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Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright, performer and columnist, an Irish Traveller, disabled woman, and a writer, whose recent collection of sixteen essays “Unsettled” explore where her identities intersect, contradict and evolve.
Throughout her life and through her writing, these identities have been nurtured and explored. “Writing is a gift that has saved me from myself, ” she writes in an introduction that sets out the cost and, to some degree, catharsis of revisiting trauma.
These are not, the introduction tells us, stories of overcoming by an inspirational woman or a “supercrip” – a stereotypical storyline for biographies of those with disabilities that assumes something must be overcome for that life to be worthwhile.
McDonagh owns her Traveller and disabled identities. She does not want to change them.
Each essay explores different themes, including racism, abuse, ableism, identity, politics, personal and sexual relationships.
In “Caked On”, she talks about how her Traveller family supported and enveloped her. Yet, it was never even suggested that she would ever follow the traditional path for Traveller women, of marriage and children.
She was one of them but would never fully be one of them due to not fulfilling these predetermined roles. She felt shame, she writes, that she let her family down because her path was so different to theirs.
We learn in “Clamped” that McDonagh lived in residential care for large parts of her life, a place in which she was a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. When she was clamped into her chair on the way to medical appointments the driver would kiss and grope her, she writes.
She describes the mistreatment of the other patients too. Many of the other females in the residential home had forced hysterectomies. Clothes and underwear were shared. The idea that disabled people in a residential home should have autonomy and individuality was a luxury not afforded to them.
The freedom to express your identity, your individuality, your background, is not one that everyone has. Her life is a life on the outskirts. “The paradox of being started at yet feeling invisible,” she writes in “Ink, Blood, Tears”, an essay where she recounts getting a tattoo in honour of a dead friend. As a Traveller, there is a risk of being refused entry, as a disabled person, people stare and overlook.
Disabled people do not fall neatly into societal roles and ideals. Travellers also live on the peripheries of society, facing intergenerational and daily prejudices and discrimination.
This is where pride, representation and the minority voice are of huge importance. For Rosaleen, her own intersection of her disability, of being female and of her ethnicity is a representation she herself never had growing up.
Her female Traveller identity is of a huge pride for her. She writes about her hair, the grooming, the traditions, the stories, the tight-knit family unit with love and affection. In “Queer Connections”, her sisters help her get ready to go a dates and affectionately teased her about marrying “Settled David”.
The contradictions of her identities, the abuse she was subjected to, the ableism she faced, have affected her for many years. She carried a bottle of bleach around in her handbag to clean surfaces. She punished her body. She suffered from disordered eating. She attempted suicide.
Upon admittance to hospital after a suicide attempt, it was seen that “The fault was with me not with the hostility and discrimination that surrounded me,” she writes, in “Mam and Me”.
She skilfully weaves her stories together. In “Caked On”, she tells how her father hid all mirrors as his daughters were spending too much time gazing at themselves, only keeping a small bit for himself so he could shave, a story which slides then into the importance of Traveller hair – the oils, the curling and the braiding – and on again into a frank description of degradation and abuse in the care home where faeces was pushed into her face.
The lack of respect and the inability of those around her to see her as a human is evident in many of the essays.
In “Vacuous”, she describes a frequent disabled experience, planning to go to a supermarket even though fatigued, the obstructed physical access to the store due to other people’s oversight, the unwanted, unasked-for, overhelpfulness of a stranger, the otherness of how she is seen. In front of McDonagh, the overhelpful stranger tells the cashier she has “one of these at home”.
Another part of her, her Traveller identity, is not celebrated or allowed to thrive outside of her community. This is an ethnicity that has been, and continues to be both shunned and overlooked in Ireland. She writes about a time her family were denied service in a shop due to a news story of another Traveller having been shot by a settled farmer.
Her life now – playwright, academic, her gluten-free products, her modern car – is a world away from her Traveller upbringing. In Mam and Me” she describes how she came home from her residential home with short hair and short skirt. It was an indication that “the difference between me and my family would become unmanageable”, she writes.
She is a Traveller woman who has had more interaction with the settled world than she would have had if it were not for her disability.
However, she frequently fought against being fostered by a settled family. The cultural differences were too wide for her. Sustaining her familial relationships is her “biggest and greatest achievement”, she says.
Unsettled is honest and beautifully written, a place for McDonagh to tell her story.