Rosaleen McDonagh: ‘Traveller women who don’t have children are pitied’

Cerebral palsy meant two mighty and brutal forces of patriarchy had a tight grip upon my body

Disability and Traveller campaigner Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Tom Honan

Disability and Traveller campaigner Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Tom Honan


Close friends and family know there’s a deep shadow of sadness that hangs over me. Despite my achievements, there is one area in my life that remains sore and raw. Traveller women who don’t have children are pitied. People pray for them. Medals are handed over. Cures are wished for and it’s always assumed that the problem lies with the woman’s body.

Children are the centre of our lives. Not having children as a Traveller is a really difficult journey. Stigma and shame are also part of the mix; in our community being a parent is the most valued status.

It was the early 1990s. Feminism was continuing to push Ireland into a much more humane and diverse space. Hurts, bad policies and laws were strangling all of us. The female body was struggling to get away from the hands of church and State. Service providers were still working from a religious ethos, or adhering to a certain type of ethics. The infantilisation of disabled women’s bodies was very oppressing and depressing. My cerebral palsy meant these two mighty and brutal forces of patriarchy had a tight grip upon my body.

There is an almost universal expectation that all women want children, most women will have children and some women will lose children. IVF, adoption and fostering, these options are closed off to certain types of women. Coming from a family with 19 siblings, and being part of the rearing was an incredible inculcation into children’s emotional development and wellbeing.

Learning from my mother how to dress, feed, wash, spoil and play took the attention away from my impairment and allowed me to contribute to family life. Within the family and the extended family, there were always women expecting. Each of my siblings has a daughter called Rosaleen.

Emphatic denial was my way of coping with particular memories of abuse

Racism, with the addition of ableism, meant my life would be somewhat unconventional compared with that of my siblings. During those years, there was a lot of pain and confusion. As a result of segregated special education, many women like me were playing a game of catch-up. This system held so many of us back in very important areas of our lives. Information regarding sexual health or reproductive rights were not always accessible to Traveller women or, indeed, women with disabilities.

Memories from my childhood in a residential institution haunted me. Emphatic denial was my way of coping with particular memories of abuse. Institutional trauma filled me with torment and rage. Internalised self-hatred brought anxiety, isolation and a sense of dislocation. Emotional breakdowns and suicide attempts were my reality.

During this time, my feminist consciousness was ignited. Reading the history of eugenics, where female disabled bodies were sterilised along with Roma and other minority women, frightened me. Innately this narrative felt familiar. It was all around me. Being put on contraceptive pills without our consent or knowledge was the norm. Most of us were loaded up with medication. There was a silent knowing that some of the older women had scars across their stomachs. They were constantly cradling dolls in their arms. It seemed like we were living in the 1950s.

At this time there was a Traveller man in my life. He was tender and smart. We had found each other in a settled environment. Our relationship was intense, but we didn’t stand a chance. We both knew that for our generation of Travellers we were breaking every cultural rule. Paternalism from service providers infringes on choices, rights and freedoms. In the care home, there were many archaic rules regarding intimacy and physical contact.

At 27, a hysterectomy was suggested. The woman handing me a hot water bottle to subside my period pain was well meaning. Efficient and practical. This is how they dress up coercion and control. The hospital date used to keep me awake at night worrying, putting my hand on my abdomen, holding my womb and trying not to let them take it.

As disabled women, we always have to defend ourselves and protect our bodies. Constantly reminding society of our worth

It was a Wednesday, Bewley’s Cafe on Westmoreland Street about noon, the lecture in Trinity was long and tiring. The vomiting and nausea started. It was difficult to hold the joystick of my wheelchair or to hold my head up. We would always meet at a certain table at the back left corner. The coffee and cherry bun waiting. My pain was excruciating. In the bathroom he helped me. The nearest chemist was on O’Connell Street. My body was weak from losing so much blood. He was under pressure from all quarters. People told him he was taking advantage. The row, the screaming and shouting, the frustration, neither of us knowing what to do or who to ask for help. He handed me a £20 note to get a taxi home.

Going back to the institution my body was a mess. That feeling of being petrified. The date was drawing near. It was a desperate, lonely time in my life. That morning, locking myself into a bathroom. The time for the procedure came and went. That was the end of it. They left me alone.

As disabled women, the value of our lives, our contribution to society always comes with a caveat. The flash points are reproductive rights, abortion and the question of assisted suicide. This means we always have to defend ourselves and protect our bodies. Constantly reminding society of our worth.

Diversity should never be spoken about in the context of economic burden. Rather, the rich textured way in which we all contribute to society is the greatest measurement. For me, career and accoutrements don’t fill the emotional loss. In my case, six letters after my name or my love of writing is a weak embrace.

These situations are relative. Individuals manage it differently. Grace, dignity and generosity are vital in acceptance. Despite the odds, women with disabilities continue to be brilliant parents. The role of aunt and godmother to wonderful nieces and nephews is the closest point to happiness for me.