The novena of the nomadic pilgrims
It gets worrying for organisers when a ‘fringe’ event gets more publicity than the main event. Without intending to be disrespectful, the ‘fringe’ event at the annual Knock Novena centres on the treatment of travellers. This year upwards of 60 caravans and vans were parked, some people say illegally, in the vicinity of the Marian village. The annual Knock Novena ran from August 14 to August 22. Just as in previous years travellers duly arrived with caravans in tow searching for a place to park. Their visit affects local people, Knock Shrine personnel, pilgrims, Mayo County Council, Gardaí, traveller support groups and the media.
In media parlance, August is deemed the ‘silly season’. Stories that would not be normally covered find their way on to radio and television running orders and somehow into much-coveted column inches. Yet, every August in Mayo, the airwaves and the newspapers report on the arrival of the travellers into Knock. The story is so assured of coverage that it can almost stake a claim in some great litany. Someone intones, ‘The arrival of the travellers into Knock’ to which we all respond, ‘Pray for us’. Every year it is the same story. The media is the first target, for all sides! Those who act as apologists for the travellers are wheeled out on air or quoted at length in papers, with references to settled people as racist becoming too common for comfort. On the other hand, there are those people whose only reference to travellers is to adopt the fundamentalist stand of self-righteousness so common in every faith system. Should a media outlet allow both sides to tell their story then they will be criticised for ‘letting the travellers speak’ or for ‘not allowing as much space to travellers as to settled people’. You can never win.
The main players in this ongoing celestial odyssey are the ones who will have to make some attempts to find a solution to an intolerable situation. All sides can justly point the finger. Some travellers steal from the shops in Knock. Does that make all travellers guilty? Some travellers act in an intimidating manner, especially towards older and vulnerable people. Their bad manners make passing their caravans impossible for many people who run the gauntlet of verbal insult and abuse for no reason.
Their unwillingness to abide by social mores is becoming more and more intolerable for the vast majority of people. The claim that they are a ‘nomadic’ people is used as if it gave them a carte blanche to do as they please without regard for anyone else. The talk is becoming more and more about ‘rights’ but never about responsibilities. A right can only be granted to someone who is willing to accept the responsibility attached to the right. Rights do not exist in isolation from responsibilities. Who else would make a pilgrimage journey and expect the local people or the Shrine custodians or the local authority to facilitate their every move? The ‘I want’ mentality is becoming ever more obvious among the travelling community. Where in the world would the disrespect that is shown by some travellers for the sanctity of a site be tolerated as it is at Knock Shrine?
Too often the younger members of the travelling community visit Knock during the Novena dressed like they were heading out to a disco. Knock Shrine is not a place for short skirts, exposed midriffs and flashy clothes at any time, but especially during the solemnity of the annual Novena.
Travellers and their apologists will have to deal with these issues if they wish to become more acceptable to settled people.
The argument that travellers come to Knock to pray and pray only is also wearing thin. Many of them trade from the roadside while in Knock regardless of what the apologists say.
Mayo County Council has consistently refused to take a lead in resolving the issue. The Council has a duty towards travellers, a statutory duty. Too often, travellers have been classed and treated as second-class citizens by local authorities across the country. The former Minister Mervyn Taylor introduced legislation that requires all local authorities to implement a Traveller Accommodation Plan. Unfortunately for travellers, most of the time they are not even consulted on housing issues by some local authorities. Too many people who sit in offices from nine to five make too many decisions for people who adopt a style of nomadic living. ‘Imposing’ solutions on travellers needs without consultation and active participation makes local authority personnel nothing short of bureaucratic colonialists.
While Mayo County Council and the Town Councils in Castlebar, Ballina and Westport have all housed travellers there is still a shortfall in attaining the requirements expressed in the Traveller Accommodation Plan. The Council’s work is not made any easier when some travellers refuse to accept an allotted house or engage in squatting in Council-owned houses. The main shortfall from a Knock Shrine/traveller perspective is the provision of a transient halting site. Again the argument will emanate from some settled people, ‘why should transient accommodation be provided?’. The answer depends on how much you want to resolve the annual ‘fringe festival’ at the Knock Novena.
If one could put a monetary value on the amount of boulders, concrete pipes and metal stakes that have been ‘erected’ by Mayo County Council as deterrents to travellers parking, it would surely pay for all the halting sites and transient sites required under the Traveller Accommodation Plan across the county. Taxpayers’ money is certainly wasted when the focus is not on what it should be. How can anyone justify the expenditure on new pavements only to cover them with boulders, as in Castlebar? How can we explain to a future generation that we spent our energy ensuring that travellers have no safe place to park? Is it that we hope that the problem will go away the more boulders we pray into place?
Every metal stake that is pierced into the ground carries our name. They serve as nothing other than a reminder of pierced hands and feet. Every breath we take to distance travellers is only widening the table that we will all have to sit around some day.
There is little point in huddling in the sanctuary of any church or sacred space uttering prayers of praise and seeking forgiveness in our heads when our hearts are outside cursing those are different. It is better to leave the verbal ejaculations at the altar and seek out those we damage consistently, especially by our inaction.
We all have a responsibility towards travellers, just as travellers have responsibilities to the settled community. The Council, support groups or advocates cannot be expected to act on our behalf.
The custodians of Knock Shrine are among those in the best position, along with local people, to resolve the annual impasse. Perhaps next year’s Novena could focus on travellers. Unlike the lack of participation in some local authority’s plans, travellers could be asked to participate in the Novena. There must be some value placed on their spirituality. The fringe could then become the centre.