Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘This is the best moment of my life’

Aosdána member on surviving Covid-19, racism against Travellers and reclaiming power through writing

Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘I am not differently abled. I’m not wheelchair-bound... It’s minimalising.’  Photograph: Tom Honan

Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘I am not differently abled. I’m not wheelchair-bound... It’s minimalising.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

 

‘This book is like my final session with a therapist,” Dr Rosaleen McDonagh says with a smile. “It’s like it’s all been wrapped up now.” 

Traveller, playwright, academic, social worker, feminist, member of Aosdána, disability activist and now published author with a new play about to premiere on the Abbey stage: McDonagh is well used to labels, but usually of a more scathing kind.

The fourth of 20 children, she was born into a Traveller family in Co Sligo. Her cerebral palsy meant she was destined to have a different upbringing to her 19 siblings, and periods in residential schools in Dublin from the age of four saw her world split in two; at home, with the family she loved, immersed in Traveller culture, and “away” in the world of settled people and their alien customs, rules and frequent cruelties.

The story of that upbringing, and the life and loves that followed, have been published in Unsettled, a book of personal essays in a similar vein to Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self or Sophie White’s Corpsing. 

McDonagh’s route to writing the book was circuitous. In the special schools she was sent to, “I learned nothing,” she says. “For some reason they wrote me off. I think it was because I was a Traveller, they expected nothing of me.” 

As her sisters began to marry and have children, McDonagh made a different life for herself. In her 20s, and with no State exams, she took the adult education route to formal education. “The isolation of that time was accompanied by the belief that education would save me from myself. It did.” 

She went on to complete a BA and two MPhils (from Trinity College Dublin), and a PhD from Northumbria University. “It was really important for a Traveller woman, with no children, and unwed,” she says. “I’m no academic, but to have these accolades . . . You have your husbands and you have your babies and this is what I have.”

Writing became a form of freedom, despite physical constraints. “The process of writing for me is unusual,” McDonagh says. “I have to wait for someone to type for me, and that means I have to refine my thoughts, edit in my head. 

“Growing up, I had no one to talk to. Women like me, we go under the radar. And when you’re under the radar, it’s a very nice place to be. Nobody expects anything of you, you’re never seen as someone who can do things. Everyone leaves you alone. And I love that.” 

Rosaleen McDonagh has just released a collection of essays Unsettled and her play Walls and Windows premieres at the Abbey this month. Photograph: Tom Honan
Rosaleen McDonagh has just released a collection of essays Unsettled and her play Walls and Windows premieres at the Abbey this month. Photograph: Tom Honan

The essays in Unsettled range from the political (Crowning Glory looks at the symbolism and significance of Traveller women’s hair, Politics and Polemics examines racism, sexism and ableism) to the personal (Mam and Me is an exploration of McDonagh’s relationship with her beloved mother, Rose, while Clamped and Body Punishment deal with her physical and sexual abuse in residential care and the subsequent damage she inflicted on her own body as she grappled with the fallout). There’s a suicide attempt. Food and self-harm are used as weapons. She carries a bottle of bleach everywhere in her bag to clean surfaces because “you get called a dirty knacker so many times”. The pain bleeds out from some pages and at times makes for uncomfortable reading.

“God, I hope it’s not too depressing?” McDonagh says over breakfast in a Dublin city centre hotel. It isn’t. There is also humour and love and tender devotion, particularly within the family she adores.

“There’s a lot of my life I don’t remember,” McDonagh says, so she includes a brief snapshot in the book, as remembered by her older sister Bridget, of her parents breaking her out of a residential home as a small child: “They had safety straps on you on the bed. Mam kept the staff talking so Dad could undo the straps . . . you needed fresh air. He took you in his arms and ran down five floors of steps. We escaped at high speed back to Donegal. Mam was in the back with you, me and Winnie. We were all smiles.” 

However, like many of the carefree moments in the book, reality soon set it. “A few days later the police were waiting at the dole office for Dad.”

There are a number of intense relationships throughout Unsettled, including a love affair spanning three decades, first as a romantic, sexual coupling, and later a loving, platonic friendship. McDonagh writes about bodies – hers and others – with a raw physicality. 

McDonagh’s first book has been a long time in the making. She says she was spurred on to finish it after catching Covid-19 in January. She was hospitalised for 10 days, and put on a ventilator. She thought she might die. “I was ready to go. I had no regrets. I had done much more than I expected, much more than what was expected of me. I had no unfinished business.”

So it was time to tell her own story, her way. “I’d been putting it off and putting it off,” she says. “And then I finished my PhD and I thought what is it all about? I thought, I really have to stop trying to prove that I’m not thick.

“When you have a speech impediment you’re outside the fabric of Irish life. People don’t talk about what that does to your self-esteem, your sense of worth . . . but I’m ambitious. My generation of women, certainly Traveller women, weren’t allowed to have ambition. 

“So I don’t do it all the time,” she laughs, “but I love writing ‘Dr Rosaleen McDonagh’.”

Along with her studies, McDonagh spent a decade working with Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre – where she remains a board member – latterly managing the Violence Against Women programme. All the while she was forging a career as a playwright (with plays such as The Baby Doll Project, She’s Not Mine and Mainstream, which was directed by Olivier award-winner, Jim Culleton).

She ran for the Seanad three times, was nominated to Aosdána in 2017 and made a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in 2020. Aosdána membership in particular had a profound effect. “I feel so privileged to be recognised, to be told ‘you have permission to write’,” she says. “Also with that there’s a responsibility where I feel I have to work harder than anyone else.” 

Aosdána members are entitled to an annual stipend, or cnuas, of about €17,000 to allow them to work on their art. For McDonagh, it was transformational.

“It means I could get physio for my body. I can pay someone to [type] for me. My family don’t have to worry about giving me money they didn’t have. It’s about freedom. Here’s the thing about Traveller women: if we have money, we are thought to have it from criminality. And as a disabled woman, you’re meant to live in tracksuits, but now I can go to a seamstress.

“When you’re in an institution, your clothes aren’t your own; you’re wearing someone else’s knickers. It’s dehumanising. I don’t know what freedom means, but for me it was about getting away from that institution.” 

Today, she looks forward: “This is the best moment of my life. I mean, who would have f**king thought it? Me with a play in the Abbey?” she asks, and bursts into a loud belly laugh.
 

Western feminism: people are sick of it. Fourth wave and fifth wave. How many women actually get that far? Disabled women don’t. Traveller women don’t. Women with learning difficulties don’t

That play, Walls and Windows, directed by Jason Byrne and starring Hilda Fay and John Connors (“Please will you write I adore him?”), will premiere in the Abbey later this month. It’s about “homelessness and what it does to one couple. It’s a love affair really, and how racism shapes it”.

“I’ve known women, not my family, but I’ve known women [raising children in that situation]. And they say that bigger than anything, it’s this stress, the pressure, the exhaustion of living that way.

“And then when you look at Traveller accommodation for the last 40 years – underspent budgets because, well,” she raises her eyebrows, “racism.” 
“We’ve seen from the Children’s Ombudsman, a whole plethora of reports – it’s all about the lack of implementation of various policies around education, accommodation, health. This is how racism works.”

Her art is about reclaiming her power, she says. “Now I’m working with a settled, white, able-bodied man [Byrne], who directed my first play, nearly 20 years ago. I hadn’t met or spoken to him and I got a text from him [about Walls and Windows]. It said: ‘I’m in love with your play.’”

She smiles. “Art can and does transcend what it is to be human. He’s edgy, I’m kitsch and comfy. So with this [play], it’s time to release not only your work but your anger. When you relinquish your power you get more power back. I’ve relinquished my stereotypes about settled men.” 

McDonagh is heartened by what she sees as “a Traveller culture renaissance”. 

“There’s so many young Travellers making work, they’re intellectually engaged. It’s far more radical, interesting, engaging, when it comes from the heart, mind and soul of a Traveller. Our children are carrying our culture into another generation.”

Intersectional feminism is also central to her writing and her life. “Western feminism: people are sick of it. Fourth wave and fifth wave. How many women actually get that far? Disabled women don’t. Traveller women don’t. Women with learning difficulties don’t. Unless we’re in a paragraph about how far we’ve come.

“If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that poor people are still dying earlier. As women, we’re still compromised by our sexuality, by our race. We’re in the fifth wave – but of settled white feminism. For me, it’s about minority feminism. It’s about disability feminism. All of that is far more interesting to me than how much money I make or am I a CEO in Silicon Valley.

“I get emotional when I think about [Traveller feminist representation at] the Abbey. They must have realised that there are other Irish voices. There’s more to come.”

I don’t have special needs – my needs are the same as yours. You’re eating your egg; I’m eating my toast. I might need a hand with all that stuff but that doesn’t make it special.

She has been involved in activism for years, though says she was “a disaster” at it. “A lot of Travellers, we’re pushed into activism. My generation didn’t have a choice. You were constantly reminded who you are wasn’t good enough. You don’t belong.”

Much of the language today around disability and activism irks her. “I am not differently abled,” she writes in Mam and Me. “I’m not wheelchair-bound.”

“It’s minimalising,” she says when I bring it up. “I can’t minimalise – I don’t want to . . . Half the world has CP [cerebral palsy] or some other impairment. I think that language is boring, it’s sloppy and lazy and it is tinged with middle-class privilege. The cultural ephemera of our lives, and the narratives and labels are always funnelled through the able-bodied point of view.

“I don’t have special needs – my needs are the same as yours. You’re eating your egg; I’m eating my toast. I might need a hand with all that stuff but that doesn’t make it special.

“I feel my job now is to support and cherish the younger ones and especially the women. I always thought there would be a book to teach you what feminism was about, but there isn’t. So being available to younger women, and letting go of the reins, letting go of my ego – that’s how I can help.”

Her book launch is next week. “Like any writer, I’m nervous about the reaction, about the people that worked in the residential places. But part of me says, you know what, f**k them. F**k the lot of them. I’m not lying: everything in there can be checked.”

The only reaction that really matters is that of her family. None of them has read the book yet. “I’m terrified. I hope I’ve honoured them. I’m worried they might think I blame them. But then they know I love them and they know I know them.”

Her Irish-based siblings and their children live in Tallaght and are “magnificent: I love the bones of them”. They are a constant presence in her life. Two nephews are due to call over to paint her house. She chuckles when I ask if they’ll do a good job. “It’ll be a laugh. I’ll slag them, but they’ll be slagging me over all my books in the house.”

She’s already working on her next book, a collection of short stories, all fiction. “When you have an impairment, all that anyone expects is for you to write your autobiography. And then you close the door,” she says. “I don’t want this. I want to write a proper book. You know my heroes are Christy Brown, Davoren Hanna, Christopher Nolan. They all had cerebral palsy. No one ever believed they were intellectuals.”

Contentment has been hard won; earlier violence against her own body has been replaced with care and respect. She loves tactile fabrics, such as cashmere and silk. Allows herself the occasional indulgence of creams and lotions. “I’m perfectly fine living the way I am. My body has been good to me, I enjoy it now,” she says.

Is it possible to also enjoy her achievements, to view them with pride?

“I’ll always be that knacker,” McDonagh says, reclaiming the term, “but I no longer carry a bottle of bleach in my handbag.”

Unsettled by Rosaleen McDonagh (Skein Press)is out now. €12.95

Walls and Windows, An Abbey Theatre commission, runs from August 23rd until September 11th, tickets and access to online performances from abbeytheatre.ie

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