The Travelling community are no strangers to hardship. And tragedy. And fire. The relationship between their beliefs and the spiritual power of fire and its ability to cleanse out past tragedies is well documented. The use of the flame to burn homes and vehicles in which someone has died has long been a custom.
However yesterday morning, just off the Bog Road at Poolboy, Ballinasloe, the community saw the awesome ability of fire to kill, when a well-liked couple, Christy “Cowboy ) Ward and his wife Janie Ward, originally from Mountbellew, died in their mobile home after it went alight. Christy was one of the best known personalities in the town for many years as he often wore the stetson hat that ensured him the moniker ‘Cowboy’.
The Wards were no stranger to fire. Last year when they were visiting relatives in the UK, their home in Ballinasloe was destroyed by fire, and reports in the town last night said that another caravan of theirs had burned in a blaze more than a decade ago.
The speed of the flames meant that the couple did not have a chance to escape the intense heat. A cursory glance at what remains of the mobile home in which they lived would show you the scant protection which they were afforded by its thin exterior. The efforts of the local fire brigade were exemplary but, alas, there was little they could do to save the lives of the couple as the fire was well advanced when they got to the scene.
As I write this, the outcome of the post-mortem examination of their remains has not been completed by Dr Marie Cassidy, but regardless of the cause of the blaze, it was still a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of many members of the community who take their lives in their hands when they reside in a caravan or mobile home, taking the risks needed to eke out such an existence.
Every year in Ireland, there are dozens and dozens of fire-related incidents involving members of the Travelling community. Every year in the UK, there are 1,400 caravan fires among the Travelling community —many of whom are closely linked to their Irish brethren.
The British government advises Travellers to install battery-operated smoke alarms, not to run cables from one caravan to another, to fit a carbon monoxide detector; not to dry clothes on heaters; to be vigilant when storing gas in canisters under their caravans; to shield the gas and other fuels from the sun and heat when not in use.
It is often hard for the Travelling community to avail of this advice, as living on the roadside or in a halting site often means having to bend the rules and to take a chance because it is often not practical to be fully fire safety compliant when life itself presents enough challenges.
However, it is now incumbent on the Traveller liaison committees to ensure that more is done to ensure that the risks of fire in the caravans and mobile homes are reduced. If not, tragedies such as yesterday morning’s will continue to happen on the halting sites of this country.
Our thoughts this week are with the Ward family and the East Galway Travelling community.