense, where if two families clashed, or two whatever, whether they’d be closely related or not, if two families clashed, had a fight, they had the option to get up and move.

S: That is being blocked more and more.

Go! Separate! The whole sense now that people – the whole mental image of actually travelling is gone! It’s causing an awful lot of stress.

S: It’s a pressure cooker! If you’ve ever worked with a pressure cooker, you’ll know exactly what it is.

Exactly! And there are going to be little volcanoes and eruptions. Not little, either! There are! There are. I’ve sort of, through the groups now…

S: As a matter of interest, and without going into any personal details: of the original seven families, three are still here, four are gone. I certainly don’t want names, or anything like that, but, of the four families that left and have been replaced, how many of those would have gone under circumstances where – was there a push factor? Was there some kind of conflict there?


S: In all four cases?

Huge! And I think it’s a fact that if you have the different – what would you call it? – the different family histories –

S: But these are not really different families! They’re pretty close!

You’re talking about, we’ll say – and I don’t want this mentioned

S: You can switch it right off, if you like! Just push the stop button!


S: We’re not on tape, with the thing you just said. But, all four families that moved, was it in relation to the same problem? Or was it four different…?


S: All connected. So it was like a domino effect.


S: Human conflict is one of those things, it’s very interesting to look at when it’s not involving your own family. Where were we? We were talking about group housing schemes. If you had a magic wand, if you could change anything right now, what would be – would there be a better way than group housing schemes?

No. Personally, no. But I would say that councils or corporations should actually fund some sort of a course for families who are going to move into group housing schemes, so as everything will be clear and above board before going into it.

S: Like what?

Something like: my niece Margaret would have moved into a housing estate in Tober. And before they moved in, they did a 6-week course on antisocial behaviour, upkeep of a house –

S: Was this because they were Travellers?

Oh, no no no!

S: Everyone has to do it?

In this, now – I think it was a pilot. It sort of really cleared up how people actually stood.


In a sense, like, I would never have travelled, as in, like Hannie now, the oldest one, and Jimmy, and Patrick: they would have travelled, physically travelled. But I would never have. But I would still get the urge to actually go! Like, the weekend I just came back from. The freedom! Just to go out of Cork, and… ! Even the driving out in the country, getting from here to Thurles. It was like, just looking out the windows, it was like a complete sense of freedom, seeing the green fields. So I can understand how older Travellers actually feel, to be actually enclosed in a four-walled structure. And that’s what you’re talking about, a four-walled structure. I can actually remember, physically remember, my father. My mother: it suited her to settle down, she was delighted with herself, she was never so happy. But I can actually remember and how the effect settling down had on him, and the sacrifice he actually made, to settle down. Because… you could see it. And it wasn’t until I went back to college, and I did this essay on Travellers, and I had to go out and read all these different, you know, different reports. The one report that sticks in my head is the survey report that was done in December 1973, 1974?

S: It wouldn’t be the 1963 Report of the Commission, would it?

No. No. I actually went through that as well. But this other report had – and there was some of the 1963 Report, now, that was included in this other report. The report was actually on how they were going to accommodate Traveller children that would be coming into the education system, because they were putting structures in place to make Traveller parents – you have to put your children to school. So they were setting up structures. And whoever did the survey included different newspaper clippings that was done at the time. And one of them was, “Sterilise them all, and put them all out to the Aran Islands.”

S: Yeah, I remember that being said, alright.

And I was reading this! I actually had to go to counselling over that.

S: Really!?

It was terrible! Oh, my God! Because my mother was rearing me, then! And this is what they were saying about her, like. But not only that. It was different things, then. The whole negative side of – who I was.

S: It’s only ’99 since your man in Mayo said to electronically tag people!

Exactly! Yeah! And, like, I used my experiences over the years in the essays that I would have done. Like for instance, the three girls, Helen, Lisa and Louise, would be the three oldest, they were in the special class structure.

S: Say no more!

And I moved them. And what that cost me, to move them! The reaction I got from the school! I’d say if they could get a sniper to take me out, they would’ve. It was as if, “Who the hell do you think you are?” At one stage I even had to sit in front of the principal, a nun, and I had to say to her, “Excuse me, I gave birth to these three girls. You didn’t!”

S: But you got them out of the special class.

I took them out, and put them in, into the school I went to. And I have to say: the support that they got when I explained what they were missing, educationally!

S: But they would have been really good at jigsaws, Mary. They missed out on jigsaws. You took them out of the special class, and they’ll just never specialise in jigsaws.

Well – so sorry!

S: Well, there you go.

Even to the extent that that year I was moving them – they were moving – this was, it would have been around April, March, when I – I would have gone in January to say they’re being moved. Give me no choice because I asked for four meetings and they ignored me. So I said. right –

S: Just let me get this straight. Were you shifting them from special class to mainstream class in the same school, or were you taking them from one school to another?


S: Fair enough. And was the other school far away?

From here?

S: Well, were they two different school areas?

Yes. Yes. You see a bus used collect them and take them out to the school, and bring them back.

S: Were you trying to get them into your local school?

Well, it wouldn’t be local to here.

S: Your ex school, though.

My old school.

S: Okay. So you knew – you had your ties there.

My memories of school would be… positive.

S: (laughs) That’s very unusual! God!

Very positive! I mean, the only negative thing I could think of – and through college, now, it allowed me to go back, and reflect, because of the experience the girls had. The only negative I can actually think was, I remember writing an essay. And I, God bless us, when I write, I do about six or seven pages, and I really go a way out, outside of the imagination. And I remember it was a nun, now, Sr. Theresa. That was the only negative, now, I can think of. She gave back – you know, you get back your copy? And it was all red lines. Oh! What?! To the extent that I went to the principal. I was in … fourth class? Fifth class? I went to the principal, and I said, “Look at that!” And she read it, and she was, like, “Right…” She ruined my story. Red marker. And red to me that time was –

S: Not good enough! (laughs) I hate you!

Like, I was very competitive in school, you see. I took this to heart, now. Look at that. What is that? What does that mean? And she did pick out three lines of the whole thing, that the, sort of, English pronunciation [sic] should not be the way it was. Fine.

S: So there were three red marks that were justified.

And I said, Look, she’s after going through the whole thing! And she said, “There’s six pages here!” I said, “It’s an essay!” And she went then to – and I have to say, very, very fair. You’d say something, now, if it was an an issue about, like, being a Traveller, but it wasn’t. At least, I hope it wasn’t.

S: The problem is, you can never tell. You never know. And what was the essay about?

Living on an island, and having to actually move from the island to attend school and stuff like that.

S: Did you choose the topic?

Mmm. Well, what she said to us was, ‘I want ye to do an essay on something outside of yourselves, completely.’

S: Okay. Put yourself into somebody else’s –

Yeah. So –

S: It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to work out, though, that there’s an analogy there between going from an island to a mainland, and going from a Traveller environment, to enter a nonTraveller environment.

Exactly! Yeah! (laughs)

S: Anybody can work that one out, you know.

Even though I didn’t know it at the time!

S: Well, no, you didn’t consciously know it, but that was presumably what was going on.

But that was the only negative memory I have of school! Because we were never treated any differently, we were expected, the same expectations was expected from us as any other child in the school. If we didn’t produce the work, we’d be treated the very same way the next girl in the desk to me would be treated. So that’s why I wanted to move the girls there, because I knew that there was a very good, solid foundation.


S: What were we talking about? School and that. And how you got your kids out of the so-called special classes.

Oh, right. But then I was saying, I took them out of that situation, and thrown them in at the deep end, because they’d never have done history or geography –

S: Or Irish.

Well, Irish! I hate Irish! That was my biggest allergy in school. Oh, my God! And would you believe, Louise, my daughter, when she was in school, in primary and secondary, I could turn on the Irish news and she’d be explaining to me what was going on! She was completely fluent in Irish. She didn’t get that from me! (laughs) But, they wouldn’t have done history or geography. They would have just touched on maths.

S: But they would have done an awful lot of –

Drawing! Crayons! Drawing, and drawing. Therapy.

S: Well, you see, pencils might be too sharp. [both laugh]

Like, Louise could actually sit down and talk to me now today about the psychological damage that was done to her and Lisa. Helen was caught in time, because Helen was at her communion age. Do you know the day I went and said, “It’s official, they’re moving, like, when they get their holidays in June, they won’t be coming back” She turned around to me and she said, “I’ll buzz the teachers and you can take them with you now!” I said, “I will not be taking them with me now. As a matter of fact, “I said, “Helen will be making her communion here, next month. With her class.” She -I thought the woman was going to just explode! A nun.

S: Pity Louise is gone out now, because I’d love to hear what she says about the psychological damage that was done.

They could tell me! Actually, in one of the essays that I did, I did a case study on Louise. The essay was about a Traveller – case study on Louise. And I had to be objective.

S: What are the ethics of doing a case study on your own daughter?

I had to be completely objective. With my course supervisor, I did out three or four questions, and I had said it to Louise, I said, “Look,” I said, “I want to do a case study on yourself, but I can’t talk to you about it, I cannot sit down and read the questions and say “I want this, this and this.” When I do out the questions, you need to take it away, don’t even ask me! Can’t ask me anything! And you need to answer the questions yourself.” And she did. And I found out things that she would never have told me. She never told me! About, oh, my God, about – (sighs) They used to give them their lunch, right?

S: Oh! They got their dinners in school, because obviously Traveller parents don’t feed their children.

Special classes! But, they didn’t –

S: Did they get a hot dinner?

Yes! Very well fed, now and very well done. Well cooked food. And in the case study I was reading and I was dying to read this –

S: Of course!

Because I knew there was stuff that she’d sort of – and I gave her a week. I said, “Don’t do it overnight, love. Just take your time.”

S: And did she write the answers?

She did. “Read the questions”


S: We’re just talking about you!

No, that’s Helen. “Read the questions, and take your time in filling it out.” They used to give them the dinner, right? And they’d be finished the dinner, and they’d come around then with their dessert, and plomp the dessert on the plate that they were after eating off.

That was disgusting! No, that wasn’t how it happened. You’d line up, get your dinner. Do you know the smell up and down?

S: Yeah.

That was the smell out of the kitchen.

S: Why?

It was just a mixture of the beans, the Smash, that’s what it is.

S: (laughs) Smash! Just what you needed! Yeah, go on!


S: No, Smash! Smash. It was one of these chemical wonders. Instant mashed potato. Smash.

And the semolina. So you’d get the Smash and the beans, and you’d eat that. You’d go up. They’d barely scrape the plate, and then you’d get the semolina on top of that. It was disgusting!

That was treating people like animals. You wouldn’t treat an animal like that!

S: Did you shower? Did you get the Auschwitz experience?

Because I know plenty of people who got the Auschwitz experience. Stripped them! And herded them through.

Oh, they did! But I stopped that!

I can’t remember that.

S: That’s because you’re blanking it out of your mind.

I asked for their uniforms, and they nearly fainted. They said, “What do you want with their uniforms?” I said, “I’ll wash them. Clean them, whatever.” “What?! For what?”

I’ll never forget it, though. It was the day of my Communion. I was wearing the dress that I’m wearing in that picture up there, and me mother remarked to me through the yard out there, “You’re not going to this school anymore!” And I was saying, “Oh! Thank God! Thank God!” We went to Turner’s Cross, then, and that was a brilliant school.

I even went so far – they ignored me, right? I asked for four meetings. They ignored me. I said, fine. Grand! Sat down here one night and wrote a letter to the board of management. I ought to have a copy of that letter! I quoted apartheid, South Africa, everything I could ever think of. And you should see the reaction I got to that letter. I had a nun in my kitchen! Now, I posted that letter – I made enquiries to find out when the next board meeting was. And because of something was going on, they were actually having it on the Saturday. So I posted the letter Thursday, Swiftpost. So they got it. And she came in – sure, she came to collect them. There was a nun on the bus, like. She came to collect them. And she came in to my kitchen and, I swear to God, I thought this woman was going to grow horns. And this nun, now, was the nicest person you could get. I mean to say, I was mad about her! Because she had this sort of – d’you know, the way she interacted. But by Jesus, did I change my mind after that morning. She was spitting fire! And believe me, the children ran in here, because what she gave, she got back. And I said, “I want you to leave my kitchen right now,” when I was finished. And I said, “How dare ye! Ye’re supposed to be Christian people! Nuns! And ye’re treating children like that!” And she said, “Like what!” and I quoted it, quoted it, quoted it. And she turned pale. I said, “Do you know,” I said, “that a case could be brought against ye, for abuse of children?” She ran, literally ran, out the steps of my house.

S: What do you reckon they were doing that was abusive? Because putting semolina on a dirty plate may be disgusting, but it’s not abusive.

The yard. They were completely segregated. They were over in a little prefab, away from the main school. Any child could walk up to any one of the Traveller children and spit into their face and the teachers would just ignore it completely. When I was moving them I went in to the principal – the vice-principal, the principal wouldn’t meet me any more, she didn’t want nothing more to do with me –

S: Were these all nuns?

No. No. The principal was a nun, three of the teachers – well, yeah, the nuns would have taken care of the Traveller children. Went to the vice principal, and I said, “Where is the, I expected the principal,” and she said, “Oh no, she’s actually not in Cork at the minute.” I said, “Yeah. I can imagine why.” But after the letter, that was the worst – I mean, I think that was the worst thing I could have ever done, in their eyes. Because they were looking at it from a Christian point of view. They were taking these “God help us!” children, in, and doing what they could, best they could, for them.

S: But that was the whole point.

And I then came on. And I upheaved the whole thing.

S: Yes, you bit the hand that patted you.

Oh, my God, it was like – that was an experience I’ll never forget. And I think that experience pushed me on to – I could actually map why I’m involved in what I’m involved in today, and that was one huge factor in it.

S: It started off with you fighting for your kids.

Exactly. And that ended up then, because then I moved them, I ended up putting pressure on me, having five of them, the three girls, the two boys, when they went to school, in the kitchen, having to do homework with them, and I was ready to tear me hair out. That pushed me then –

S: Because they had no homework, before!

Exactly. That pushed me then to contact Sandra, the girl now I work closely with. She was actually running a homework support group for Travellers in Mahon. And I arranged to meet with her and just to find out how she set it up. So I set one up, then, in Turner’s Cross, for the children from here. They’d come out of school two days a week and they’d come to us. I organised for –

S: You had it here in your home?

No, no, no. In the community centre in Turner’s Cross. I organised for youth workers to actually come in and sit down and do one-to-one homework support.

S: Okay, so it wasn’t just a quiet space with no telly to do the homework in. It was actual support, if you needed someone to help you, to explain the maths problem or whatever.

Exactly. And we ran that for four years, and there was thirteen children in that, and 75% of that thirteen would have gone on to secondary school. And the need for it, then, sort of dwindled out. Because 75% would have gone, but there was only my Dennis, and Thomas, and Helen, that stayed. They left after the first year.

S: Stayed in secondary?

Mmm. The three would have stayed on. Because I would have made a deal with the boys. I said, look, anything at all. I’d have given them anything, for to stay in school! But it was funny with Thomas, you know, he got to Junior Cert and I said, Jesus Christ, he was leaving, and, Good luck, says I. That’s grand! So Thomas – he’s a cute one – Thomas then, I said to him one day, he was coming up to this stage of actually going on or not going on, to secondary school. And I was saying to to him, “Well try it out, you never know, Jesus, it’s an experience, like.” And he said, “No, no. I’m not going.” So I said, “Fine.” I said, “Right. I’ll give you such and such every week, once you stay in school.”

S: You were going to pay him to stay in school.

Pay him. And I paid him! And I’m not one bit ashamed to say it! So we made the deal –

S: Well, I presume he would have been earning if he wasn’t in school, anyway, so…

– Made this deal, then, right? He said, “Right, I’ll do that, and when I do my Junior Cert, I’m gone.” I said, “Fine, but we’ll talk about it after.” The day, the hour, I collected him after his last test in the junior cert, and he turned around to me and he said, “Now! I’ve covered my side of the deal. I am not going back.” And I’m there, and I’m, “Oh, my God, what was I doing, making that deal?” But, I mean, he did, genuinely. He said, “I did it!”

S: But doing the junior cert: did he go through the motions? Or did he study, and actually pass it?

No! Both of them have got very good results. Dennis got – I can’t remember now, but I remember being shocked, a huge result in science.

S: Why is that funny? Is he just not a science person?

No! To me, he wouldn’t have been, but it would have been the highest mark he got. Dennis, in science.

(Daughter says something)

I’m saying, like, an unusual subject.

Oh, yeah.

But, like, they broke a cycle, and in a sense, that was good enough, then, for me. Like, you could have people saying, “Oh, you should have made them go on, and stay, and all -”

S: Sure, you can’t make them.

Hello! I got the junior cert out of them!

You made me!

No, love, I didn’t make you.

It was only when I finished –

S: Did you finish? Did you do your leaving as well? Wow!

I was going to leave in 5th year, and I went to my guidance counsellor, and she –

(mother gasps) Oh, Jesus! Stop!

– that she could get me into if I wanted to leave school, and, it would have been a better option for myself if I did, and all this kind of crack.

This is a career guidance teacher, now!

So I came home, and I said it to her (mother), and she was like, “She said what!?” (all laugh)

That was Friday. So I had the weekend to calm down, which was good. But I went in Monday morning, I found the principal, I said, “I need to talk to you.” And I left that career guidance teacher’s office, and she had a completely clear view on Helen O’Sullivan. And it wasn’t done in an angry way, which was the weekend it took for to process it. Her daughter worked in this Youthreach place, and she was offering her, she could get her in.

S: What is Youthreach? Is that for early school leavers?

Well, it is for early school leavers. But it’s also for delinquents, troubled children –

S: But “early school leaver” tends to be, what’s the word I want, a euphemism for, doesn’t it? Because the two tend to go together?