‘Love/Hate’ breaks important new ground in portrayal of Travellers

Having Travellers play themselves in the popular TV series is a massive step forward

Love/Hate has broken the mould in Irish drama on many fronts. Writer Stuart Carolan collaborated and developed the character of Patrick Ward with Traveller actor John Connors and the drama employed about 30 Travellers, both on and off camera.

For a number of years we were there and not there on television – often referred to and played by settled actors. Cultural participation in "mainstream" arts for Travellers has been tokenistic. In the 1960s and 1970s, The Riordans had the Maher family to peddle the Pavee myth. The actors were not Travellers. In the 1980s, Glenroe had a character played by Traveller actor Michael Collins.

Just like the minstrels, where white “folk” blacked up to entertain a white audience with a version of comic cabaret that denigrated and insulted black and ethnic populations, settled actors who take on Traveller roles can naively perpetuate subliminal racist caricatures.

Anti-Traveller sentiment has become normalised in the Irish psyche. Lack of representation goes unquestioned. Given this history, it was invigorating to have Travellers play Travellers in Love/Hate.

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Apart from Winnie Maughan, who starred in Pavee Lackeen in 2005, access for Traveller women on screen has been particularly difficult. It calls attention to a set of intricate cultural sensitivities. Developing Traveller female actors and storylines is "our"challenge. Rigidly defined gender roles within the family and the wider Traveller community are changing at a rapid pace. Associating Traveller women with appearance and Traveller men with performance perpetuates racist stereotypes. Depicting racism and sexism requires effort to encapsulate a sense of politics, culture, gender and Traveller identity. Documentaries and dramas can't be allowed to re-engender stereotypes.

The Love/Hate series is a marker of change for this current generation of male Traveller actors. There is an authenticity to Traveller characters playing Traveller roles. Settled viewers are brought right into a Travellers' halting site. For a Traveller audience, it was a long time coming.

When Patrick Ward spoke Cant, our language, it felt natural. The evocative music of Traveller singer-songwriter Jack Delaney captured Traveller culture in the breathtaking “lashun gotna”, which made episode 4 quintessentially “Pavee”.

Traveller images coupled with themes of criminal behaviour blurred the lines of fact, fiction and fantasy. It made for difficult viewing. A resonating uneasiness watching violence between two Traveller men made the storyline even more poignant.

The superb performance by Connors demonstrated the dynamic character of Patrick who displays emotional ambivalence about being caught up with gangster mafia. Tenderness, confusion and love are part of the mix of machismo, adrenaline and violence, and all aspects of Traveller masculinity are explored.

Surprisingly Love/Hate does manage to focus the lens on racism and Traveller identity. Traveller pride and esteem are explored at many levels. That difficult conversation we have, as Traveller adults with younger Travellers who are forced into positions of internalised shame is stunningly captured by the character, Patrick Ward, with his son.

The use of the 'K' word in Irish drama is challenging for a Traveller audience. Defending it in other contexts, such as comedy, is irresponsible and inexcusable. The discourse about the 'K' word being used as part of Irish vernacular and not as a racist attack on Travellers is finally exposed thanks to Love/Hate.

Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community