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Childcare worker Margaret Donovan outside Little Deers in Ennistymon where she works. Photograph by John Kelly

Learning to find her own path

GROWING up as one of 12 children in a Traveller family who were always moving from place to place, Margaret Donovan received almost no education as a child, barely spending any time in school.

Even the basics of literacy were not something she was given the opportunity to learn, and so she reached her late 30s without any education and, it seemed, little likelihood she would ever read or write.

She was finally pushed to begin learning, however, when she wasn’t able to help her beloved little daughter with her homework and at 55, Margaret is living a rather different life to what she was on course for as she approached 40.

She is now literate and wants to continue learning. She has held a job for many years. She drives a car and has a full license. She has taken several holidays and lived in a house for 12 years having always called a caravan home before that.

Very enthusiastic when she talks about the benefits of education, she feels that the effort she put into learning has transformed her life.

Margaret has been living in Ennistymon since the early 2000s. It’s a place she loves and where she feels part of the community, even though she was somewhat isolated there initially.

“I had a daughter in primary school, she was finding it very difficult to do her homework. I was no help to her to be honest with you, the child was getting frustrated, but I was getting more frustrated because I couldn’t do anything with her.

“I came into the community in 2002, I knew nobody in the area and I really didn’t know where to go for help. I’d no back-up.”

Fortunately a chance came up for her to address the limitations that were stopping her from helping her daughter, and Margaret took it with both hands.

“I went to a ParentPlus meeting that was on. I was asked by a member of the community here, the same woman Pat Doherty used to do extra work with kids that had difficulty.

“She asked if some of us would come and do an eight-week course. I went to it and after that there was no holding me back. I found out I wasn’t the only one in the community who wasn’t able to help kids with homework, I wasn’t the only one that was struggling. I didn’t feel like an outsider, I actually felt like part of a family.”

That course was more formal education than she had ever received up to that, and afterwards she signed up for several more courses, determined to better herself – “I had a hunger for it once I got into it.”

In her case the lack of education really had been almost total. “I only ever went to school for a week or two before the Holy Communion or the Confirmation. That was it.

“You’d just go in for the prayers, up the aisle for the Communion or Confirmation and back onto the road again.

“That’s the way we were brought up, that’s the way it was. It wasn’t important at the time. I didn’t see the need for it and it was only when I had my own child I saw the need was there because I had no way of helping her.”

As a child in a family always moving, and with no value being put on education in her community, there was no hope of learning very much.

“I don’t think Travellers understood what education was, they never got the feel of it or knew what it was to hunger to know something. They got less opportunity.

“When I went, and it was only for the Holy Communion and the Confirmation, we were down the back with a piece of paper and a crayon and you’d scribble away.

“Other kids had books in front of them, we didn’t, we were in the corner because we moved around so much. We had no place you could call a proper home.”

Given how much she had missed out on, Margaret had a more difficult journey than many people accessing adult education, but she loved seeing the progress she could make when she put her mind to it.

“If you’re prepared to put time into it, you’ll get something out of it, that’s the way it is with education. You’re not going to be perfect starting out, not going to be perfect after three or four years, after ten years you’re still going to be learning. But it’s important to know what benefit it can give you.”

The rate of Traveller unemployment is phenomenal, just above 80% at the last census, but the education Margaret has received has given her the opportunity to work and she has held a job at the Little Deers creche in Ennistymon for the last 14 years. “I came in on work experience for six months and I was told if I wanted to work I’d have to go and do childcare in Lisdoonvarna, so I did. I did level five which took me a year and a half, I did level six a few years afterwards, night time classes at Lisdoonvarna. You’d be doing other courses to meet requirements as needed.”

Working at the creche has been good for her, and she loves the camaraderie with her colleagues. “I’m surrounded by 10 or 12 women, the best women you could come across. I don’t feel like they’re my co-workers, they’re more like family. It’s a brilliant bunch of people.”

The daughter she began learning to help has grown up now, and she was the first in the family to do her Leaving Cert, something Margaret is rightly proud of.

Putting an effort into educating herself relatively late in life is quite rare in the Travelling community, and she says some people wouldn’t respect the course she has taken. “When you got education you’d have ones who’d look down on you because of that. Not the younger ones, they have a different attitude, but the older ones.”

Whatever anyone else thinks, Margaret has no doubt she has taken the right course and that learning has benefited her hugely. “Oh totally, it’s a totally different lifestyle. I have my independence, I can drive now, I have a full licence, that came quite late in life, I was about 45. You never know what you can do. I wasn’t put under pressure, there was support while you were doing it.”

For the last 12 years she has lived in a house, which means a far more comfortable lifestyle than being in a caravan.

“Oh my God, to have a washing machine, the dryer, turn on the light when you feel like it, turn on the heat when you want to, close the door and block the world out when you want to.

“On the side of the road you couldn’t do that, you’d hear the cars passing up and down and if something big moved past the caravan would move.

“When the weather is bad you don’t worry about it in the house, the caravan would be like a pram when the wind is blowing. There’s a lot of disadvantages.

“Living in a caravan in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Ireland was like living in a third world country, you were depending on everyone around you to help you and if they didn’t you were lost.”

She also says that earning one’s own money gives a far better lifestyle than existing on social welfare.

“You’re always struggling to meet a bill coming in, you never really have 100% of what you need. You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, you’ve one bill paid and you’re taking from another aspect of your life.”

Margaret is conscious that there are others who cannot read or write, and who may never get the chance to blossom as she has.

“I would like to see more being done for young people with no education, I’d like to see more being done to give them the push to go and achieve what they’re capable of achieving.

“How to go about doing that, I’m trying to get an understanding. Where would you start, where would you want to end and what would it take to achieve it?

“Down the road I might go into schools and talk about my journey to encourage some of the Travelling youth, or anyone who has come from this kind of background, just to give them support and to say if I can do it there’s nothing in the world to stop you achieving.”

In recent years she has had the finances and the personal resources to take foreign holidays, something she has loved doing, while she says she has been embraced and supported by the wider community in Ennistymon.

At this stage she is very content with her life and feels turning to learning when she did has got her to this point. “I have my health, I have a job, enough on the table, a roof over my head and I’m still learning. What more would you want?”

*Free literacy and numeracy classes are provided by Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board in Ennis, Shannon, Kilrush, Miltown, Ennistymon, Scariff, Clonlara and Killaloe. Classes are free and open to all. More information on www.lcetb. ie or 065 6828107/6824928.

Owen Ryan

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.