To Endure is to Conquer: Saying Goodbye to Aileen

On March 18th, 2015, a close friend of mine passed away after 25 years of illness and pain. Her sense of humour remained, to the end, incorruptible. This is my recollection of her in some of the best and worst moments of the time we spent together.

—–

“The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.”

— from Everything Is Going to be All Right, by Derek Mahon

330394_2579791452697_873447087_o

It’s uncommon to remember exactly how you met someone. Sometimes, we remember specific meetings because they’re unusual or because we come to love the person we’ve met.

Meeting people for the first time often falls into the background; irrelevant in many ways, once the moment has passed. The ones you remember are rare and they are special.


I met Aileen at a screening of Harry Potter on a school trip in Winter 2002.

Taking my seat in a row near the back, I somehow got talking to the girl sitting directly in front of me. She said I seemed familiar to her, and I said I had the same feeling. We spent a few minutes going back and forth, trying to work out if we had mutual friends, acquaintances or experience. We never worked it out. I’m not a big believer in fate- but maybe there’s something to it. Maybe she was just destined to end up in my life and I in hers. Who knows?

From that day on, Aileen would migrate from her classroom to mine for lunch. She was, first and foremost, a shock to the system. At times it was awkward to talk with her because she was so upfront and honest about her experiences. Her life was a pottered history of discomfort and pain- I had nothing to compare it to.

Aileen was diagnosed with a brain tumour at eight months and wasn’t expected to survive- but she did. There was a reoccurrence before she turned 10 and, suffering the chemotherapy to defy the odds, she made it. These huge truths were among she first things she told me, a naïve and innocent child of 12.

The idea of a young person being so ill startled me. I could never work out how she was pretty much always in a good mood when it seemed to me she was dealt a hard hand. It would take me years to work out what she and Churchill already knew: to endure is to conquer.


Once Aileen decided you were her friend, you didn’t really have a whole lot of choice in the matter. She was polite and friendly to everyone- but her genuine friendship and loyalty was a gift to the few and not the many.

Aileen was quick to laugh, easy to wind up and loud as hell. It took us a while to build a group of friends, but we managed it, all of us different and trying to claw our way into being teenagers without dying of embarrassment along the way.

Through the first three years of school, Aileen and I were separated in different classes, rarely sharing lesson time. But early in the morning, she would be among the first to school for gossip and was ever present at lunch times.

Perhaps the funniest and most frustrating thing about Aileen was her devilish love of the fabled purple snack. Early in the morning, Aileen would cajole other students to go to the shop and purchase a small number of purple snacks for her. Not the pink ones, not the yellow ones- just the purple. She had a group of people essentially lined up to do her bidding and she knew exactly where to find them at 8.30am. From what I remember, nobody ever turned her down.

It was frustrating because Aileen had significant health concerns- we pointed out to her that it probably wasn’t good for her. She didn’t care: her love affair with purple snacks was simply all-consuming.

Needless to say, given her history with a brain tumour, Aileen’s head was a constant risk: accidental whacks to the head simply weren’t an option. To her delight, this meant she couldn’t participate in PE. I think now that Aileen would have been great craic on a sports field, given her sense of humour, but at the time I was busy trying to skive off PE myself and didn’t think about it. I firmly believe her ferocity would have led her to great success in women’s rugby.

Continue reading

Travellers would thrive if they were given the opportunity

Please note: This article was originally published by the Irish Examiner and can be seen here. 

You don’t need a degree to see there are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers. This is a legacy that must stop, writes Aisling Twomey

WHY don’t Travellers have good education outcomes? Is it because they don’t want to go to school; they don’t want jobs; they don’t want to achieve?

No.

Is it because their parents don’t want them to achieve?

Of course not: All parents want the best possible outcomes for their children and Mary Stokes is a prime example of that.

There are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers.

First and foremost, there has been steadfast, consistent, appalling institutional discrimination levelled against the Traveller community in the education system.

For years, they have been variously segregated, ignored, and educated in an atmosphere of low expectations. The current stories around enrolment policies based on parent and older sibling attendance are just another chapter in the same disappointing story.

Traveller education outcomes have been consistently disappointing. None of this information is new and none of it is surprising.

After the economic crash, Traveller education funding was cut by 86.6%. It meant the end of the visiting and resource teachers for Travellers and the senior Traveller training centres. Mainstreaming was welcomed, but it was widely recognised that Travellers required additional support to participate in mainstream education.

These supports were simply never provided. Austerity hit Traveller children hard, adding new obstacles and undoing past developments.

Many Traveller adults did not attend and complete second-level education. According to the 2011 census, 55% of Travellers failed to complete senior cycle post primary education. The Our Geels: All Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) 2010 found that 38.5% of 30 to 44 year olds and 25.8% of 45 to 64 year olds had primary education only.

Those adults have children who face an automatic disadvantage as a result. No matter how hard those children apply themselves, even if they beg, the excuse of the “parent rule” will limit their access to education.

It’s 2015 and children can’t get into schools because their parents didn’t go. That’s intolerable.

Mary Stokes wanted her son to achieve great things. She sought the best education possible for him and was dogged in her pursuance of that goal. They were turned away at the door — victims of an enrolment policy that localises benefits, rewards privilege, and leaves those most at risk stuck on the margins.

The Supreme Court appeal of Stokes v Clonmel High School was legally complicated, littered with questions about equality law and new facts and, in the end, dismissed. This dismissal has been five years in the making but the story isn’t over.

European courts may beckon. Challenging institutional discrimination has never been quick and easy.

The shame for us is that institutional discrimination has been affecting families like the Stokeses for decades and we haven’t fixed that when the evidence is screaming at us that change is needed.

The dismissal of the Stokeses’ case isn’t the end of the world — it comes at the end of an extremely strategic piece of litigation which we hope will yet influence and change education access policies in Ireland.

It has shone a light on an unsexy topic that rarely hits the front pages. Some of our children are disallowed access to schools because they don’t have relatives who attended: Nonsense.

[Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre] has long supported the introduction of legislation to prevent the implementation of enrolment policies that create barriers for children.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 might not address the inequality of these enrolment policies — but it definitely should. Policies that disproportionately affect children from accessing basic education shouldn’t be the norm.

These policies don’t just affect Travellers.

The same issue presents itself for migrant children, or for those families who relocate to a new area. These policies are unacceptable precisely because they make life harder for the children who need extra support.

These enrolment policies are proof, if you needed it, that Travellers are still subjected to a litany of discriminatory processes that directly inhibit genuine, tangible progress in education outcomes for the community.

In 2011, just 115 Travellers had completed third-level education — 1% of the population. In the settled majority, more than 30% of people attain a third-level degree.

Ironically, you don’t need a degree to see that something has gone badly wrong here.

This is a legacy that has to stop somewhere, and the time to stop it is now. How many more generations of Traveller children will we condemn to poverty, unemployment and social exclusion?

If we want Travellers to have better outcomes, we have to let them into schools without prejudice. Like everyone else, with opportunity they’ll thrive.