Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Jun 2017








Professor JOHN O’HALLORAN, Vice President for Teaching and Learning in University College Cork, on 2 June 2017, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on BRIGID QUILLIGAN


Lord Mayor, Chancellor, President, Honorary Graduates, Colleagues, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is my pleasure to introduce to you today Brigid Quilligan, daughter, mother, sister, partner, traveller and leader.  We recognise and honour you as a leader in our community, as the former Director of the Irish Traveller Movement and currently Manager of the Kerry Travellers’ Health and Community Development Project.  We salute and acknowledge you for the leadership you have shown and the critical role you have played in the campaign to secure recognition of the distinct ethnic identity of the Traveller Community in Ireland.


Brigid was born in Limerick, eldest daughter of eleven to Margaret and John.  She is accompanied today by her parents, her son Robbie, her partner Nick and her friends. She had a wonderful childhood inspired not only by her loving parents, but also her grandparents.  There was so much love and warmth in her childhood that her friends used to say ‘Brigid, you live in the land of the adored’. 


Education and respect were among the core values present in the Quilligan household from the start.  Respect for all, and a huge value in education which was to inspire Brigid in her early life and her human rights campaigns that were to follow.  She enjoyed the support and inspiration of her grandparents, cousins and family in developing her numeracy and literacy skills at a very young age and was then inspired by two great teachers in primary school: Una Fitzgerald and Noreen Coffey. 

Her primary and secondary education were very positive and she felt great warmth from her first days in school. 


At the age of 17, Brigid started her active citizenship in a public way involving herself in youth politics and working for human rights at a European level. At this time too, she wrote her first article on traveller discrimination in a Killarney newspaper.  Following that first publication, she felt the backlash both from the travelling and settled community.  She realised that the role of a leader is tough, but being the ‘bossy big sister’ in her family taught her to remain steely and determined, so she decided to invest further in her education at that time.  She went to college and studied marketing and French, at all times supported, encouraged and nurtured by her loving parents and family. She and her great friend Margaret Avanzo had lots of fun at this time and despite both enduring discrimination when socialising, Brigid embarked on seeking employment.  Soon she was to experience ‘huge discrimination’, being told ‘job position filled’ on application for a vacancy.  At times, she resorted to changing her name in order to try and secure a job.  To no avail.  This strong, highly motivated, quietly spoken leader was not stopped in her advocacy work by this discrimination, but became even more determined.   She became self-employed and also worked in the family business. 


When her adored son Robbie was one year old, Brigid became driven by a strong desire for him to be aware of his traveller heritage and identity.  Coupled with that was her firm passion to make his and all travellers’ lives better.  She started to become involved in education and community work at the family resource centre in Killarney by helping with the homework club.  When Robbie entered preschool, she promoted culturally-appropriate education and universal access as the chair of the school’s Board of Management.  During this time, she studied for a Certificate and Diploma in Youth and Community work here at University College Cork, where equality and diversity are valued and celebrated.  


Prior to taking up the role of Director of the Irish Traveller Movement in 2012, Brigid worked in her local Traveller project in Kerry as a community development worker and then as a regional membership development worker with the Irish Traveller Movement, bringing Travellers and Traveller groups together in the Munster area.  These roles lead to her becoming Assistant Director of the Irish Traveller Movement in 2010, and Director of the Irish Traveller Movement in 2012. Through all these times Brigid enjoyed the huge support of her partner Nick.


In the role as Director, she presented to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence on the significance of recognition and the importance of ending the discrimination and marginalisation endured by the Traveller Community in Ireland. Highlighting the high suicide rate among the Community, she spoke about the personal importance of recognition to her, and to the vindication of the human rights of the Traveller Community. The Committee’s Report published in April 2014, drew in particular on the submission of the Irish Traveller Movement, Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity (2013), and recommended recognition by the State of Traveller ethnicity, noting that it was ‘[…] long past time for this State to fully honour our responsibilities to the international conventions on human rights and to truly value and protect our Traveller communities.


Brigid represented the Irish Traveller Movement at the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, highlighting the need to formally recognise the distinct ethnicity of the Traveller Community as an ethnic minority (and as required by Article 27 of the ICCPR), and the urgent need to improve state provision of accommodation for Traveller families. Brigid led the engagement of the Traveller Community with the Human Rights Committee, securing a significant recommendation from the UN that:

The State party should take concrete steps to recognize Travellers as an ethnic minority group, and amend the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002 to meet the specific accommodation requirements of Traveller families”.


She was to succeed: on that famous night on March 1, 2017, Brigid, her mother and other members of the travelling community stood in the public gallery of the Dáil to hear An Taoiseach formally recognise the ethnicity of the Irish Traveller Community. 

The contribution and leadership of the Irish Traveller Movement were specifically acknowledged by An Taoiseach and he noted in particular their work to improve living conditions, promote health, education and access to services. 


Brigid, while we honour and recognise the huge role you have played for the Traveller Community, we also salute how this advocacy has improved all of society (travellers, settled and all communities).  If I can quote Martin Luther King ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.  You have enabled justice for all. We thank you for this.


Brigid is currently manager of Kerry Travellers Health and Community Development Project.  This is a Traveller-led organisation, where Traveller ethnicity is championed, and where Travellers are encouraged to be proud of their identity and actively engaged in community life.  Their mission is to work towards developing a clear and proactive position in relation to Traveller issues and rights so as to improve the quality of life of the Traveller Community in Kerry.


Brigid has been a long-time campaigner for access to education for the Traveller Community at all levels, and has highlighted the barriers to access arising from a legacy of discrimination and prejudice. She has worked tirelessly for women’s rights, in particular stressing the importance of access to justice for women in the Traveller Community, and to the human right to health and accommodation.


While this historic occasion was one of Brigid’s proudest moments - she quickly adds that the birth of her son, Robbie, and the enduring support of her parents and partner Nick make her most proud!  Brigid, we at UCC are proud of what you have achieved and I am very honoured to present you today for the award of Honorary Doctorate of Laws.

Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in utroque Jure, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.




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