Letterkenny man makes history as north west’s first MA graduate

A Letterkenny man has become the first member of the Traveller community in the north west to graduate with an MA degree.
David Friel spent two years studying for his masters degree in Social Care and Social Justice, having already completed a BA in Health and Social Care at Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
He has been employed in social care for the past four years and now hopes to go on and become a doctor. He also wants his achievements to inspire other young Travellers to strive for third level education.
“People say it’s incredible and it is, I am extremely proud of myself but it’s also a stark reminder of where Travellers sit in Irish society.
“This is significant and it’s positive, but it shows that at every level  – personal, communal, societal and institutional – we’ve a lot to do to make sure there’s equal access to third level education for Travellers.
“It’s something to be proud of but it shouldn’t be an anomaly, it should be a common thing.”
David, who is the son of Donegal Travellers Project Development Officer Hugh Friel and the Project’s Co-ordinator Ann, grew up in Letterkenny but spent the first years of his life in a mobile home in Milford.
“In terms of my education it was a bit of a rocky start because there was a petition lodged against us getting a house in Ballyare. I don’t know why, maybe they thought there would be disruption because of us being Travellers.
“When I started school it was mostly a positive experience although the first time I found out I was a Traveller was when another pupil called me a wee gypsy. I had no idea up until that point.”
According to David the “racism” in secondary school was less blatant and “more strategic”. During an English lesson his teacher referred to the affluence of families in Romeo and Juliet and asked students to consider how different the characters’ lives would have been if they had been ‘knackers in a caravan parked at the side of the road’.
“It wasn’t direct racism but the teacher was subtly expressing these views and expressing them to these impressionable young minds,” said the Letterkenny man.
Such comments are hugely damaging, said David. To the point where young Travellers feel the need to hide their roots.
“Going into education does not mean having to hide your ethnicity. I still have my traditions and I’m still very much a Traveller but there does seem to be a perception out there that you have to hide or suppress that. Through my journey I want people to take pride in their identity.
“That is not to say it is not without its difficulties but it can be done if you have the right people to support you.”
Despite his array of academic achievements David revealed how he still regularly encounters the vast divide that exists between the Traveller and settled communities.
“Statistics tell us that only 13 per-cent of Travellers finish secondary education compared to 92 per-cent of the general population.
“The notion seems to be that Travellers don’t appreciate school. But the reality is that the unemployment rate among Travellers is over 80 per-cent. So you have young people going through formal education knowing that it is not going to lead to employment. They are asking why, what is the point?”
Inequality in education and employment coupled with a lack of proper services make it very difficult for young Travellers to succeed in Irish society, according to the young graduate.
In David’s case he received a first-class honour for his thesis which focused on the impact of the Covid pandemic on Irish Travellers. He also received the President’s Award at IT Sligo which will enable him to progress his next goal of becoming a doctor.
He credits a number of people with helping him achieve what he has, in particular his parents. Hugh and Ann Friel both left school at primary level before returning to education in later life.
“If it wasn’t for their activism I wouldn’t have achieved what I have. I also have to thank my supervisor and mentor Tamsin Cavaliero who has been very supportive. Again I’m not sure I would have completed this without her.”

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