Irish Travellers in America: Paul Connolly

Paul Connolly: Would you trust this man to represent your ethnic group?

Paul Connolly: Would you trust this man to represent your ethnic group?

I have an alert in my news feed that tells me when new stories are published about Irish Travellers. The feed is indiscriminate — I get stories from Ireland, where the comments section are a cesspool, and America, where the comments sections are rarely better. This being springtime, stories have started to pop up warning people of home repairs scams, and, as happens every spring, this warnings are accompanied by unresearched charges against Irish Travellers.

The documentary is an awful piece, filled with faceless people in the shadows saying terrible things about Travellers, none of which they are willing to say on record, and little of which Connelly bothers to fact check.
A story popped up today about murder and insurance fraud in Colleyville, Texas, that has started to make the reprint rounds. The suspects in the case are, according to the author, Irish Travellers, although the source of this information is unstated. The story then goes on to reprint all the typical charges against Travellers, and turns to a source I have seen showing up here and there: Irish journalist Paul Connelly.

Connelly made a short documentary for TV3 called “Travellers in America: A Secret Society,” which has a sinister sound to it. I have tried to track down the documentary, but it is not available in the United States, and so I have not felt that I could write about it. But this news report does not quote the documentary either, instead quoting a press release and a news article about the show. The charges made in this show are troubling: That Travellers marry children off at age 13, and that their wealth comes from a sort of massive gaming of the insurance industry. The source for the former charge is unnamed, but it is clear that the source is not a Traveller. Based on the only video from the episode currently online, the source might be Tamara, the same young woman who married into a Traveller family in “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.” But I haven’t seen the episode, and cannot say where the information comes from.

The second charge is worth exploring, because the accusation of insurance fraud is important to this current murder case. The suggestion that Travellers engage, as a group, in bilking insurance companies is a serious one, and could have a prejudicial effect if this case ever goes to trial — in fact, journalists are supposed to be cognizant of the way their writing might affect public sentiment, and be cautious about this. The story about the murder in Colleyville did not bother with caution, and their source, Connelly, has even less use for it.

Again, I have not seen “Travellers in America: A Secret Society” and cannot respond to it directly. But journalists are supposed to vet their sources, and Connolly is a troubling one. We can start out simply, with a review on the Sunday Times that begins with this delightful dismissal of the show:

As culture clashes go, it must be among the loudest: the age-old confrontation between settled respectability and vagabond fecklessness. Without a bye or leave, roaming ne’er-do-wells invade the property and lives of decent people, disturbing the peace with their crass shenanigans and shifty intent. The interlopers are invariably shrill, brazen and aggressively disdainful; bareback riders of high horses. Despite the provocation, however, Irish travellers living in America’s southern states displayed remarkable tolerance in the face of intrusion by a shabby TV3 bandwagon.

If I can’t look at “Travellers in America,” I can certainly look at some of Connolly’s other work. There is a similar documentary on YouTube just now called “The Town the Travellers Took Over,” about the growth of a Traveller ethnic enclave in Rathkeale, County Limerick. There is a history of suspicion there between Travellers and non-Travellers, but also a history of mutual interdependence, and it’s a complicated story. But, as Connolly’s sinister title suggests (and you might be noticing that his documentary titles are often sinister), he’s not interested in complications.

No, the documentary is an awful piece, filled with faceless people in the shadows saying terrible things about Travellers, none of which they are willing to say on record, and little of which Connelly bothers to fact check. He relentlessly lobs accusations at the Traveller community, often hiding behind unnamed critics (the phrase “some people think” and “some people say” shows up with alarming frequency.) He insinuates evil-doing by raising thrilling, suspicious questions that then go unanswered, such as asking how much Traveller wealth comes from crime. Well, if we’re just guessing, it can be any amount, from zero to a hundred percent. But by raising the question and letting it hang, Connolly suggests it is significant, rather than speculation.

The Limerick Leader was duly alarmed by Connolly’s documentary, although they allowed that it was lacking. “Anecdotal evidence is not the same as proof and these claims need to be investigated, and urgently,” they wrote. I should note that it is now nearly three years later and none of the charges Connolly brought up in his supposed documentary have been demonstrated.

It is useful to watch Connolly’s documentaries with an awareness of just how profound anti-Traveller prejudice can be in Ireland — it often verges on what we would describe as racism. Reading through the comments section of Irish publications, the sorts of comments that people demonstrate comfort in making are genuinely awful, genuinely cruel, genuinely hateful. And Connelly taps into this prejudice and feeds it. With “The Town the Travellers Took Over,” he didn’t make a documentary — it’s astonishing how few actual facts there are to be found in the piece. He created a series of dog whistles. He’s not a journalist; he’s a wanna-be demagogue, building his career by pandering to the worst of human nature.

Because “The Town the Travellers Took Over” isn’t a one-off. He’s also responsible for “The Travellers’ Secret Cash Stash” and “The Travellers’ Secret Millions,” so you can see that this is a subject of ongoing interest to him. And lest you think he limits himself to Travellers, there was also “Ireland’s Bogus Beggars: Paul Connolly Investigates” that mostly targeted Roma Gypsy women in Dublin and included as interview subjects Michael Quinn, the founder of the anti-immigrant Nationalist Movement Ireland, and Ted Neville of the Immigration Control Platform, who likewise holds ultranationalist and anti-immigrant viewpoints. Neither have popular support, even in their own communities; if your show is reliant on testimony from the fringe of the far right, there’s a real chance that that is the demographic you are pandering to. At the end of the piece, Connolly admitted there was scant evidence of any of his charges, leading another journalist, Diarmuid Doyle, to write:

In the end, reporter Paul Connolly had to hold his hands up and agree that there was nothing there – no gang, no Mr Big at the head of it and no huge money to be made from begging in Ireland. Instead he found a world of “extreme poverty, desperation and a community struggling to survive”.

Sometimes, even when you’ve put months of work and no little resources into an investigation, there’s still no story. In those circumstances, you don’t do the story.

Another example: Connolly was responsible for the seizure of a child from a Roma family in 2013. An anonymous tipster on his Facebook page claimed that there was a blonde, blue-eyed child in a a Roma household in Tallaght. Now, the idea that Gypsies abduct children is an awful historic slander against Roma, the equivalent of the blood libel to Jews. But Connolly took the anonymous tip at face value, turned the information over to the police, and they took the child into custody. DNA tests later demonstrated that the child belonged to the family, which was the source of enormous embarrassment for authorities, especially when they repeated the same mistake a few weeks later.

So this is the journalist whose unavailable work is being cited as a source in a high profile murder case, and whose dazzling investigative skills are unquestioned when he claims that Travellers are involved in gaming the insurance system in America.

Journalists, do better.


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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.