‘Racism is so recyclable. It’s toxic. The far-right stuff is on my doorstep’

Playwright and activist Rosaleen McDonagh says: ‘I didn’t think people would be burning buildings and blocking libraries. That scares the living daylights out of me’

On Thursday, at the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, the writer and activist Dr Rosaleen McDonagh received the inaugural Rowan Award, an honour given by the Rowan Trust to “extraordinary leaders who have displayed unwavering dedication to advancing social justice within their communities and beyond”.

A week before, McDonagh and I met in a Dublin hotel where we talked for 2½ hours. She’s a prolific playwright who has had plays performed on the main stage of the Abbey (Walls and Windows) and as far afield as Sao Paulo (Rings). She’s also a short story writer, a memoirist and a passionate advocate for the rights of Travellers, disabled people and marginalised people in general. She ran for the Seanad three times. She is on the board of Pavee Point, a member of the Aosdána since 2017 and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. She has two masters degrees (from Trinity College Dublin) and a PhD (from Northumbria University) but baulks when I refer to her as an “academic”. “I don’t think I’m an academic,” she says. “I’m low level ... I would never be able to survive [as an academic]. I’m too soft. My mind is very abstract.”

I want to be emotionally, politically, psychologically assaulted when I go to see a play. I don’t want to be appeased

McDonagh has cerebral palsy and says by email in advance of our meeting: “Just to let you know my speech may take a little while to tune into. Patience and humour usually help.” In person, she’s warm, funny, deeply insightful and relentlessly inquisitive. When the waiter comes over with our coffees. I respond with a reflexive “Thanks man” and she laughs. “Why do men say, ‘Thanks man’? Does it soften the language or something? I don’t say ‘Okay woman’.”

McDonagh’s essay collection, Unsettled, which was published by Skein Press in 2021, is a remarkable book. In it she writes beautifully and movingly about the joy of Traveller style and hair, the love of family, the deep hurt of racism, the physical and sexual abuse she experienced in residential schools as a child and the feeling she frequently has of being caught between her Traveller identity and “settled contamination”. “I think identity is very tricky in all sorts of ways,” she says. “It plays tricks on our hearts and on our minds and on our intellect ... I don’t always think I’m rational. I don’t always think I have recovered [from] the fear of racism and how far it can go.”


She doesn’t recall a specific moment of political radicalisation, although there are plenty of notable moments of resistance in her life story. Back in 1997, she appeared before a redress board to talk about the abuse she experienced in residential institutions. She refused to take compensation because doing so entailed signing a gagging order and she found the whole process degrading. “There are moments when you say, ‘absolutely not’.”

Who influenced her politics? “My mother would have been huge. And also, later on in life, people like Ronnie Fay in the Irish Traveller Movement ... There was all this stuff inside me and she challenged me and continued to mentor me. I was able to confess hurt. And racism is about hurt. People say it’s some act of unkindness. No, it’s hurt.”

When did education become important to her? “When I didn’t have it,” she says. “And when my brothers and sisters and my Traveller friends didn’t have it. It’s still very important. And I don’t mean structured education but lifelong learning ... With my speech impediment, it’s easier to write than it is to talk. Books and reading and the gift of reading and the gift of libraries ... I discover [education] every day. Every new book. Even books I don’t like.”

She doesn’t find writing easy, she says. “Art is hard. Any form of art. I spent eight years on one f**king poem.”

What poem? “I Am Not Your Knacker. Eight years. I would get out of my wheelchair lie on the floor. Draw circles. Write a stanza into a circle. [Think], it doesn’t fit. The narrative is too polemic ... Could it be My Dark Rosaleen or a love poem?” She laughs. “I take comfort in Chekhov: ‘There is no end’. There’s no little bow. There’s no resolve – it’s about the making of it, the process.”

I Am Not Your Knacker references James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro. African-American writers had a huge impact on her. “I love James Baldwin,” she says. “He’s probably the only man who never left me. What I really like about him is that he never made it big. Broadway wasn’t on to him. Also, his writing was very polemical. Critics and directors don’t like polemical writing and I would say they don’t have to be polemical because they don’t live in our reality. They look to Becket who was privileged ... I want to be emotionally, politically, psychologically assaulted when I go to see a play. I don’t want to be appeased.”

Later she likens writing to making music. “The music in that Traveller voice, it just charges me and nothing else matters,” she says. “[Music is] how I know my body. My body is slow. My muscles are tight but when there’s music on, I’m relaxed. I feel there’s no harm ... All my family are singers and at Christmas even I’d be asked to sing. I can barely talk but they won’t move on unless I do one verse.”

She works meticulously. She carefully considers every word she writes. In the past, when she had more limited access to a typist, she would hone her paragraphs for days in her head. Now, thanks to the annual stipend, the “cnuas”, she receives as a member of the Aosdána she can afford to have a typist five days a week. “I don’t want to get all woolly but I channel Christy Brown and Christopher Nolan ... because they lived in a body like mine and their work wasn’t taken seriously.”

A little later she says that disabled people “want to be listened to and they want to be seen and they want to be invited. A lot of disabled people feel, I wasn’t asked. I wasn’t asked and it really hurts.”

Does she really think that she’s not taken seriously? “They say it to me! EDI [Equality, Diversity and Inclusion] can be a trap. Although you’re delighted with the access, you kind of know you’re only there as a token. I remember being asked would I be available to be on a panel. I couldn’t and the moderator said, ‘Oh God where are we going to find another Traveller? And then we have to find a disabled person’. I felt like sh*t.”

She talks about being invited to prestigious events in places with no wheelchair access. She mentions a passive aggressive email she once received from a white male able-bodied writer asking for support when she feels a need to prioritise supporting Traveller or disabled artists. She was also hurt by the fact he talked pointedly about supporting his family in the message. “I found it the most cruel thing. The arrogance of settled ideology. The arrogance of ‘You have no children. You don’t know’.”

We talk for a while about the fact neither of us have children. She has read an essay I wrote about this and wonders how I think not having children has affected me over time. I’m not sure. At one point, in a different context, I mention that I feel unfairness more viscerally as I age and she says, rather insightfully: “Do you not think, and I don’t mean to be hurtful, that when you were exploring not having a family, that something inside you realised you weren’t the same [as other people]? So something happens to you when you meet other people who don’t belong ... and they need looking after.”

This is also a painful issue for her. “In our community it’s so central and if you don’t live up to that milestone you haven’t moved into adulthood,” she says. “For some Travellers it doesn’t matter that I’m writing for the Abbey, it doesn’t matter that my play was on in Brazil – no babies, no husband.”

Does that still hurt? “100 per cent. But there are more women like me and we’re doing stuff on our own terms and we’ve had to walk through a painful private journey but we say, ‘Actually I’m going to have the biggest f**king party; I’m going to have a career; I’m going to be opinionated’ ... I can’t give the community more babies but I can give them work. I can enrich and honour Travellers. We’re starving for art.”

She also quite likes being alone, she says. “I like that on the one hand I can turn on the gregariousness and play and pretend but I am really comfortable when I’m on my own, reading or writing or sorting sh*t out in my head”.

Did it feel cathartic to write about her life in Unsettled? “No,” she says. “People are deluded in thinking that. My publishers, Skein Press, literally had to watch me because it was very intense ... Unsettled f**king broke me.”

Consequently, she wants to focus on fiction and non-autobiographical work for a while. She has a collection of short stories, Contentious Spaces, coming out later in the year (also on Skein Press). She’s also writing a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and is under commission from the Abbey for an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. “And I can’t fit racism into that,” she says, and laughs. “Catriona McLoughlin [codirector of the Abbey] is a brilliant woman. I remember thinking about my normal polemic and she would say, ‘There is no way of fitting it in.’ And that was interesting because up to now the victim monologue was my journey of healing.”

After the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment she started to feel burnt out by activism, she says. “It’s too hard Patrick. It’s too heavy. I don’t want to be a mouthpiece. I want to support the younger Travellers to do that kind of work. I’m not sure that my voice warrants being in that space any more. I think I belong somewhere else. I’m middle-aged. Most of my peers have died. So that’s why writing has to be something I do for myself. I’m not sure how much longer I could continue in a valuable way or a way that makes a difference. I don’t want to be one of those writers who hangs around too long and has an opinion on everything. I want to go off into my land of fiction.”

That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t express her views. She has written about the proposed assisted dying legislation and the pressure that she believes such legislation would put on disabled people in a world where they don’t have the supports that they need and are made to feel like a burden. She notes that the Irish Government hasn’t yet fully implemented the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “How frightening that is,” she says. “We haven’t been living and then they want to give us a way out. That’s really dangerous.”

She also feels conflicted about the upcoming referendum on care. She thinks that the proposed constitutional amendment is worded in a way that disempowers disabled people and doesn’t enshrine the state’s responsibilities to them. “Although I want to vote Yes, I want to exercise and encourage women to vote whatever way they want to vote,” she says. “Childcare and disability support should be available from the State. It shouldn’t be for those who have money or for those who advocate loudest.”

Amid all this advocacy she loves art. She’s just been to see All of Us Strangers (“I cried my eyes out”). She tells me she loves Cillian Murphy for following Oppenheimer with a smaller scale adaptation of a Claire Keegan book, Small Things Like These. She regularly spends whole days in galleries, “thinking of the person who made the art”.

Does art feel like a form liberation? “I don’t feel that way,” she says. “I feel it’s very painful. It’s shockingly painful ... I didn’t want to be a writer. It’s a thing I can’t get away from. I never enjoy it. I never feel I’ve done a good job.” She thinks for a moment. “The loveliest part and the most joyful part is working with an actor.”

Why? “First of all, when you have a speech impediment nobody ever knows what you’re saying,” she says. “Someone like [actor] John Connors, I love working with him. They’re holding your words in their hands. They embody bits of you that other people never understand and they relieve you of your heartache and they help you to tend the brokenness.”

Does it help that John is also a Traveller? “100 per cent. That’s important.” She talks about a Galway production of her play Night Shift performed by Traveller actors and directed by a Traveller director, Thomas Connors, where they intuitively understood what she was doing with little need for explanation. “All I had to do was hand over the script.”

Michael Baron from the Rowan Trust says of McDonagh: “She embodies the kind of society we aspire to. We fight for social justice with communities on the margins. We know that those closest to the struggle are closest to the solutions. She has made Ireland immeasurably better through her art and activism.” (The Rowan Award includes €30,000 to be used for the recipient’s work and €15,000 to be donated to a cause of her choosing.)

She believes marginalised people need to work together. When she was a teenager, her sister lived in London and she recalls hiding in a phone box with her during the Brixton Riots. “That would have fed into my consciousness ... We can’t do the job of change on our own. Gay people, men and women, were central to my consciousness. I thought it was only Travellers [who suffered]. I had no idea how painful homophobia is. And I had to listen and hold my gay friends and really hear what they were saying and be ready to defend them when they didn’t have the strength to get up and do it again. When you’re on the edge you have the opportunity to meet other people on that same edge.”

The recent anti-immigrant protests remind her of the anti-Traveller protests she saw when she was young. “I remember that in the 80s when they used to block roads and they used to say, ‘Knackers out’,” she says. “There are children who may never recover from that. Racism is so recyclable. It’s toxic and it spreads to other areas of your life. We’re living in a very scary time. The far-right stuff is on my doorstep. I’m middle-aged. I thought that would stay over in England at a football pitch ... I didn’t think people would be burning buildings and blocking libraries. That scares the living daylights out of me.”

She has increasingly found herself returning to the world of Traveller politics. “I love being a Traveller,” she says. “That keeps me safe. It binds me with my family but also with my peers ... We built a movement. I think I’m really lucky in that Traveller politics and anti-racist work shaped me and moulded me and gave me a language and gave me a platform when other people wrote me off. There comes a moment in your life, no disrespect to anyone, when you turn off the settled ‘noise’.”

Who does she write for? “I always try to write something that my sisters and brothers will look at and think about,” she says. “And recently the young people in my family, the nieces and nephews, think I’m cool.” She laughs. “I never thought that would happen ... I primarily write for a Traveller audience, for a disabled audience. If other people want to come along, no problem, but I’m never going to appease. I’m never going to want settled applause because I know the wind will change.”

She doesn’t want to be co-opted by the establishment, she says. “I want to stay on the outside because once you move in and start appeasing other people then you become the joker and the good little Traveller woman and the safe Traveller who’s done well. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to lose the critical voice. I don’t want to be too co-operative with people. That’s a line that I hope I never cross.”

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