A “movie nerd” from the Irish traveller community is making films showing the positive sides of his culture after facing years of racial abuse and says travellers have been treated like “second class citizens”.
Thomas Connors, from Wexford, is trying to break the negative traveller stereotypes which have followed him around his entire life, from being called racist names to being turned away from bars and restaurants despite never having set foot inside.
The 34-year-old’s movies are inspired by old traveller tales, which he was told as a young boy, sitting around the campfire with his parents before they were forced to give up their caravan and settle down.
Thomas, who has appeared in dozens of short movies, as well as the TV series Love/Hate, is hoping to raise £10,000 on GoFundMe for his next movie, Jolly, a light-hearted comedy featuring young actors from the traveller community.
“The problem is negative stereotypes,” Thomas, who lives with his wife Mary, 31, and son, Jerry, 12, told PA Real Life.
“If you go down a council estate in Britain or Ireland then, chances are, you’re going to meet a bad person, and you’re going to think everybody in that estate must be associated with this person and must have the same temperament.
“But it’s not, everybody is different and you have to give everybody a chance.
“That’s what I’m trying to do with the film.”
Thomas has memories of travelling around Ireland in a caravan with his parents.
“I remember, we were staying on Great Sugar Loaf (a mountain in Co Wicklow) and it was filled. There could have been a hundred travellers there.
“Some in caravans, but this was the 80s and 90s so there were some still in wagons and stuff like that.
“We’d be travelling around having bonfires every night and sharing pots of food.
“It was like a colony basically, with everyone living together.”
But his fondest memories are the “stories told by old traveller men” sitting around the fire in the evenings.
“It was like having our own private cinema,” he said.
“We were just sitting down, listening to these stories, it was beautiful.”
But these special travelling moments came to an abrupt end when, in 2002, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was passed, making it illegal to enter and occupy land.
This effectively stopped Irish travellers moving from place to place, so Thomas’ parents were forced to swap their caravan for a small house.
“It became illegal to park your caravan, you see”, said Thomas.
“They outlawed the traditions of travel so everyone had to kind of assimilate.
“The best way to describe the travelling community would be nomadic tribes which are no longer nomadic.”
After that, travellers who wished to continue moving around usually relocated to England, says Thomas.
“They were trying to kill the tradition and breed it out of us,” he said.
The travelling community has often been the target of racial abuse and criticism, with Thomas saying: “It’s as if we were second class citizens.”
Thomas would often be turned away from venues because of other people’s bad behaviour.
“If I was in a shop, I would be followed,” he continued.
“If I’d walk into a restaurant, they would say, ‘Oh we can’t serve you because a traveller was here 15 years ago and spat on the floor.
“It’s always about stuff that has nothing to do with me as a person, but I got the stigma from it.”
There is one incident in particular which has stayed with Thomas.
“It was my wife’s birthday and there was a pub in town that did karaoke,” he said.
“So we got dressed up and went down.
“But before I could even enter the premises, the owner came out and just said, ‘No, not tonight’.”
It transpired that a group of travellers had visited the premises almost a decade earlier and caused trouble.
Thomas reported the incident to the Gardai, but says he was told that there was nothing they could do.
“There was a poster on the wall, right beside the officer, with ‘Racism, report it,” added Thomas.
He believes “negative stereotypes” are a big part of the problem.
“I think some traveller children are now ashamed of their heritage,” he said.
“Because they are used to seeing so many negative things about traveller culture.
“They are always bare-knuckle boxing, arguing, robbing…
“Nothing out there is showing the good things of it.”
A large number of travellers now live on what is known as a halting site, purpose-built accommodation provided by the local municipal authority.
“It’s like a reservation for Native Americans,” said Thomas.
“It’s pretty good, but there’s nothing like the open road as they say.”
Fortunately, he says, times are changing and people are becoming less tolerant of casual racism.
“Slowly, it’s becoming less racist as people become more woke,” he said.
Thomas, who teaches acting and screenwriting to adults and children in the travelling community, is looking to highlight some of the positive aspects of traveller culture.
“When I discovered acting, I discovered an outlet for it, instead of feeling troubled or woeful,” he said.
“The best thing about being a traveller is our traditions, which are still alive and strong.
“The feeling of comradery between travellers – even if you’ve never met them before, you have that instant bond.
“That’s what the film is basically about – a young boy in crisis, and the community tells him that it’s not bad being a traveller.”
Thomas has already directed a movie called The Leopard, which he is hoping to enter into film festivals next year.
He is now raising money on GoFundMe for his latest film, Jolly, a comedy, which tells the story of a young traveller boy who feels different in school and comes to terms with his heritage.
“I want children to be proud of their traveller heritage,” he added.
“I’m not stereotypical, I’m just a movie nerd.”
To support Thomas’ movie visit: www.gofundme.com/f/make-a-movie-about-travellers-in-a-good-light