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Eileen Flynn: ‘As a Traveller woman, I was undermined in the maternity hospital’

Parenting in my shoes: The Senator hopes her daughter will be part of a more positive, inclusive Ireland

"I didn't believe that I had to go with someone because of culture," Senator Eileen Flynn says speaking about her husband Liam Whyte. "It was actually strange. I only told Liam once that I was a Traveller and we never spoke about it again. He respected my way of life and I respected his way of life."

Eileen first met Liam at a protest seven years ago, but the pair only became a couple in 2017. In 2018, they married and their first child Billie was born 11 months ago.

“Billie was a miracle,” Eileen says about her daughter, having previously believed she would not be able to have a child due to health issues.

“When I was pregnant on Billie I was so nervous,” she explains. “ I was so nervous in the hospital, extremely nervous. I wouldn’t tell them I had postnatal depression in case they took my child off me. I wouldn’t even give her to the nurses to feed her in case they thought I wasn’t good enough.


“Your child is treated different when they’re born, as a Traveller,” Eileen says. “They’re given special milk, it’s like a soya milk. I didn’t get to breastfeed Billie. When Billie was born and they knew I was a Traveller, Billie was taken off me and given special milk. The mothers really don’t get a say.”

According to the HSE website, "if you're a member of the Travelling community, your baby will be tested for a condition called galactosaemia soon after birth. The risk of galactosaemia is 80 times higher in the Travelling community. This condition means that babies are not able to digest a particular type of sugar found in breastmilk, ordinary milk and formula milk."

Eileen says that “Billie was put on that milk and I felt she was less because of that”.

Throughout her pregnancy, Eileen says she felt “undermined. I went in there openly as a Traveller woman and straight away I was undermined in the maternity hospital. I wasn’t undermined by the midwives, I was undermined by the consultant, the one consultant. I didn’t have any choice or any say over anything. I felt angry as a pro-choice activist, not having the choice, not feeling heard, not feeling my baby mattered. I suffered with my sodium levels. I had numerous admissions. I felt a nuisance any time I went to the hospital.

Eileen is very keen that Billie celebrate both cultures

“My hormones were very bad – I suffered very bad anxiety,” Eileen continues. “Why I was so angry with the pro-choice movement at the time was, I felt let down by the movement. It was pro-choice and it wasn’t just pro-choice around abortion, to the best of my ability it wasn’t. I didn’t get involved in the movement because it was just pro-choice about abortion. I got involved in the movement because it was women’s reproductive healthcare.

“If a woman wants to have an abortion, carry on, that’s her choice, it’s nothing to do with me. But if a woman wants to have a section, that’s also her choice. If a woman wants to have a natural birth that’s also her choice. I don’t think I ever sat down and said, ‘oh I’m pregnant it’s the loveliest thing in the world’. I didn’t get the supports I needed from the healthcare and I don’t think I’m the only woman.”

Eileen is very keen that Billie celebrate both cultures and speaks to her daughter as much as possible in Cant, a language spoken by the Irish Traveller community. “When Billie was born, it was my fear of Billie losing her identity.”

Eileen, who is from Labre Park in Ballyfermot, Dublin, says although she "was born and reared in a house, it doesn't make me any less of a Traveller than anybody else. In the summer time I could travel with my family and stuff.

“Billie will be able to travel because I’ll make sure that I’ll bring Billie from one county to another county in a trailer. We don’t call them caravans, we call them trailers. That’s my hope for Billie for the future that she’ll get some kind of a sense of Traveller life on the road.

“My biggest fear is Billie being treated less than her peers, being bullied in school. And say if she’s in Irish dancing or if she’s in football or boxing or whatever it is my child wants to do, that if it’s a competitive game or a competitive sport that somebody will just be nasty to her and call her a knacker or a pikey or something. I don’t want Billie growing up in that kind of environment, but I want her to be proud of who she is.”

Eileen also fears Billie “not being accepted within the Travelling community because her daddy is settled, and not being accepted in the settled community because her mammy is a Traveller”.

“It’s trying to find that balance that Billie will be strong enough to say she’s both, and she’s proud to be both.”

'My life will never be the same again and it's in the most positive beautiful way in the world'

Eileen says there’s a lot of similarities in the way babies are reared in both communities, up until baby is around six months old. “Then it kind of shifts”, she says.

“I’ve never seen any of my sisters use a highchair. I’ve never seen any woman on the site I was born and reared in use a highchair. Me and Liam actually feed Billie very differently. I feed her on my lap and Liam will feed her in the highchair”. I always see kids in the summer in vests (in Labre Park), where I think it’s a little bit strange when they see a baby around here in her vest. Sometimes I hope people are not judging me.

“Traveller children do be out in all weathers. It’s normal to leave a child outside the front door too. Obviously, you’re not going to leave them freeze to death or get wet or anything like that, but it doesn’t have to be an extremely hot day. It could be a bit of a chilly day, put on their jackets and outside the front door, and the door is open for them.

“In Labre (Park), it’s actually funny, children rear each other from a young age. Because it’s all such a close community you could get a 10-year-old pushing a baby up the estate and there’s adults around everywhere looking and obviously you’d tell them not to give her anything in her hand or put anything into her mouth and stuff. You’d tell them the rules and what to do.”

Eileen’s mother died at the age of 48, when she was just 10 years old. It had a profound effect on Eileen and she worries about something happening to her and how it would impact Billie. “I do fear if anything was to happen to me, how would she get on in the world?”

Motherhood has changed her life entirely. “My life will never be the same again and it’s in the most positive beautiful way in the world,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine my life without Billie, I couldn’t imagine my life before. Being an activist, my priority is keeping Billie safe. Speaking out is about Billie now. It just shifts your focus in life so much when you have a baby.

“I feel very proud that my child, someday in a history book, or her children, will read that her mammy was the first Traveller in the Oireachtas. It’s an awful lot to be proud of. And I hope that she understands that it wasn’t easy to achieve it. That she realises how important it is for her, for Travellers, for young women in the community”.

“Being a senator is lovely and I’m very privileged to have this job. The hardest part is actually leaving Billie. I’m well capable of the job and everything else that goes with it, but my full-time job is more important than my part-time job, and my full-time job is mammy.

"The world is a very different place than it was 20 years ago and it's going to be another very different place in the next 20 years. You want to be part of a positive change, I do anyway, and I'm hoping Billie will be part of a more positive inclusive Ireland. "

Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill