Documentary

Anásha

Sebastiaan Franco’s epic photo project where he spent 4 years photographing Irish Travellers.

Anásha is a word that has different meanings and ways of writing, depending on where you are in Ireland and who you’re with. Roughly translating as ‘immediately’, it’s a word used to make someone pay attention to what’s happening around them. It might be used to point out a person or a situation that is out of the ordinary.

The term comes from Gammon, a language only spoken by the Irish Travellers, invented after the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland in 1649. During this time land and homes were repossessed, and to escape British rule, a part of the Irish people turned nomadic. While on the road they developed their own cant, a mixture of Gaelic and English to communicate with other traveling families. They were named ‘an lucht siùil’ or ‘the walking people’. Supposedly that’s where this culture started. They would travel around the country, selling wares or work for farmers before setting off again. Like most outsiders they were not welcome everywhere and got different names over the years. Pikeys, knackers, gypsies, vagrants or Travellers, with the latter being the official name now.

Around the 1960s the Irish government started group housing schemes where Travellers moved into permanent housing. They called it ‘the assimilation agenda’ which was aimed at integrating the community into society. Councils started building inexpensive hut-like accommodation, first Labre Park near Ballyfermot, then Avila Park in Finglas, hoping that by offering social housing they would finally settle. These accommodations were mostly located in impoverished areas around big cities, forcing them to integrate in a society they tried to avoid for generations. This didn’t work as intended and instead of Travellers finding their place in general society they became more and more involved with the so-called ‘undesirables’ of the settled community.

This led to criminality, violence and even addiction with younger generations. Over the past few years a few initiatives have been working with local families to promote education and fund housing for families that settled in the outer suburbs of Dublin. Working together with the Finglas Traveller Development Program and Dublin City Council, I was offered an audience with president Higgins, which was also a chance for representatives of the site to have an open and honest discussion with policy-makers.

I’ve lived with the Collins and Keenan families in Finglas for over two years. First as an outsider but through spending months and months with them, I slowly became part of the family.

I left Dublin due to family matters in 2019 and was not able to travel the year after of course, but I rejoined the families for a while during the summer of 2021 to continue photographing and writing about their lives, with more trips planned in 2022.

Jesus statue in Saint Joseph's Park, Finglas.

Finglas is considered to be one of the most disadvantaged areas of Dublin, and maybe Ireland as a whole. Though it has its so called ‘posh’ parts, most people would advise you to stay away. The first day I started walking around I honestly didn’t have a clue where I was. So if the Gardai (police) would have stopped me there, I would have probably said I was lost and they would have taken me with them to drop me off with other tourists in the city center. But instead, I happened to walk into Saint Joseph’s Park at the top of Dunsink Lane and the person I met there ended up being a key figure in the whole story for the next few years. That afternoon I found myself on a relatively derelict estate, with about twelve bays for trailers. Four young men greeted me in somewhat dirty tracksuits and with an expression being a combination of friendliness and wonder.

As it turned out they were the same boys I saw at the bottom of the road driving around with scrap cars earlier. Their names were Michael James, Red Michael James, Fat Davy, and Thomas. Thomas was the eldest and apparently the father of the first Michael James. After they introduced themselves as politely as they could, they asked me what I was doing. So I explained to them I was a photographer, but at that moment mostly just a bit lost. I did feel a friendly atmosphere so I started asking a few questions about them and the place they lived. But they did seem a bit wary about talking to a stranger carrying a dinky brown bag with unknown contents.

Saint Joseph’s Park in Finglas.

Saint JosephÕs Park in Finglas.

Young Charlie playing in Saint Joseph’s Park.

Young Charlie playing in Saint Josephs Park.

First time seeing Paddy again after 1 1/2 years.

First time seeing Paddy again after 1,5 years.

Paddy Keenan in his trailer smoking a pipe.

Paddy Keenan in his trailer smoking a pipe.

“Do you want to come in to my uncle Paddy’s trailer for a bit? We’ll sit in there where it’s dry.”

The other boys nodded in agreement and so we walked up to the trailer behind us. Going inside I heard some Chuck Berry playing so I was moderately optimistic. The moment I walked into the sitting room I was jumped by about four small dogs who were also trying to stay out of the rain. I saw Elvis and Clint Eastwood on old posters, staring at me from across the trailer and a man with a walking stick coming towards me. The man had a curious smile and turned out to be one of the nicest people I ever met. He introduced himself as ‘Paddy Keenan, the original Teddy Boy of Dunsink’. The boys just called him uncle Paddy.

“You don’t mind if I call you buddy, do you buddy?”

Early morning on Dunsink Lane.

Dunsink Lane is a three kilometer road between Finglas and Blanchardstown. It passes through large empty fields, a dump and the Dublin Observatory. It used to be the preferred road in and out of Finglas for smuggling or as a getaway through the fields. Many bodies have been found along this road, most of them were targeted by gangs in the outer suburbs.

The local Gardai dubbed this area ‘The Killing Field’ after the body of Victor Murphy was found. He was in a car with three others, allegedly on their way to a hit, when the car hit a bump in the road and the shotgun he carried went off in his face. He was dumped on the side of the road and found a few days later in a ditch. Blockades were placed on two sides later on, leaving a 200m gap of no man’s land in the middle.

Small statue placed for Johnman Joyce who was found dead on Dunsink Lane.

Small statue placed for Johnman Joyce who was found dead on Dunsink Lane.

Davy Handsome’s scrap yard on Dunsink Lane.

Davy HandsomeÕs scrap yard on Dunsink Lane.
Davy Handsome's trailer on Dunsink Lane.

Davy Handsome and Fat Davy cleaning copper to resell later.

Davy Handsome and Fat Davy cleaning copper to resell later.

Fat Davy’s brother-in-law dragging copper across the site before they sell it.

Fat DavyÕs brother-in-law dragging copper across the site before they sell it.

Dunsink Lane is also home to Saint Joseph’s park, an old halting site for Travellers, home to the Keenans. Opposite the site lives Davy ‘Handsome’ who deals in carparts from his scrapyard.

Fat Davy walking his father’s dog on Dunsink Lane.

Fat Davy walking his fatherÕs dog on Dunsink Lane.

Star and his favourite couch behind Paddy’s trailer.

Star and his favourite couch behind PaddyÕs trailer.
John Keenan showing his tattoo.

John and his wife Kathleen moved back to Finglas from Drogheda after their daughter died in an accident at home. She climbed into the back of a car parked on a driveway, when it started rolling she got scared, jumped out of the car and got stuck. The car rolled over her and she died later in hospital.

John, Pikey, Paddy, Fox’s Paul and Martin playing cards in Paddy’s trailer.
John Keenan in his uncle Paddy’s kitchen.

John has suffered from addiction and depression with violent and suicidal tendencies. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sent to rehab. I used to give him a call every week as he wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. After his treatment he moved to Saint Joseph’s with his parents and two of his brothers.

Thomas Keenan outside his trailer on Saint Joseph's Park.

Thomas and his wife Charlene moved to Dunsink Lane late in 2019, taking up the bay where his uncle used to live before he moved to Manchester.

Thomas looking for his shirt before his sister's wedding in Avila Park.

There’s always a wedding, baptism, engagement or birthday to look forward to on the sites. While these events are known to be extravagant, due to television shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, they are in fact very important moments for the community. Where baptisms, communions, weddings and funerals are about preserving a strong Catholic tradition, other events are ways for the family to reconnect with faraway relatives.

Cherise arriving at her wedding in Galway, Ireland.

Cherise arriving at her wedding in Galway, Ireland.

Martin, Tony and Martin getting ready for a wedding.

Martin, Tony and Martin getting ready for a wedding.

Wedding reception near Galway, Ireland.

Wedding reception near Galway, Ireland.

Wedding near Galway, Ireland.

Wedding near Galway, Ireland.

Eileen on her way to make her holy communion.

Eileen on her way to make her holy communion.

Eileen’s communion in Finglas.

EileenÕs communion in Finglas.

A wedding for instance, will always take place in or near the town where the woman is from. After the wedding, it is custom for the couple to move to where the man and his family live, that way families are spread out across Ireland and the UK.

Party at the Cabra House pub.
John Keenan during a summer's evening in Avila Park.

Located on the edge of Finglas, one of the oldest permanent housing sites for Travellers. The Collins family have been the main residents of the site since it was built in 1969. These days Avila Park is home to around 300 people, easily making it one of the biggest social housing accommodations in Dublin.

Over the years the site has seen its fair share of trouble. From issues outside spilling over, to feuds with families living close by. One of those families were the Quinn McDonaghs who lived next to the Keenan’s site on Dunsink Lane. The feud turned deadly when attacks between the two clans became more violent. There were raids at night, petrol bombs thrown at houses and at one stage even kidnappings.

The Collins family being the bigger party, with the support of other families, drove the McDonaghs out of Dublin. Some went to Mullingar and others as far as England. The sites have been quiet since, but with smartphones and WhatsApp slowly making their way to the sites it’s easy to stir up trouble again.

Children playing after school in Avila Park.
Michael 'Giggsy' Collins in Avila Park.

Michael ‘Giggsy’ Collins was only young when the feuds happened. At the age of 14 he sat in a car with his older cousins heading to Dunsink, attempting to set fire to a trailer belonging to the McDonaghs. At the age of 31 he has already spent 11 years behind bars, looking at another conviction in 2022. Giggsy blames drugs for his erratic behaviour, which he started taking to cope when his brother Jason died.

The Collins family gathered in Cara Park to see Patrick off before his fight.

Patrick was picked up by his referee to meet his opponent at a secret location outside of Dublin, with his mother and wife cheering him on as he leaves. When a son of the family leaves for a fight the whole site is filled with relatives to wish the fighter luck. Then the family waits in the pub as they’re not allowed at the fight to avoid more violence.

Patrick and Christy fighting in a forest near Mullingar, Ireland.

The only people allowed are the fighters, referees (referred to as fair play men) and the people the referees choose to bring. These fights are almost always about family feuds and used as a ‘solution’ to feuding.

Sunaman’s John-Paul getting ready for his fight near Swords, Ireland.

SunamanÕs John-Paul getting ready for his fight near Swords, Ireland.

John-Paul and John fighting in a forest near Swords, Ireland.

John-Paul & John fighting in a forest near Swords, Ireland.

Giggsy and Martin outside the pub after a bareknuckle fight.

Giggsy & Martin outside the pub after a bareknuckle fight.

Brothers Martyboy and John-Paul enjoying the result of a bareknuckle fight during the last days of summer.

Brothers Martyboy and John-Paul during the last days of summer.
Small James, Big James and Joseph during the last days of summer in Avila Park.
Old Biddy Collins telling campfire stories in Avila Park.

Ciaran and Young David playing football in Avila Park.

Ciaran and Young David playing football in Avila Park.

Dog days in Avila Park.

Dog days in Avila Park.

Martin ‘Bull’s Tail’ Collins, one of the oldest Travellers in Ireland portrayed in his home.

Anàsha-Vertical-2

Big James Collins in his living room.

Big James Collins in his living room.
Small grotto at the entrance of Avila Park.
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The photographer

Sebastiaan Franco

Sebastiaan Franco graduated from the MA Visual Arts program at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent in 2019. Since graduating, he does freelance assignments and pursues his own documentary projects.

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