Unsettled, by Rosaleen McDonagh, Skein Press, 128 pp, €12.95, ISBN 9781916493537
Anyone feeling downcast about the future should take a few minutes to read through Skein Press’s website. The press was founded in 2017 with a mission to “support writers traditionally underrepresented in Irish literature by publishing beautiful, thought-provoking books [and] offer development opportunities designed to create a more inclusive literary landscape”.
Four years on, and now on their third book, the press has already made a valuable contribution to literature in Ireland, both with the Play It Forward (PIF) fellowships, a joint initiative with The Stinging Fly and supported by the Arts Council, and with the books they have published to date: Melatu Uche Okorie’s This Hostel Life, an acclaimed collection of stories from within the direct provision system, which has been developed into a transition year teaching resource, and Oein DeBhairduin’s exquisite Why the Moon Travels, a collection of tales rooted in the oral tradition of the travelling community. DeBhairduin notes in his introduction that “the vast majority of what the settled community believe they know about Travellers comes from other settled people and, in light of our history, this needs to be challenged”. This is only one of the reasons why Skein’s third book, a collection of sixteen essays by Dr Rosaleen McDonagh, is so important.
McDonagh is a Dublin-based playwright and a member of Aosdána; she is particularly concerned with issues of feminism, ethnicity and disability, and as a Traveller woman born with cerebral palsy is uniquely positioned to explore intersectionality: “To write like a Traveller feminist means holding the space on the page, extending the paragraph, subtly explaining the nuances of simultaneous discrimination.”
Unsettled isn’t a memoir, nor is it a history of the Travelling community, but rather a collection of condensed and well-controlled essays dealing with formative life experiences which range from the tender and intimate to the truly appalling. Every paragraph of the book, she says in the introduction, was written with tears, which is hardly surprising. McDonagh has overcome the most harrowing trauma, but while “it’s easy to write about how you are wronged by external forces […it’s] much more complex to delve into the harm you did to yourself”.
The fourth of twenty siblings, her primary experiences of the settled community while growing up were of abuses and neglect within the care system – she was in a residential special school from the age of four. Coming late to education, she embraced it enthusiastically, completing a BA in biblical and theological studies, an MPhil in ethnic and racial studies, an MPhil in creative writing, and a PhD: educational attainments she would not have achieved had she had the expected life trajectory of a Traveller woman, or beoir.
There is a fine balance between honouring the truth of what happened and betraying the other people involved. This is McDonagh’s own story to tell, but there is evident tension between wanting to articulate the experience of Travelling families to a general readership and a respect for the privacy of the people whose lives are being described; in some instances this creates ambiguity for the reader, and it cannot but create a sense of shame too. At a time when the “white Irish” are becoming more sensitive to internalised prejudices, and looking retrospectively at anti-Traveller sentiment in our society, it is disturbing to be confronted by how readily an entire community was condemned because of the actions of a small number.
Counterbalancing the harsh encounters with the settled community are some very tender accounts of familial relationships and practices. In an essay on hair, McDonagh discusses how the hair of Traveller women is both personal and political:
In the context of fashion, looking inwards before looking outwards is a pushback against globalisation. This is powerful coming from any ethnic minority woman in that it sends a clear message about who and what we are. It echoes our history in very subtle ways.
The significance of hair in different cultures is highly topical; it was explored in a recent exhibition of photography in the Museum of Country Life – “Crown: Hair in Traveller Culture”, and the correlation between hair and identity draws parallels with Emma Dabiri’s recent book Don’t Touch my Hair. McDonagh’s description of the care lavished on hair by women in the Travelling community is very touching, as is her evident guilt about how hurt her mother was when she unthinkingly chopped all of her hair off as a rebellious teenager.
Information about the Travelling community is relatively limited. There have been sociological studies, such as Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life, by Sharon Bohn Gmelch and George Gmelch; and in her poetry collection The Book of Cant, Celia de Fréine explores the interface between literacy teachers and students from the Travelling community, but it is both significant and refreshing to have subjects like arranged marriages and the importance of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity written about from within the community itself.
While accounts of abuse and racism, ableism, self-harm and psychiatric illness, and the hovering spectre of eugenics, do not make for easy reading, the sheer ebullience of the author shines through. The book is a personal triumph and whets the appetite both for more books by McDonagh, and for information about the Travelling community to be more widely available.
Featuring an arresting cover image by Mo Kelly, Unsettled is a beautifully produced book which should be in every school library in the country. It also confirms Skein Press as a force to be reckoned with in Irish publishing.
Amanda Bell’s latest collection, Riptide, is published by Doire Press. <www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie>