Irish Traveller and a proper East Ender, Danny Mongan is bridging cultural divides and challenging perceptions of Travellers’ rootlessness.
When Danny Mongan, 32, opens his mouth to speak, you’d never guess he was born in Homerton Hospital and has spent his whole life in the East End.
The son of Irish Travellers who arrived in East London in the 80s, a soft Irish accent has stayed with Mongan who was brought up in a large Traveller site in Hackney Wick.
In 2010, the site was demolished to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the inhabitants of more than 20 plots were split between three new sites in Hackney, where his family still lives today.
Mongan pulls up to our interview in Hackney Wick in a convertible BMW that I’m all too aware he has left unlocked and on a yellow line. But his easy-going confidence tells me that he didn’t do it mistakenly.
Sitting outside HWK Cafe, our interview is interrupted by someone asking Mongan to move his car so a delivery van can get through. ‘He didn’t ask anyone else if it was their car!’ laughs Mongan: ‘How did he immediately know it was mine?!’ he asks, feigning surprise and gesturing to his tattoos and gold chain.
Though he is proud of his Irish Traveller identity, Mongan chats candidly about parts of his culture that he disagrees with. Describing himself as a ‘black sheep’, he divides his life between his ‘inside’ Irish family and his ‘outside family’, referring to his non-Traveller friends. Optimistic and instantly personable, it takes a character like Mongan to slip in and out of these disparate worlds.
Working for the Gypsy Traveller Leauge (GTL), he aims to break down cultural barriers and challenge the perception of Travellers. Mongan is something of a chameleon and can often be found with his non-Traveller friends partying in Hackney Wick. But he frequently witnesses the discrimination faced by the Irish Traveller community in East London pubs and other venues, which he is determined to change.
What was your schooling like?
‘I went to Kingsmead Primary School in Hackney but I didn’t go to secondary school. I always had a different mindset from my siblings and my cousins, I was really inquisitive and I always wish I’d gone to secondary school. I think that’s one of the worst things about the Gipsy community. There’s so much hidden talent but they steal education away from our young people by taking them out of school. I did some typical Gypsy jobs like tarmacking and tree-topping but I never felt like they were for me.’
What does family mean to you?
‘Family means honour, good values, and good morals. It does mean a lot. But I dip in and out of the family bubble and through the years I’ve also found my outside family. Sometimes I don’t really believe that whole moto, ‘blood is thicker than water’ because there are a lot of cousins that I ‘uncousined’ if that makes sense when I saw how quick they were to turn their back on me when I went through my dark days, and my outside family, they’ve done everything in the world for me, so family in those two senses can mean the very opposite.
How many siblings do you have?
‘Six or seven, I think.’
Do you have the same cultural values as your family?
‘I respect some of my family’s values but I’ve always been a bit of a black sheep. I’ve mixed with my friends’ families who aren’t Travellers and I used to crave that relationship with my parents; being able to have open conversations about sex and drugs and things like that, but I didn’t talk about that with my parents and even though I know they love me, they never said it to me.
‘I’ve always been a bit smarter than my family and I don’t know why because I had the exact same upbringing as them but I’ve always thought like an outsider. It’s kind of a gift but I really craved your lifestyle.
‘I got married when I was 18 years old and it’s not like I was forced, I did love the girl, but we were divorced by the time I was 23. In the community, it was as if I had murdered someone or had committed some terrible crime. Some people were really ashamed and news travels really quickly in such a tight-knit community. Even people that I wasn’t friends with suddenly made it their business to know. So I thought I had to just get out, so I bought a flat in Homerton and that’s when I met people outside the community and made friends through festivals and my love of house music.’
What meal makes you feel especially at home?
‘Our dinner. I don’t know if you have a name for it but we just call it ‘our dinner’. It’s a traditional Gypsy Traveller dish with spuds, turnips, cabbage and other vegetables all cooked together in this broth. Sometimes you add mince or stewed chicken.’
What’s the best way to bridge cultural divides between people?
‘To mix. I respect a lot of Travellers’ ways but I don’t respect all of their ways. They have very good morals and values but I don’t respect leaving school at 13 and getting married by 17, that’s something that I think has to change. But to break that cultural divide and to get everyone to understand each other, I do feel like the Travellers need to mix more.
‘I think lots of Travellers are hypocritical because they will only mix with the outside world when they need something, like council support or they need to book a venue or something like that, but I love learning about people’s lives and people’s families. It’s give and take, you have to put yourself out there to be accepted. They don’t have to be best friends with everyone from the outside community, but I think too many Travellers hide away and are really closed, which is probably because they’ve been unfairly treated in the past, but then it just gets worse when people don’t know you.’
What does the East End mean to you?
‘The East End means home, so even though my heritage is Irish, I was born here and I grew up here. I used to hang around Hackney Wick when it was just warehouses and squatters and there was a lot of crime. People will see one burglary around here and think they know what it was like but really they don’t have a clue! It’s changed so much.
‘What I love about the area is that it’s so diverse. There are some cities that you go to and no matter how big the city is, the whole city feels the same. London is so diverse and so multicultural, you know when you’re in East London, West London, North London and South London, they’re so different. East London is by far my favourite, it’s so quirky and different and it means home to me.’
What would you say to those who make the Irish Traveller community feel unwelcome in East London?
‘Some of them might be uneducated, and some of them might know exactly what they’re doing. I’ve met all walks of people in life because I bounce in and out of the bubble, whereas my cousins don’t leave the bubble, and people from outside the bubble have never been inside the bubble, so a lot of people are uneducated and they’re the ones causing these barriers.
‘I think people outside the Traveller community should try to get to know us as well, educate themselves and not believe everything they see in the media, so don’t just jump to conclusions.
‘When people see a big group of Travellers coming into a pub they think this might happen or that might happen. They’ll say: ‘Your cousin was in here last weekend and started a fight.’ But if any marginalised group of people got into a fight at the pub, you’d just kick them out, you wouldn’t bar the whole community from ever going back there.
‘Imagine if you were going to pubs and you were being treated like a dog, being left outside and made to feel like utter shit. You’d want a voice, you’d want to be heard, you’d want respect and to be treated like a human being.’
What’s the most common misconception about Irish Travellers?
‘That we’re fighters. It doesn’t help that lots of Travellers get into MMA fighting so couple seeing that on the TV with some Irish traveller getting drunk in a pub and fighting and then all of a sudden people think we’re all like that.
‘I’m a really friendly guy and I’m inquisitive about other people so I always chat to people on nights out and I never hide that I’m a Traveller. Then at the end of the night, I often get people saying how surprised they are by me but I can’t change perceptions all on my own! A lot of Travellers keep their identity a secret but I will never deny who I am.’
What is Hackney Wick’s best-kept secret?
‘I sometimes go to HWK Bar, Lord Napier Star and Queen’s Yard. But the best places are those crazy little boat parties you stumble across on the canal. You think it’s just old people living in there and then you look in and this tiny thin boat turns into a mansion inside.’
What is your message to the next generation?
‘My son is nine years old and I want him to do everything that was stolen from me. I want him to go to school and get a good job and know that he can. So many Travellers are just brought up like robots. Travellers need to know that they can be footballers and astronauts and whatever but those opportunities are stolen from them when they get taken out of school and get married at 18.
‘So if my son decides he wants to do that I guess I’ll have to be okay with that, but I hope he doesn’t. I want him to be able to talk to me about anything in a way that I couldn’t with my parents.’
If you enjoyed reading this article, find the previous piece in our This is Home series about memories of Clare House in Bow.
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