DOUG (V/O): How you doing? I'm Doug Devaney and you're listening to The Plastic Podcasts, tales of the Irish Diaspora. Well the sun is out, the sky is blue, and that can only mean one thing. Hayfever. Make that two, because it also means the start of the sixth series of The Plastic Podcasts. Six, Jim. Count 'em: six.
Now, not for the first - or I imagine the last - time we find ourselves in Peckham. Home not just of Del and Rodney, and Rio Ferdinand, but also our guest today, Chelsea McDonagh. An Irish Traveller with an MA in Education from Kings College at the University of London, Chelsea was Education Policy and Campaigns Officer with The Traveller Movement before becoming researcher for The Young Foundation. She's also the co-founder of RomBelong: a programme aimed at increasing progression to Higher Education among the GRT community.
With all of this on her plate, I'm amazed she has time for the likes of us. So it's probably best to get on with it and ask Chelsea McDonough: how you doing?
Now, please be warned that there are examples of adult language dotted throughout this entire interview. You have been warned. So, Chelsea, how are you doing?
CHELSEA (Int): Yeah, not too bad. It's funny, you mentioned Rio Ferdinand. He grew up just kind of around the corner from me, a little bit down the road, but his brother Anton came to my uncle's funeral a couple of weeks ago. They grew up playing football together. A little fact for you there.
DOUG: So what's a typical day like for you?
CHELSEA: I'm actually less busy now because I've tried to make a very concerted effort to sort of, like ,slow things down a bit because sometimes it sort of felt like you were pulled in lot of directions. But I think, you know, standard sort of thing at the moment is like, you know, I've got my nine to five: I work, I do research, I support young people.
And then around that, typically in the evenings and weekends, I'll do a lot of, kind of like stuff around blog writing or content writing, stuff like that. I love nothing more than to turn stuff out and can kind of do so quickly and I'm still sort of dabbling in academia and turning out a couple of papers.
I've just tried to get back into cycling and doing stuff like that. I used to play rugby and really miss it. I can't go back to it ‘cos of my knee, but yeah, just trying to sort of find something to do. And then it's the standard, like I'm one of seven with eight nieces and nephews so far. There's usually one or two kind of, you know, pulling on the ankles to go somewhere. I think it's mixture of things.
DOUG Let's talk about family ‘cos, is it your mum's from Galway and your dad's from Manchester?
CHELSEA: Yes. My mother was originally born in Dublin but her family like really they're from Galway. My father was born in Manchester and his family would be from Roscommon. So, that sort of standard sort of thing where his parents come over here. His dad come over here at 16. His mother had already been sent to England when she was, like, seven to live with her uncle, because he'd come here after the war.
I think my mother really was kind of back and forth. Like a lot of people throughout their teens and stuff until originally then came over and settled. They settled in sites. Like, they didn't - my parents didn't settle until the nineties, but settled in the sense of remaining England rather than doing the back and forth.
DOUG: So you mentioned sport and I was going come around to that because your original - is it a BSc or a BA that you did in sports?
CHELSEA: Yeah. BA
DOUG: Was rugby the way into your interest in sports and education?
CHELSEA: Uh, no, I think I was always interested in sport. You know, largely kind of helped as a kid being a tomboy-slash-closeted lesbian that didn't, you know, come out til a lot later, but I didn't start playing rugby til I was probably about 18. And I quite liked it ‘cos it was like: “Oh yeah, you're allowed to show aggression and I think also there was stuff around body image in the sense that, like - in other sports you’re kind of - rugby almost like celebrates different types of bodies and it's kind of like, “No you're strong, okay. You can play this position.” And I think it was a way of just kind of like becoming comfortable in myself, but also then meeting other people. And I quite liked that team aspect.
At the time I was 18 - looking back, you know - struggling with my mental health and rugby was just a nice way of kind of like - sometimes it can be hard to balance that kind of mental health stuff. And how do you kind of like find a way of dealing with that?
And I think for me, sport has always been that kind of way of - it's, you know, it's a mixture of sport, reading and writing, but a big part of kind of like: “Oh, actually, that's how you can deal with it.” I think that was kind of like part of it and I just think I played a game after like one training session. I just loved it, I was just hooked.
DOUG: That was at college. Where were you in college?
DOUG: And you were studying sports then?
DOUG: So prior to that, obviously you're at school. What were you like at school?
CHELSEA: A bit of an arsehole, I think. In the sense that - you know - I was lucky. I went to school and, you know, the thing about secondary school: I went to a good school. A good head teacher who - you know, it shouldn't be that way - but at least you're going to school where they’re, you're know: “Okay. They’re, like, Travellers.” They don't care, as opposed to a school where you know that as soon as they see your surname, walking in the door, you're an issue.
But, yeah, I was always kind of in top set. I think my issue was that I was always bored. I'd look for things to do, or I would just do stupid things, just out of kind of like, yeah, some really abstract reasons. That at the time kind of made sense, but you know, I remember once accidentally causing a walk out in PE because we had a cover teacher and she was doing the rules wrong.
I look back now and I'm like, “Nah, what an arsehole.” It wasn't that big of a deal, but I was, like, “I'm done now.” And I think everyone else was kind of like, “Oh yeah, fuck it, let’s go back.”
But no, I think my teachers were mostly exasperated. It was that kind of thing of, like: “Chelsea has loads of potential, but she just needs to try harder, stay consistent in lessons, do her homework.” Like the usual kind, I guess, sort of stuff that kind of crops up.
But it was hard. When I was in year 10, my granny had had a stroke. You know, all of a sudden you have care responsibilities that you've never had before. Um, just, yeah, like in that moment, everything had changed. You're helping, you know, the night shifts and you’re caring during the day and you're doing all these things and it was a bit like - I had younger siblings as well and it was like, there was a lot for us to do and homework never really kind of reached that top list of priorities.
My English teacher had this kind of love-hate relationship because, you know, I’d turn up one day and be like, “Oh yeah, like I'm going do some work.” And then like, I don’t know – I once did a piece of creative writing. I hadn't done that in the double lesson. And then in single lesson, she was, “Oh, like I'm collecting at the door.”
I was like, “Yeah. Okay. Whatever.”
And she was, “Oh, well, you know, if you don't do it, I'm telling so- and-so,” who's my PE teacher, Moriarty. And I was like: “Alright, well, whatever, you grass, I'm doing it.”
So I quickly sort of scribbled something out. And you know, I think I got like an A star on it and she said, “Oh, can I use this to teach creative writing?”
I'm like, “Definitely not. How embarrassing. Give that back.”
So I kind of had this thing where I'd come in one day and do like: “Yeah, yeah.” And then the next lesson, I’m like, “Don't talk to me. I don't want to do it,” because I found its fine if I had that sort of thing and I had constant simulation, but far kind of more often you're bored because, “Well, I’ve finished the book” in the first two lessons, everyone else was still reading it and you're not going to ask for extra work. Like that's embarrassing. I don't care what anyone says.
DOUG: Are you generally the brightest person in the room?
CHELSEA: I don't know. I did well. Like I think at the I was quite like, I had low confidence or even, you know, they'd be saying this while I wouldn't see it. And it wasn't until I went to uni and it was like - you know, uni was a breeze. There was the emotional stuff that was more difficult and the balancing it with work, et cetera. But like in terms of academics, I don't have to try hard. It comes easy, which is fine in one way. But then when you're trying to do something that doesn't come easy, you're trying to teach yourself, oh, like “You can't just quit. If something doesn't come easy.” But yeah. I think when I got to uni, it was like, I’m usually one of those people who kind of sat at the top without ever having to try too hard, but I did try once I got to uni.
DOUG: You were talking about school and saying that it wasn't problematic that you were a Traveller…
DOUG: But by the same token academic achievement amongst Travellers is pretty low.
DOUG: I suppose you were a rarity succeeding in school in the first place or getting the marks that you did.
CHELSEA: Yeah. I think it was one of those - don't get me wrong: there were other Traveller girls in the school as well, you know, even the year above me, at least one, I think, in each year – but, yeah, I was someone that academics just came easy to. And I couldn't see it at the time. You know, they were saying, “Look, you go to university, you could do this.” You know, they were saying all this, but I couldn't see it because I remember going - you know - I was on the, I think it was the Gifted and Talented scheme that was happening at time, and I remember going to LSE and sitting there thinking “It's all good and well bringing me here. There aren't no Travellers here. There's no one here that, that talks how I do, that understands.” So I was just sitting there thinking this isn't a place for someone like me.
And I remember having this real grudge against the careers teacher, because I was just like - I wouldn't explain this, but in my head I was thinking this - like, you know, it was an alien environment, yes, but I didn't see anyone. I googled Travellers and University and I didn't see anything. So I was like, well, that's not for me.
I think it was kind of years later where I started seeing like, oh, I understand what they mean.
Because it's like, I think once you started getting that academic achievement, you're like, oh, this makes sense. By the time I was at college - I remember in my third year I spent most of my time helping to teach the first and second years, rather than going to my own lessons because they were like, they knew I had no interest doing that. But actually if you asked me to teach someone something I could do that because I was bored in those lessons.
I think it was kind of balancing that sense of like, how do I be a Traveller, but at university and kind of balance those two worlds? And I think I’d say I didn't start really to kind of find that balance, I think, until my third year. When I went to do my Masters or I started to meet other Travellers who had gone to university.
DOUG: And if somebody who's a first year student at university and so forth, and turns t you and says “How do I balance those two worlds?” what would be your answer to that?
CHELSEA: I think probably it's about not forgetting who you are when you're going into these institutions. Because I think it's so easy to - you know, I can put on an English accent, I can, you know, sound like I probably went to private school or something. And you can, you can almost create a whole second identity, but actually it's about finding that balance in the middle where that's still who you are, but this is just something that you're doing.
You know, I'm saying this from a privileged position of, like, I went to university and immediately got academic success. So I didn't have that thing of like, I think sometimes it's harder to feel that sense of belonging if maybe you don't, if - you know, I played rugby, so it's kind of meeting people through that. If you don't find that sort of social side, but also then if you are experiencing difficulties achieving academic success, it can feel more like it isn't something for you, but I think it's like it's persevering and kind of building a support network around you. It doesn't have to be your family ‘cos maybe they don't quite understand, but you know, what mentors and other people are kind of like, to get that support so that you stay.
Getting in the door is fine, but that isn't enough. It's, you know, it’s what happens when you’re in there.
DOUG (VO): You're listening to The Plastic Podcasts, we all come from somewhere Else. Find us on Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Podcasts, as well as on our own website, www.plasticpodcasts.com.
It's estimated that some 2 to 3% of Romany Gypsy, European Roma, Irish or Scottish Travellers end up going to higher education compared to 43% of the general population. Given this disparity, I wonder how Chelsea's friends and family responded to her decision to go to university.
CHELSEA (Int): I think we probably have to bear in mind that I hadn't come out at the time. And the reason I say it's important is because - me not coming out, you know - once I'd come out, it was very clear that I wasn't going to follow that traditional path ‘cos it didn't make sense to. But before that there was obviously kind of a question, like, I guess people weren't sure. I think they knew it was coming, but weren't necessarily sure. And I just think people weren't really sure why I was going or like, ‘cos they didn't really understand university and there were lots of fears, you know? Like the stuff around the student loans is a block over “How does that work?” You know, will you need that kind of money ‘cos, you know, how are you going to pay for that?
I think it was more just around that, but yeah, like I think it's more that they just didn't understand. And I think at the time I took that kind of lack of understanding as a lack of support when that wasn't what it was. It was just that because they didn't understand, they didn't have the capacity to support me with those things.
I had a really good relationship with my curriculum manager at college and he was kind of - to be honest - I think vital in that kind of going to university and getting past those first few weeks where I remember going to a lecture, it was a research module and, you know, they’re saying words like “epistemology”, “ontology”.
I'd never heard these words my whole life. And I sat there looking everyone else thinking: “They're all nodding. They're all nodding and I haven't got a fucking clue.” And I remember ringing John and being like, “Why did you send me? Why'd you tell me to go here? Because I haven't got fucking a clue what's going on,” and he just started laughing and was like “I told you were gonna cry in the first two weeks.”
I was being an arse, like, “I don’t know what I'm doing." And he, you know, he just told me, hit the books. And I did, you know. And I got a first on my first assignment, and that then gave me the thing of like, okay, so maybe I do know what I'm doing. I just need to apply. I then kind of set about trying to understand what they wanted from an essay. And then once I understood that: “Okay, this is exactly what you want, “ I then just kind of had that same formula, you know? That's how then, you know, I consistently got firsts on different assignments because I understood then what they were looking for. So it's just kind of - yeah - navigating that to find them.
DOUG: Are you really good at adapting?
CHELSEA: I think so. I often don't show if I'm anxious about something, so I will kind of do this thing or I look like I'm in control of everything. But actually if you know me you'd know that I'll be having this panic.
DOUG: You mentioned coming out a couple of times and I wonder, what was that like?
CHELSEA: The fear of doing it was worse than what it actually was. You know, ‘ cos my father is someone who, you know, I love my father very much. And he’s very like often you can't tell what he's thinking and I wasn't sure like how he was going to react.
He turned around and was like, I don't care. I don’t care That was genuinely his thing. And you know, again, the rest of my family were fine. I remember my cousin getting a train down from Manchester – it was the next day or something - to be like, yeah, you know, it doesn't matter. But he got the train the whole way down just to come and tell me that. Like he could have picked up the phone and done it. But you know, he made the decision to come down.
Yeah, like I said, I’m very, very lucky in the sense that I have, you know, a supportive family where isn't an issue. It's not a thing like - I remember being 17 - 16, 17 I think - and reading that story by Mikey Walsh, Gypsy Boy, and thinking, you know, is that what it's going to be like for me? Is that kind of, what's going to happen? And probably, kind of, motivated me to kind of go to university. ‘Cos I was thinking: “Right. If that does happen, I need to have a plan. I do need to make sure that, no matter what happens, whether if my father tells me to go off for I can't be here, then I have a plan. Then I know what I'm doing.”
To be honest, I think, you know, whichever way it would've turned out, I would've been fine.
Like I would've got on with it. I think that's genuine. Like my mentality is no matter what happens, I will get up the next day and I'll get on with it, because you know what? Like, you can't, you know? I have two uncles who killed themselves and life goes on, Like you might be out of your pimp, life goes on. People have moved on. Life goes on without you. That wasn't going to be me. Like it wasn't gonna be me that –
The way I looked at it was like, I'd still lose. Like, no matter what, like, you know, if I was to kill myself, I still wouldn't get the life I wanted. I was like, <laugh> someone doesn't give me it, then I'm going to go get it. I'm going to go take it. Like I'm going to have the life I need. And, yeah, like I said, very lucky to be surrounded by supportive family.
And you know, my niece and nephew, they don't care. They're like, oh yeah, Chelsea has a girlfriend. That's it. Move on. Like, that's it. It's not an issue.
DOUG: And going across to university - Thank you for that by the way -
CHELSEA: No, no, it's okay.
DOUG: You do your BA in sports and your MA in education. And is it when you're doing the MA over at Kings that you co-found RomBelong?
CHELSEA: Yes. What happened was, during my undergrad second year, had a grad job. Realised actually I can't do a grad job and placement and uni. There wasn't enough hours in the day. And my academic tutor was on my back to cut down. So I got a job working as an alternative education tutor and I started also working with the Widening Participation Department. So that was kind of my introduction into doing some of that stuff. And, you know, part of it was, when you do stuff like that at uni, stuff like that is pretty well paid. And it's usually at uni and it's not too hard and it's quite easy.
And then when I went to Kings - it was in, yeah, the first year of my Masters at Kings - I met Chrissie, who's the other co-founder. And Chris, you know, I think me and Chrissie worked as a good team because Chrissie is very much like: details, planning, all of that. That's Chrissie's bag. And I'm quite good at the front, the front of house stuff. So the delivering, the work with young people.
I think it was kind of born out of that idea. Like Chrissie done, I think she'd done like a summer job with them and then I'd started in September. And we kind of took that then through the two years we were there. So in the first kind of couple years, it was very much like just trying different things. Meeting with different organisations, you know, doing talks for young people, getting young people to visit - or community groups or schools - and stuff like that. And it was like just, yeah, sort of - the idea just kind of then took on a life of its own and we did a lot of that work together. And, yeah, it feels like one of the kind of most meaningful things that I definitely did when I was at Kings.
DOUG: So, what are the aims or the intentions with RomBelong?
CHELSEA: When, you know I said this before, when I googled University and Travellers, nothing came up. There was just nothing. So it very much kind of made that thing where you're like, right, this isn't a place for someone like me. But now, you know, now you can google it. You can see videos of Travellers, different Travellers at university talking about their experience. You can see that there's, you know, extra support you might be able to access because you're going into an alien institution. The idea is to kind of bridge that gap. You know, we do want to make sure that more Gypsy Romany Travellers are going to university but, as I said, getting in the door isn't enough.
You need to – one - feel like you're belong there, but also you need to access the support to even get there because, you know, if you are not doing A’ levels, it's definitely much more difficult to get to university. It's just about improving that access and awareness, I think. And one of the last things, you know - because I've let King's take on that RomBelong program and it's compatible with some of their work - but one of the last things we did kind of came out of a conversation with Linklaters.
So I got a message from someone from Linklaters. Me being me, I didn't have fucking clue who they were <laugh>.
It was like, oh, you want to meet and have a chat. “Yeah, sure.” And ended up really getting funding. And I, I went back to Chris, I’m like: “Have you got ideas? I can get you money if you've got ideas. At this point, do you want an external funder.” ‘Cos Chrissie's doing more of the day to day work and she's like: “Yeah, but that's not until year - you know - X of the plan”, maybe year five or something. I'm like, “Yeah, but I can get you it now. Can you pull a proposal together for Friday? And, you know, she did it and we went away and we pitched it and, and they gave us money for that.
The idea being that it is almost kind of, you know, The Amos Bursary; that, but I guess in its very early days. The idea that they can support X amount of students, who are planning to go to university, get them a mentor, you know, financial bursaries so that they can attend, you know, university events or talks and stuff like that.
There was just lots of stuff going on, but I think that's one thing that I was really proud of. It's just nice to then, you know, see that for other people coming behind us that there's something there to support them.
DOUG: Yeah. It's not just university, is it? I'm assuming that really the work has a start, when also education starts itself.
CHELSEA: Yeah, ‘cos cause a lot of people assumed it’s just about getting sixth formers into university and it's like, no our issues start way beyond that. So we started working in primary schools and secondary schools to introduce some of these ideas. Kind of like a RomBelong scholars thing, where we went into primary school and worked with young groups of Traveller children, who I think were like year five, year six, to introduce the idea.
It wasn't even about university, but about like academics and studying, but making it fun. Because, like I said, that work needs to be done much earlier because by the time then they're thinking about it, like, you know, it's sometimes then it's too late, you know?
Of my four grandparents only one could read or write, and that was because she went to school in Manchester until she was 14. The other three couldn’t. And you know, my parents have the classic stories of like, you know, my mother saying, “Oh yeah, we went to school and you know, to go to kind of learn your prayers, do all this. And after we'd made our Holy Communion, the priest, you know, the brothers and the nuns said, ‘Oh, well, you don't need to come back anymore.’” Like, that's what they did. They were told not to come back anymore. Like, you've made that, now you don't need to come back anymore.
You know, I remember being in year 10 and that was like, when My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings all started and it was literally, like, you’d watch that and - you know, I think it used to be shown on a Tuesday evening. You literally sat there like “Jesus Christ, I've got to go to school tomorrow.
"I have to go to school tomorrow. <laugh> and everyone else would've seen this too,” you know? I was lucky in a sense that I went to a school where I think most of my peers were more kind of just who were asking questions and interested rather than kind of like - to be fair, I think by secondary school I wasn't someone that was going to be bullied.
You know, it's different then for people who - like, I’ve talked some of my friends who went to school outside of London in quite rural areas in England and had an horrendous experience. But that isn’t to say London schools that are better because I do think it still happens, but I know, especially in those areas, it was kind of even more a thing because you were definitely known as an outsider.
DOUG (V.O.): We'll be back with Chelsea McDonough in just a moment. But first it's time for The Plastic Pedestal: that section of the programme where I ask one of my interviewees to highlight and celebrate a member of the Diaspora of personal, cultural or political significance to them. Now, usually the pedestal highlights an interviewee whose conversation has already been broadcast, but this time we're swinging forward to future interviewee, designer and artist Warren Riley with a very personal Plastic Pedestal.
WARREN (Int): I would like to nominate my auntie. My auntie Patricia, who I call my Auntie Tish, who sadly at the moment is not very well. So I would like to give her a little bit of a tribute. She's somebody that is incredibly important to me. I love her very dearly, and she's gone through a lot in her life.
I think one thing that I really connect with her is that she was born mixed race. And, as was quite common at the time, was not told that she was mixed race and was something that she had discovered later on in life. Had a very, very complex, kind of coming to, you know, accept her identity. But what I really, really connected her with is that she was mixed race with both, you know, a black heritage and an Irish heritage and listening to her experiences of how she had to deal with that as an adult, I really connected with, and I thought that that was really, really, an important aspect of my teenagehood: to be able to have these conversations with her, to talk very openly.
And she's someone that loves history as well. She loves fashion. She absolutely loves Chanel. It's like something that is a huge passion of hers.
But just to be able to have a member of my family that has always understood me and has respected me and has celebrated my creativity and my identity and my queerness, has been really, really important. And I'm forever thankful for all the input that she has given me. And it is really saddening that she isn’t very well, and (that’s) something that she's trying to fight against and I just really want to wish her all the best of luck for that.
And, yeah, I think she is a very valuable nominee for The Plastic Pedestal.
DOUG (V/O): Warren Riley, and if you want to hear more of what Warren has to say, well, you'll just have to wait a couple of weeks. Or if you are looking back at the finest of our interviewees, then you will find him among them on the Episode page at www.plasticpodcasts.com.
And regular listeners will know what's coming next: while you're there, why not subscribe? Simply scroll to the bottom of the Home page at www.plasticpodcasts.com, input your details in the space provided, and one confirmatory email click later, all the Plastic Loot of the world will be yours, including the latest interviews, personal blogs and details of all of our Plastic Projects. It's that simple.
And now back to Chelsea McDonagh.
Earlier this year, Jimmy Carr caused a stir with a joke about the Nazi extermination of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers during the 1930s and ’40s. Given that Carr himself is of Irish heritage. I wonder what Chelsea's take on this is…
CHELSEA (Int): It's almost worse. Like, you know, at least in England half the time, they don't know your Travellers, they just think you're Irish. When you go back there, like I remember my grandfather was talking. So my Nan died a few years ago, my grandfather said, you know, he'd had a conversation. And she was saying, oh, like, “I want to go back to Athlone.”
And he was like: “For what?” He said, The town that he said, you wouldn't be served a drink in a pub. And he comes from Schull and he said, why would I go back here? He said, they wouldn't serve me a drink, so what would I want to be buried there for?
And this is the thing. It makes for a difficult relationship being Irish, because you're proud of who you are. Like, I think that's why we don't lose our accents. Like, you know, my father was born in Manchester. We all still have accents because you're proud of that. You're proud of who you are, but you know, like, you know what Ireland doesn't give a shit about you. It never did. And it never will. That’s the reality, you know?
We can talk about, you know, a United Ireland, all of this, but actually if it's not United Ireland where you have any part in it, then you know, who cares? Don't get me wrong, I really want that. But there is that thing where it's kind of like, you know, I hold an Irish passport because I refuse to hold a British one. But you have that kind of fractured relationship with nationalism, because how can you be part of a national identity for a country that essentially disowns you? So I think that it makes it difficult because you look at Ireland and you're like, it's worse there.
Do you know what, at least you can kind of get on here, but like, and this is where, like, you will look at Irish people who are fine, or they have very like - they hate Travellers, just, it's almost sometimes like, there's no one between.
I recently started taking Irish classes, and I was very hesitant because I was like, you know, the experiences I do have of engaging in places of Irish culture in England is that you don't belong there. It’s a place for the Diaspora but not you as part of that. And I was looking at that. The tutor I had was good, and, you know, was that “If you are, like, part of this community and you kind of reached out to kind of be like this, you know, this is still done for you.”
I think it just makes it a bit difficult, ‘cos you're a bit like, well, I'll die for neither country ‘cos you wouldn't piss on me if I was on fire. My parents are Irish and are both proud to be Irish , you know, and I grew up as someone who knew about Irish history; who knew about, you know, the struggle Ireland went through for independence, all of these things through my dad. And you know, he'd tell you, you know, he often tells the story of being about 10 in Manchester, and people were collecting money for the hunger strikers.
Yeah. He would've been about 10 - 1981 and Bobby Sands had just died. And he remembers someone saying like, you know, collecting for calls. And he said, “I only had a few pence in my pocket was all I had and I gave,” you know, he’s only 10 years old. And he distinctly remembers that kind of feeling. But, but I do think there's a thing of like, you're a Traveller first. You're an Irish Traveller before you're Irish. Like, that's how it is, I think. That is how it is.
I don’t know how many times I've been told to go home and I'm like, I’ve no idea where you think you want me to go. I’ll go pick a field and go “Oh yeah, this looks about right. <laughs> It’s true, though.
Saying that, if England ever went to war, fuck that - I'll go back. Bye. It's not my problem. Them sending our boys out to die for who, you know?
But there is that thing of, like, even when you grow up here, you know that you are Irish and you're like, you're an Irish Traveller, but in England it’s like you're both and you're different.
I didn't grow up in Ireland. I don’t, you know – my parents left, my parents have never lived there because they know what it is. Like, I went back with my grandfather two years ago and, you know, we did two weeks back there and it was nice. We went to different places and stuff like that, but I remember, you know, one hotel we were in. Now, I went in and checked in, ‘cos I knew I have a Traveller's surname, but I'm, like - I don't look like one. I don't sound like what an Irish Traveller in Ireland would sound like. And that was all fine until one of my grandmother's nephews came down and, you know, is identifiable as a Traveller. And then all of a sudden there were issues of us being served in the pub in the hotel.
And I went down and was like, you know, what the fuck are you playing that?
And then of sudden it’s, “Oh,” like, “Oh no, I didn't realize.”
And it's like, “Yeah, like. Serve him. You know, you've gone in to get my grandfather a drink. And that’s fine. That’s off me. But that’s not always the experience that other people have. And I think, like I said, you grow up very consciously aware that, like - I just think it is a fact - it's difficult. I'm proud of the Irish. And that’s a big part of who I am. It's a big part of the music I listen to. How I feel about certain topics and things like that. But you are also kind of like - under the Ireland, we have, you know that you're not accepted within that.
DOUG: But then also, sort of like, RomBelong itself is a kind of act of optimism.
CHELSEA: Yes. I, I think so. I think it's part of it is optimism. I do think Travellers will survive. I don't think they get that Travellers will always survive. No matter what happens, they're going to continue, they're going to exist and, and you will do so defiantly.
You know, there's things I've done. Achieving at uni was an act of defiance, it was like, no one can tell me shit. You know, I had all these jobs, I got all of this experience. Like, people always go - someone said the other day “You’ve got a lot of experience for someone who's only 26.” And it's like: well, yeah, that's so no one could tell me shit. And so when I walked into an interview, you couldn't tell me that I don't have enough experience.
You couldn't tell me that my academics weren't good enough. You couldn't tell me any of those things because you're making a point to go. And if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it. And that's how it is. But like, yes, it's optimism, but it's also like, you know: you will have grit and you'll have resilience. You have all these things, but you have to then need to also kind of be supported and it's to ensure that whilst it it's about optimism, it's also about practicalities.
You know, are they making space for you? And if not, let's make sure that they are. ‘Cos I don't necessarily think, and people might think I'm pessimistic, but going to university doesn't necessarily change everything because at the end of the day, you might be treated better in professional circles. You might be da da da, but you'll still experience discrimination in your day to day life.
For all of my degrees and for all of my experience, the police still rang around the pubs and got them to close. And whilst they didn't force them to close, they effectively twisted their hand under licensing legislation. It's the same thing, right? If someone else is having a funeral, they don't ring around the pubs to find out, one where you're going and to, two, to check their licensing and remind them, you know, that if anything happened, you're not going to get your license again. You're forcing the pubs to close, I don’t care what anyone says.
Whilst we got the situation, you know, resolved in part - that still happened. We still had to deal with that two days before my uncle’s funeral, when the pub had been booked for five weeks. They knew we were Travellers, there were no issues. And at the end of the day, they still turn around and do that.
So you are reminded, it’s like: doesn't matter. We liaise with them in the sense that we're like, yeah, look, we recognize there might be traffic disruption. This is route we're going to take, these are the little bits we're going to get out and walk. Because you're trying to go look, we recognize that – you know - we're trying to minimize this as much as possible. So we're trying to play ball with you, but you still don't want to play ball. You know, it's still a kick in the teeth at the end of the day. And for me, it's just that reminder where you're like, thanks. Thanks for just reminding me and making sure that I know that that's how it is.
It's a bit depressing. Like, you know, I can't be arsed with politics and, you know, we're now heading back to the same point, we were 40 years ago under Margaret Thatcher and it is just going to keep getting worse. And that's the issue. Like it, it might be bleak now, but what is it going be like? Even for in general, it is getting worse for those who are already in a dire position. It is just getting worse with some of the legislation that’s coming through under the Police and Crime Bill and the other, you know, little bits and pieces that are passing through, it's bleak.
DOUG: It is that why RomBelong - and also education to a certain extent - it kind of helps to focus perhaps on the individual rather than on society in general that you can, kind of, help on a one by one basis or at least give people some strands to hang on to?
CHELSEA: Yeah, ‘cos it's like: do you know what - if you're going to go to university, if you're going to do all of that, here's a couple of things to help you along the way so, you know, at least hopefully - then yeah things more and more are still going to be bleak, but as an individual, you still have to get on. As an individual, you still have to do what you can do within that system. And I think that's where stuff like RomBelong are helpful, because it's like, you know, whilst we're not focusing on the individual being the problem, the individual still needs support. Even if it's bleak you still need to - if you're going to go to university and that's what you want to do - let's try and make it so that, you know, if you want to go, you can.
Not everyone has to, and I don't think everyone that will go on, would all of a sudden make - would change the way you're treated, because it's the same where, like, the vast majority of Travellers now don't travel. That hasn't changed how people have been treated. So it's not - it isn't necessarily about what you're doing, but who you are. But it's making so that, like, at least if you're going here are a few things to help you along the way. Here to make it feel like that is an option for you, should you want to pursue it.
DOUG (V/O): You're listening to The Plastic Podcasts. We all come from somewhere else. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. After the last two years, the threat of hayfever is almost a blessed relief. I wondered what Chelsea's experience of the pandemic was both personally and in terms of the treatment of Travellers.
CHELSEA (Int): I got it quite early. I think it was in the March because my mother definitely had it and, see, my grandmother needed caring for, so it was a bit like my mum's “No, one's helped me. I need help. Da da.” So it's a bit like you were taking one for the team because you knew by going in it's like “they’ve deffo got COVID.”
But I was fortunate in the sense that, like, while I did get COVID the first time and it was okay - or as okay as it could have been, you know - I was able to work from home. And there's that kind of transition, and you got used to kind of that - I like working at home, I like that kind of like way of working, but - I think for a lot of people, it was quite difficult.
I think on a site, stuff like that, just spread. One person gets it, like, you know, you're also getting it. I've got elderly grandparents and I think my niece was quite young as well. I had a niece that was born during that time. And at the time the job I was working in, we were doing a lot of stuff around trying to get the government take some kind of action.
And I remember we were about six months into the pandemic before the Cabinet Office scheduled a meeting with, you know, NGOs and stuff being all like: “Yeah, you know, like we just wanted to consider like how we could communicate with Travellers, not just saying that, like…” Yeah. You’re having a laugh. I remember putting my hand up and being, like, you know, “Can you tell us what you did for other groups then, ‘cos you keep talking about it?”
And they're like, “Oh, you know, we did this, we did this da, da.”
And I'm like, “Right. Well you can do all of those things. We don't have different radio wave frequencies. We're not aliens. We're using all the exact same communications as everyone else that use them. But it's typical that we're six months in, you know, you've done F-all.”
And the best part was when they sent us a follow up email where they were developing some guidance. They sent us some antisocial behaviour stuff and it was like, are you actually taking the piss? Like, are you really? And then they're “Oh, this was a mistake.” And it was like, right. Yeah, I'm sure it is. Course it is. It was just like “Really?”
They stopped evictions for everyone else. People were still being evicted from camps. That didn't stop. No, everyone else was not allowed to be evicted, but Travellers are still allowed to be moved around and, you know, didn't have access to water or toilets because what do you do? You know, if you're on a camp on a side of the road, or whatever, you know, usually you'd use, you know, maybe leisure centres, swimming baths, services, that kind of thing. All those were closed.
People were left without water, and access to sanitation. Meanwhile, the government were patting themselves on the back. “Oh, we've done an excellent job.” And it's like: Right. 21st century people run out of water. Stellar job there, mate.
So I think like, you know, we were lucky in the sense that we didn’t – in my family at least - experience deaths from COVID or whatever. Like, I mean, are my lungs the same from when I got COVID second time? Definitely not. But yeah, like, you know, we came out of it okay. But I know families who did have their grandparents die and other, you know, young people die and you know, one of my - my brother-in-law, his cousin died and was like 18 or something. - you know, with pre-existing health conditions, but yeah, I think it was just frustrating working in that sector. ‘Cos you're like, these people are genuinely taking the piss out of you. Six months in, you're asking about communication and then you send, you know, an ASBO form, or a leaflet or whatever. Like yeah, I think it was just, it really enforced for me. It was a bit like: This is just bleak and actually so much of this is a waste of time. And I spent loads of time doing stuff like writing letters to Gavin Williamson, doing all that crap.
Even stuff like, you know, before the pandemic, when a lot of Travellers, you know, Traveller organizations were saying, ”Look, can we have, you know, a look at having stuff like, remote learning platforms for people who do take to the road for certain periods of the year. And it was like, “That's not possible, you know, could never be possible.”
Oh my God countrymen affected? Oh, here we go.
Platforms, home tutoring packs. All of a sudden this stuff was available that they said wasn't possible. It's not that it's not possible. They're just not going to do it for you. That's what it came down to. And there were loads, you know, we were being contacted by loads of families who, you know, weren't getting - schools were not giving them laptops ‘cos they were basically making their mind up that you didn't deserve that or you're not even going to use it, kind of thing.
And as part of the RomBelong programme, we set up a tutoring scheme with another one of the travel charities to, get people out tablets and access to volunteer tutors and stuff like that. But that's me and Chrissie and a few others doing that off our own back.
Meanwhile, the government things that are set up to try and do stuff. Why is it down to two students with a bit of initiative? You know, there was just that kind of sense of frustration where it's like: you're literally useless. Like, it's a waste of time.
I remember at one point work, like, working from home and there was five children in my living room doing schoolwork -whether it was the English education system, whether it was the Irish education system - because parents wanted their children to learn, but didn't have those skills to support them. Like, so most of them end up in here and you'd, you know, spend a couple of hours, whatever, sorting out and getting the crack on with it. But so many families didn't have that. Like, yeah, I can do it. I'm lucky, but you know, not everyone has that person in their family that’s able to do that.
DOUG: Is there a hope that that's going to improve?
CHELSEA: I think so. I think the fact that universities have to include Gypsy Roma Travellers in their access plans, you know, in order to be able to charge their £9,000 fees or whatever. Whether that, you know, will result in change remains to be seen. But I do think it's a step in the right direction and the fact that at least if you Google it now, stuff will come up. There's places you can go to get support. Like you'll know at least: “Right. Even if I'm the only Traveller in here, at least I know I'm not the only one” and you don't feel so alone. I think that's what helps.
You know, it won't change overnight and I think things are very much slow change. But yeah, I think it's a step in the right direction. You know, whether this will change now with the new rules the government wants to bring in on student loans and stuff - could set us back years. You know , if they limit the student loans, you know, to people who only who got big grades in these subjects, then I think if they go down that road, then, you know, we're going to go way back. But, um, I think, yeah, it it's moving in the right direction.
DOUG: As I noted in the introduction to this, you're a remarkably busy person. So I wonder what is it you do to relax?
CHELSEA: Read is probably the first one., I think I'm on book 23 of the Year. I had to slow down a bit ‘cos I think I read like 12 books in January. I literally consumed them. My girlfriend thinks I inhale them. But no matter what book it is, it's usually four days. I slowed down ‘cos my uncle passed away. I didn't quite have the headspace for it. But, yeah, usually kind of reading whatever I get my hands on and then cycling.
I like cycling around London at night, especially kind of like Tower Bridge and then kind of follow the Thames down. Um, the lights are nice and it's kind of like, London's so busy during the day that at least at night time, you know, there's less people you feel a little bit more like: “Yeah, I like this” and I like to just take pictures and listen music and just sort of like, yeah, chill.
DOUG: And my final question. And it's a variation on the one that I ask pretty much all my interviewees. Normally I ask them: what does being a member of The Irish Diaspora mean to you, but I'm going to ask: what does being an Irish Traveller mean to you?
CHELSEA: I've been asked this question a couple of times and I -
DOUG: I didn't think I was original to be honest.
CHELSEA: I think I struggled to answer every time because for me it's who you are. It's hard to separate – like it's just who you are and how you grew up. It's in the values you hold. Because that's the thing, like - and a lot of it is family. I base my whole life around that, like, because it's such a fundamental part of who I am. Anyone who knows me will know I talk about my family all the time. And I think that's, for me, it's like, you know, I think there are a thousand ways to be a Traveller, but you know, it's that kind of like… you know, I'd ride or die for my family. That's it.
And that for me is growing up knowing that, like, no matter what happens that you'll have that. No matter if, you know, if you're on your jacks and you had nothing, your family would have your back, no matter whatever happened to you. And I think that's what it is to be a Traveller. It's like, you're not so sucked into that individualist society where, like, society always tells you it's about you. It's all about you, but you grew up knowing like it's about your family. It's about - and I think that just changes sometimes then how you see the world and how you kind of like carry yourself within that.
DOUG (V/O): You've been listening to The Plastic Podcasts with me, Doug Devaney and my guest Chelsea McDonagh. The Plastic Pedestal was provided by Warren Riley and music by Jack Devaney. Find us at www.plasticpodcasts.com, email us at [email protected]
or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. The Plastic Podcasts is sponsored using public funding by Arts Council England.