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In Conversation with MIC's Dr Hannagh McGinley

Dr Hannagh McGinley standing in front of a campus building

The third Traveller to be awarded a PhD in the history of the State, Dr Hannagh McGinley sees herself as a living example to other Travellers as to what can be achieved in education. Her example, however, bucks the trend of poor Traveller education retention rates, ingrained, although typically unconscious, discrimination against Travellers and a mutual misunderstanding between the community and the education system.

Qualifying as a post-primary teacher in 2001 was remarkable for Hannagh, given she spent most of her post-primary years working in a takeaway in Galway following her expulsion from school at the age of 14. Against all odds, Hannagh returned to school at 17 and sat the Leaving Certificate. This personal accomplishment would lead to a number of decades working as a community activist and researching the experience of marginalised groups in education, for which she was awarded an Irish Research Council scholarship in 2011.

Hannagh has recently joined Mary Immaculate College as an Associate Professor in Education at MIC Thurles, where she lectures on the College’s post-primary programmes. It is here that Hannagh hopes she can help break down divides between settled and Traveller communities.

Hannagh grew up in Donegal and recalls a "wonderful" education at a local primary school where the teaching nuns would make an effort to supplement supplies and resources for her family if they could not afford them. Hannagh also recalls, however, being the only Traveller family in the area: “That probably made it a good experience as I now know that when there was a lot of Travellers in an area, they were educated together in segregated settings. Looking back, I never learned anything in school about being a Traveller and there was also some exclusion from parents where they didn’t want their kids to hang out with you. I used to walk home with a girl and she’d walk in front of me, talking back to me, because she was afraid her parents would drive past and see her walking with ‘the little tinker child’. So, there was some of that.”

Hannagh’s perception of education soured when she moved from Donegal to Galway for family reasons, balancing the transition to a new area with the change from primary to post-primary. It also sparked an identity crisis in Hannagh as she adapted to living in an area among other Traveller families.

“My final few months of primary school when I got to Galway was also quite nice but when I made the move to secondary school, I really hated it. Like with most Travellers, that transition can be disastrous. The research will show you that almost 100% of Travellers make that transition from primary but only half of those make it to the Junior Certificate, and then it’s only around 10% who then stay to complete the Leaving Certificate.”

“I learned to hate it. I begged my mother not to send me back in second year and I warned her that if she did I would make sure to get expelled. And so I did! On a Monday morning, I’d go in and sign-in to keep the Education Officers away from our doors but after that I’d leave for the day and spend my day with five or six friends under the Quincentennial Bridge in the city.”

Eventually, Hannagh found herself in trouble when verbal taunts from a classmate about her imprisoned brothers led to a retaliatory punch, which earned her a suspension. Believing she wasn’t totally to blame for the incident, Hannagh refused to apologise and was subsequently expelled. At 14, Hannagh found herself out of education with no obvious route back.

Hannagh took up work with a local takeaway restaurant and spent a number of years there, in addition to undertaking a FÁS pre-mechanic and pre-engineering course. Eventually, Hannagh had what she describes as her ‘Martin-Luther King moment’ where she dreamed of some time in the future where she would meet up with her old friends in Donegal, who were now very successful, and would have to explain to them that she hadn’t finished her education. For Hannagh, this was the spark to return to education at 17 and sit her Leaving Certificate.

But having spent a number of years away from school, with an expulsion on her record and no reference to give, Hannagh found this difficult. Through a persistent mixture of cold-calling and letter-writing, Hannagh eventually found a principal willing to take her on, initially for a two-week probation period.

“I learned, while out of school, how to behave and how not to get into trouble and that school suited me really well - thankfully! I always loved reading and had kept that up while out of school so I found that I really wasn’t that far behind. I loved English and History and focused on that and I forged a really positive relationship with my English teacher. I found him really inspiring and he introduced me to the idea of Philosophy, which I’d never heard of before, and this drove me to want to go to college. In the end I did get to third level, studying English and Philosophy for my degree and I would say that it’s because of that experience, of witnessing first-hand the impact a teacher can have on a student’s life, that made me want to be a teacher.”

Following the completion of her BA, Hannagh completed a H Dip and then an MA in Community Development, before working for a number of years as a Community Development worker and Traveller activist. She returned to education to undertake a doctorate at the University of Galway, where she explored intercultural education in a post-primary school in Ireland with particular reference to Travellers. In one case study in her doctorate, Hannagh describes staff and non-Traveller student relationships with Travellers as being ‘superficial in nature and informed by deficit thinking’.

Over two decades have passed since Hannagh’s secondary school experiences and in the intervening time there have been some considerable steps forward culturally, most notably the designation of Travellers as an ethnic minority in March 2017. This historic step was praised internationally and was described as key to attaining human rights for Travellers, in addition to recognising that Travellers experience racism and discrimination. Hannagh says that same discrimination she experienced in the 1990s is still widespread in education and very large obstacles need to be overcome before proper equity of opportunity and outcome.

“I’d love to say that everything is great now, but I’d be failing Traveller children if I did. I’ve had a really positive experience since coming back to education. I’ve met so many people in this sector who share that passion for education and value students and are doing everything they can to make sure that they get through school. However, there is still a lot of positioning of Traveller kids against their settled counterparts in a really negative way.

“The issues are so complex and when it comes to educational inequality, that must be viewed in a context of wider inequality and everything that’s impacting on a child’s ability to engage in education. One big problem in the classroom is the relevance of the curriculum and not learning anything about who they are in school. In cases where students do learn about their culture in schools, it can often be well meaning but misinformed, which can cause problems. A lot of young Travellers have identity issues and during adolescence, a time when your identity is so important, they’re beginning to see how people see them and that can be a really dangerous time for them as they realise the differences that might be there between them and settled people.”

For Hannagh, another major issue is the best way to balance this identify issue with proper integration into the settled community. She explained: “You see in the research, including my own, that children feel safe amongst their own. This can lead to an over concentration of disadvantage in a particular school. We know that this presents its own issues. In my own primary school experience, I was in a very affluent school and got to see all these people who came from really nice houses and had parents with a whole array of careers. When a school specifically serves a disadvantaged area, it has the accidental knock-on effect of the students not getting to see that diversity. If you don’t get to see it, how can you be it? It’s very hard to aspire to be anything else when you don’t know what else exists

“We really need to invest in those schools where there is an over-concentration of disadvantage, not just financially, but in terms of training and personal development. We have to ensure that the teachers are well supported because when they’re interacting with children who might see themselves as destined to leave early, it can be really difficult to keep up that fight to keep them engaged and aspirational.”

Another struggle in increasing Traveller engagement and retention is to change the perception of the parents and wider community, who – like Hannagh – may have had poor experiences at times during their own education and which could have a knock-on effect on how education is talked about in the home: “I see Traveller parents who have young kids and they feel nervous about sending their kids to school and it’s not because they don’t want them to be educated but because they don’t want them to be educated in a certain type of way; a way where they learn wrong or upsetting things about themselves, their families or their community. So, it’s about helping the parents and bringing them together with teachers to create a space that fulfils their needs, and you see so many schools making this effort now, which is so heartening.”

In fact, Hannagh says, there is increasingly cause for optimism for both Traveller retention in education and the experience they have while in schools: “You have more and more Travellers standing up for their rights and this is having a really beneficial ripple in all corners, particularly in education. The younger generations are seeing people going on to achieve higher heights as a result of education and, again, it’s that thing of you have to see to be. Hopefully, if that trend continues, we could see a surge of Travellers in universities. There has been a huge amount of positive change over the past few years and universities are seen as safe and open places for Travellers and I think that helps forge a path for more to follow.

“I recently did some research for UCD’s Access and Lifelong Learning Programme where I looked at the experience of Travellers in third level education. I interviewed 19 Travellers about their experiences and what helped them succeed in college. One thing that came up was the need for third level to be seen to be of benefit to Travellers. And that’s why I shout it from the rooftop about my job, as an educator, a job I love. I struggled with my identity as a teenager and I had difficulty in school, but now I’m a third level educator training the next generation of teachers. For me, it’s like getting a golden ticket and I’m proof that yes, with the right supports, you can be.”