His parents were Travellers who had settled for several years in Navan, Co Meath, before ‘taking a notion’ to explore the Midlands. The 17-year-old David, meanwhile, had been offered an apprenticeship as a car mechanic after ‘sporadic’ primary and secondary-school education, so he decided to stay at home and pursue it.
“My parents were a traditional Traveller family – they moved around the Midland counties until I was 13 or 14, when they moved into a house, in the early 1980s,” he explains.
His teenage years were spent in Navan, where extended family had settled since the 1970s. One of a family of eight, David describes himself as an Irish person with a proud Traveller heritage. “People know I’m a Traveller and I would never deny it,” he says. “It’s something I have pride in, but it’s not something I wear every day. I go to work as a solicitor, that’s my job, that’s what I do.”
Blowin’ in the wind
He doesn’t know whether he’s the first Irish Traveller to become a lawyer, but he certainly hopes not to be the last. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, however, and the fact that David is a solicitor from a Traveller background does not, of itself, make the profession diverse. “There are still challenges there for the profession, in how it reflects an Ireland that has become more diverse and multicultural,” he says.
The law has bottlenecks in terms of financial access to professional training for candidates with a broader social profile, he believes. At practitioner level, he says that more could be done, in terms of affirmative policies, to bring diverse trainees into smaller, private-sector firms. “Bigger firms are more likely to look critically at their intake,” he states. “The Law Society can have great inclusion strategies, but what incentives are there for small practitioners to be diverse?”
He believes that there may be others in the profession who are of Traveller heritage but who, for various reasons, remain silent. They may lack the confidence to make that declaration because of historical views of the Travelling community and how they are seen in Irish society. “I can understand that,” he says. “There has been a stigma.”
Though David shies away from being seen as a role model, he is clear about his responsibility to be open: “I don’t mind being seen as a role model, but I don’t hold myself out as one,” he says, referring to the many strong and inspirational women in the community who are active locally, yet largely silent at a national level.
While he was the first person in his family to go to university, four of his siblings, in turn, have gained third-level qualifications – one sister to master’s level. “My parents were not highly educated, but both were literate and both had an interest in reading and writing
and education, which may not have been common among other families.”
Access to education on a fair and equitable basis is the essence of a nurturing society, but mechanisms that address historical disadvantages must also be part of the package, David believes.
He knows of several younger Traveller women with law degrees, so things are changing: “The potential and achievements of young Travellers now going on to third level show the ability that is there – and the failure to tap that potential in the past,” he says.
Several of his own children have pursued third-level qualifications – including two who have professional masters in education.
Tangled up in blue
In light of these achievements, he objects to the lazy labelling, stereotyping and generalisations made about Travellers. He abhors the way in which Travellers are characterised as one “amorphous blob”.
In particular, he despairs at the online hate that was directed at Travellers after the tragic Carrickmines fire, in which ten lives were lost, including those of young children.
“Who is to say that those children didn’t have the same potential and hope for the future as any other child in society? To label them as Travellers, in order to then say that they are not worthy, was very upsetting. I grew up in a caravan. I’m not any better than any other child because I became a lawyer. Anybody has the potential to be a lawyer or a doctor, or a road-sweeper – they have human potential. The Carrickmines reaction was sad.”
David acknowledges that, given his progression through life, his values are probably vastly different to those of others in his wider family.
“The community is diverse, it’s not homogenous, there are different values and attitudes. Societies are diverse, and within that diversity is further diversity. I identify as Irish, and Traveller is another aspect of my identity.”
All I really want to do
David Joyce’s own varied and wide-ranging career reflects his nomadic heritage, he says. He began as a tradesman, qualifying as a motor mechanic in his early 20s, then gravitated towards youth and community-development work with young Travellers in Navan and Tullamore. A diploma from NUI Maynooth followed during his late 20s, gaining him a professional qualification in community development.
Meanwhile, he started to see that the law was where the social changes he wished to see could best be effected: “I wanted to get an understanding of public administration and local government law and how it worked, particularly in terms of housing policy,” he says.
So, he began a Diploma in Legal Studies at the King’s Inns in 2000, at the age of 31, while working as a policy and accommodation officer with the Irish Traveller Movement.
He developed a real grá for law, and continued with a BL before being called to the Bar in 2005. He devilled for a year with Siobhan Phelan, now SC, and specialised in public administration and judicial review, with a particular focus on housing law.
After being called to the Bar, several years of practice at the Law Library and on the Midland Circuit followed. David found work as a barrister, but is realistic that certain avenues of income may well have been closed to him. “To say that sounds like I’m bitter about it – I’m not. I did have work, I found work. It’s not uncommon for many barristers to struggle in their first ten years.
“To say I struggled because I am a Traveller would be completely unfair on their struggle. To say I was in the Bar for ten years and nobody liked me – that wouldn’t be true. To say nobody liked me because I was a Traveller, that would be even less true.
“I made some very good friends at the Bar. And I made some, I won’t say enemies, but people I didn’t warm to, and maybe they didn’t warm to me because we had different politics, background, family upbringing. All that has a bearing on who you relate to.
“The legal profession reflects society and, within the legal profession, there are people with prejudices and attitudes that are archaic, perhaps.”
David Joyce wants a society that is just and equal. He derives meaning from the fact that we are all human, and we all bear the burdens of living and suffering in society, as well as the responsibility to steward the earth for the next generation.
Things have changed
David felt drawn to the closer lawyer/client relationship that would ensue from working as a solicitor. He decided to do the Law Society’s Essentials of Legal Practice Course (ELPC) for barristers who wish to convert to solicitors.
“I like the solicitor relationship with clients that you don’t get as a barrister coming in as an expert. As a solicitor, you are with clients from the beginning. I think that aspect came from my previous work in community development. My real interest is in people,” he says.
Dealing with vulnerable clients, particularly those in need of housing, can be draining, though: “In the housing area, you can become very embroiled with your clients, particularly where there are families and children involved. It is intense and there is burnout,” he notes.
David observes that local-authority eviction procedures are now more rigorous in terms of showing ‘cause’, and must make reference to the European Convention on Human Rights. “The human-rights aspect of law interested me,” he reflects.
His interest led him to being selected as a human-rights commissioner on the then Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission, which subsequently became the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission under the 2014 act.
While doing the ELPC course, David worked at Sheehan and Partners, the well-known Dublin criminal law practice. A solicitor role at housing charity Mercy Law Resource Centre in Dublin 8 saw him representing clients on housing-provision and welfare issues.
He now works as a legislative drafter with the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, which is the in-house legal team of the Houses of the Oireachtas that offers specialist, non-partisan legal advice to members of the Dáil and Seanad and staff.
The unit is completely independent of Government and offers a drafting service for private members’ bills, while also assisting with research and development of policy proposals, as well as drafting bills and their amendments right up to committee-stage scrutiny.
“All societies are bound by laws,” David says, “rules for how we interact with each other. Getting them right is always important in ensuring an equitable and fair society. Good law makes for a good society.
“It’s a different aspect to the legal profession,” he adds. “I have a fondness for litigation, and this is a non-litigation role within the profession, but we are immersed in legislation, and the mechanics of law.”
And though working for TDs and senators may be different, the lawyer/client relationship remains the same: “That’s always been an aspect of my professional career – that I enjoyed having clients.”
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