Travellers have used the area of Spring Lane in Cork for at least four generations. An area known as the ‘old Spring Lane site’ was a traditional camping ground for Travellers. In 1987, Cork City Council created an official ten-bay halting site with very basic facilities – electricity, simple toilets, cold running water and a hard surface. Today, 33 Traveller families with 89 children live on the Spring Lane site.
In 2011, then Cork city Lord Mayor Terry Shannon said he was ashamed that the Council could oversee the “Dickensian” conditions there. In the same year, the St Vincent de Paul regional President Brendan Dempsey described the site as being of “third world” standard. Traveller rights groups and some HSE officials view the conditions as a humanitarian crisis.
The Spring Lane site prompted three reports through the HSE in 2012, from the Director of Public Health Nursing, the Senior Environmental Health Officer and an independent architect. The reports found acute overcrowding; inadequate sanitary facilities with un-insulated washroom facilities in poor physical repair; issues with rodent infestation; poor surfacing throughout the site; a number of caravans in very poor repair; no safe play space for children; no public footpaths but a poor quality unpaved pathway used by school children to access school; and unstable steep earthen banks on the east side of the site.
The architect’s report on the site found that “there is a major lack of standard utilities that are readily available in adjoining residential developments. While electricity is available, there is no natural gas supply, no telecoms supply, no proper water management system for domestic waste, both solid and recyclable, inadequate road network, including an unacceptable road gradient for the site”.
The report of the Director of Public Health Nursing highlighted a list of health issues affecting the families on the site, particularly respiratory and urinary tract infections, and linked these to the living conditions. The report of the Senior Environmental Health Officer noted malfunctioning drainage systems and broken non-functioning drains resulting in recurrent flooding in rainy weather, and continuous dampness for the residents.
Some residents sleep in a caravan provided by the local authority with a bucket propped up on a shelf above their heads to collect the rain that is pouring through the roof. They must walk out into the cold to an outdoor un-insulated, unheated breeze-block shed containing a steel toilet and tub to help their children get washed for school. These are the lucky families who have a toilet shed. Most of the families live on the periphery of the site without access to any facilities.
Cork City Council confirmed last year that the electrical system on the site is overloaded and dangerous. The families have known about this for a long time. The electricity supply on the site constantly ‘trips’ and overloads and residents live in constant fear of electrical fires. Many families cope with resilience, and the site boasts successful activists, volunteers in local youth groups and women’s groups, athletes, carers, as well as very active women’s and men’s groups. It has an above average number of young Travellers who complete their leaving certificate. However, the stress of these conditions and the indifference of the local authority over a long period of time take a toll on people’s health. Some residents talk about battling depression and anxiety. A number of the families have applied to be housed off the site in their local area. However, the number of families securing this housing has been few.
The families and their representative organisations, the Traveller Visibility Group and the Cork Traveller Women’s Network have campaigned for better living conditions for over two decades. This has included participating for years on numerous partnership structures with Cork City Council, raising the issues with City Councillors and TDs, linking with the media, and supporting the production of reports on the site. Sadly, in 2011, a proposal to improve conditions, which included additional bays to alleviate overcrowding, was defeated by a Council vote following massive objections from residents in the broader Ballyvolane area. Three years on conditions, and the residents’ lot, continue to deteriorate, disgracefully.
Louise Harrington is from the Cork Traveller Women’s Network and Caroline Barnard is from the Traveller Visibility Group.