Travellers’ tales and the oral tradition

As my background is performing in, and writing for the theatre, I felt instinctively suited to working with a group whose primary means of storytelling is oral

Mollie Collins, Lisa Harding and Missie Collins

Mollie Collins, Lisa Harding and Missie Collins

 

The phone call came last June bank holiday, while I was sitting in the Listowel Arms, during Writers’ Week, redrafting a scene from a new novel in progress. The director of the Irish Writers Centre Valerie Bistany’s voice came down the line, telling me I had been chosen as writer in residence with Pavee Point, a community development organisation working to achieve full human rights for Irish Travellers and Roma.

I remember being distinctly thrilled at this news, especially as the previous few months had felt like a professional, creative stalemate. So many “no’s” flowing in, on all fronts. This particular “yes” paved the way for many more, and I’m truly grateful to have been afforded the opportunity.

Much has changed since then: Irish Travellers were formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group in March, a long-cherished and campaigned-for wish, and my own debut novel, Harvesting, about the impact of sex trafficking on two teenage girls in Dublin, was published last month. It was while I was facilitating workshops in Pavee Point that the phone call came through from New Island to say they’d like to take my book. And now, exactly a year on, I’ve just read from said novel at the Listowel writers’ festival.

James Anthony McDonagh and Tracey Reilly
James Anthony McDonagh and Tracey Reilly

These pivotal events in my life share, at their heart, my major preoccupation as a writer and artist: a desire to give voice to the marginalised and dispossessed, individuals who exist on the fringes of mainstream society.

As my background is performing in, and writing for the theatre, I felt instinctively suited to working with a group whose primary means of storytelling is oral. My first meeting with some of the members of Pavee Point took the form of an energetic, improvisational workshop, where we played fast and hard with words, tossing them about in the air, playing with free association and then one-word storytelling, followed by one-sentence storytelling. I quickly discovered a sharp, funny, irreverent imagination at play in the group’s ability to conjure characters and voices out of the void.

This taster session was offered a month in advance of starting a 10-week consecutive course, called The Voices Project. I wanted to approach the project with an open mind, to respond to the particular group’s own concerns and desires, alongside a guiding principle of expressing personal stories and reflections through the prism of “giving voice”. There was to be no corralling of instincts, this much I knew, and I set out to create an atmosphere of trust and openness so that the participants could tell their stories in their own unique way.

In my earlier work, which ranged from facilitating adults in the adult education sector, ex-offenders in a community theatre project, and teenagers in youth projects, I found that establishing a connection is crucial, both in creating a sense of trust, and enabling people to access their own creativity to tell their stories. Community and creativity connects us with our common humanity, regardless of race or gender.

Facilitating this particular group, which consisted of six women and one man: Missie Collins, Mary Collins, Mollie Collins, Bridgie Collins, Tracey Reilly and James Anthony McDonagh resulted in some raw, powerful and unmediated material. Working with the oral, rather than written, method of storytelling has its own richness and texture. As a writer and performer, I regard myself as an interpreter of people’s feelings and my work aims to put itself at the service of its characters. I am interested in the authentic experience of the character, as mediated through voice. This project became about exactly that: unmediated voices telling their own stories, with their own particular cadence, rhythms, pathos and humour, recorded live , some of which are available to listen to on the Irish Writers Centre website.

I brought in visual prompts, such as postcards to spark the imagination, which, as it turned out, needed little to ignite it. I also brought in examples of poetry and read them aloud, inspiring members to create snapshots of images, which resulted in a collective spoken-word poem, Water, recited by James Anthony McDonagh.

I was struck by the group’s natural gift for painting pictures with words, for evoking all the senses in their depictions of place or a feeling, in describing in minute detail the natural world: the seasons, the temperature, the birds circling the air, the cries of the corncrake, which have since died out, the smells, the cures that nature offered: poultices for suppurating wounds, the nettle and the dock leaf for rashes and inflammation, the power of prayer and faith in healing.

Some of the older women in the group spoke of the loss of freedom of life on the road, through the forced sedentarisation of their lives. Being nomadic is a state of mind – it offers a flexibility, a different attitude to transience. To live a life on the road, to move from one place to the next, to live life close to the elements, affords a different experience of autonomy and independence. Many of the Travellers used to be tinsmiths, palmists and storytellers. They say their role was more clearly delineated then, and worry that the demise of traditional roles and blocks to participation is directly contributing to an increase in addiction, depression and suicide, particularly among their young men, which research shows to be seven times higher than the national average.

As the weeks continued, the group started to mediate their storytelling through this lens of “changing times”: the “then” and “now” of their lived experience; the increase in age of young people getting married, the access to education, the greater levels of autonomy for women and men in their choice of lifelong partners, among others. Although all of the groups’ stories were sparked by real-life events, the telling took on a life of its own: vividly and deftly brought to life through detailed description of character, landscape and emotion, employing humour, the unexpected, the sense of the mysterious. The oral medium has a beauty all of its own: disembodied voices bringing to life an array of experiences, mediated through their own melodies, cadences and inflections.

My own work has benefitted greatly from my experience of working with this particular generous group of individuals, who taught me much about the gifts of instinctive storytelling: the freshness, the musicality of idiom, the freedom to follow one’s own particular style and interests without a critical voice intruding.
The Pavee Point Writer-In-Residence programme was an Irish Writers Centre initiative funded by Dublin City Council. To find about more information about Irish Writers Centre residencies for writers click here

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