Warning: this article mentions suicidal ideation. If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can call Console’s 24/7 suicide helpline, 1800 247 247, or the Samaritans helpline, 116 123.
Patrick McCarthy hands his phone to Christine Collins. He asks if she’d skim through a script he has written.
“I like a bit of feedback,” said McCarthy with a grin.
He hovers over the round table where Collins and Donna Marie Ward are sitting close to each other in the café inside Dún Laoghaire’s LexIcon Library and Cultural Centre.
The script is for a thriller-horror picture. He’s hoping to turn it into a feature film, said McCarthy.
“Sounds good, I’d watch it,” said Ward, sipping from a can of Red Bull.
It is a Friday morning, and McCarthy, Collins, and Ward are readying with colleagues for the final day of rehearsals ahead of the first performance of their Mincéirí Cabaret.
The show’s stars – all Travellers – hang out in the café, chat and wait for the run-throughs to kick off.
Behind the show is producer Mary Mc Donagh, a Traveller woman with a larger vision for actors and creatives from the same background.
She has dreams of setting up a school of performing arts to help them find their footing in film and theatre, where they are underrepresented and often portrayed by actors who don’t resemble them in real life.
Like a community Juilliard, said Mc Donagh last month, referencing the prestigious New York performing arts school.
“It’ll never be as good as the concept of what Juilliard is, but you know, that’s what I want,” she said.
On Friday, Mc Donagh staggered towards the library’s café, eyes half-closed and bearing a box of cookies under her arm.
“I brought biscuits,” she said, shaking the box before tossing it on a long table in front of her.
Most days, Mc Donagh works at Shaws Department Store in Dún Laoghaire. Evenings and nights, she tends to her production company, Mary Mc Productions.
She had been up working until 4am the night before, she said, slumped at a computer at the library to write her speech for the show, listed for the following weekend at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s Festival of Inclusion.
The Mincéirí Cabaret showcases poetry, prose and stories set during the Civil War to mark the centenary of the creation of the Irish Free State.
It’s directed by Niamh O’Beirne, who on Friday worked on the show’s mise-en-scène and hollered “Let’s do it!” to the cast at the library’s theatre.
The Mincéirí Cabaret is Michael Ward’s first time on stage, he says. He plays Joseph Mary Plunkett, an Irish Republican leader.
“I feel nervous, especially around a professional like Christine there,” said Ward, chuckling and gesturing at Collins across the round table.
Collins has been acting since she was a kid. “Go away, you,” she said, laughing.
Ward is an inclusion worker for an addiction support service. He likes the occasional escape that comes from acting, he said, smiling. “It gets rid of some of the stress.”
His supervisor and CEO have said they’ll come to the show. He is hopeful it will make them see him – and Travellers in general – in a different light, he said.
“To actually see that Travellers can do stuff that kind of been denied us for years,” said Ward.
Thomas McDonagh has acted before, he says. At one point, he played Mary Mc Donagh’s son in a film exploring the mental-health struggles of Travellers.
In the cabaret, he plays the labour leader Jim Larkin. The role makes him feel part of something he can be proud of, said McDonagh.
He’s big into republicanism. If he had to defend Ireland’s independence at any point in real life, he said, he would, in a heartbeat.
“If there ever is a possibility that a cause may arise, count me in,” said McDonagh, leaning into the tape recorder.
The stage is a sanctuary, says Catrina Connors. A place where she can make mistakes yet still feel embraced, she said.
“If you mess up on the night, the audience doesn’t know. They never know. You can just keep going,” said Connors. “It’s a place of comfort, no judgment.”
Inside the library’s theatre, McDonagh is eating at the foot of the stage, dressed up as Larkin.
Collins bustles in and out of the dressing room. Ward looks just like Charlie Chaplin, she says. Black suit, bowler hat and wooden cane.
A little later, Ward joins three of the women actors in the theatre’s front-row seats, banging his cane.
They recite their lines, one last time, before rehearsal. It’s a poem, and they take turns reading the verses. “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats.
“Where dips the rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island where flapping herons wake,” says Collins.
In front of them, O’Beirne, the director, dots rocks around the middle of the stage. They’re props for a fire that the actors later circled around.
Mc Donagh, the producer, has worked in community development for years. Sometimes within Traveller organisations, sometimes not.
“From a very young age, even when I was a teenager,” she said on a Zoom call, from her home in Dún Laoghaire last month.
Her work is fuelled by a desire to create opportunities, big or small, for her people, she said.
Things as small as local kids getting together and setting up football teams. “It could’ve been just whatever,” said Mc Donagh.
Community development is her thing, she said.
Mc Donagh grew up in south Dublin on Traveller sites on the side of the road. She only moved to a house in her 20s, she said.
Houses still make her feel trapped, though, she says, shrinking her world. “I don’t like houses.”
As a teen, she discovered she had a knack for understanding people’s needs and finding ways to fulfil them, said Mc Donagh. “I think I learned all the other aspects of how to do that along the way.”
Over the years, Mc Donagh has watched people around her grappling with their mental health, her life marked by suicides.
“It’s just prevalent. I’ve had 18 people dying around me,” said Mc Donagh. “I have nieces that have taken their own life, I have cousins, you know, best friends, nephew.”
A September 2010 All Ireland Travellers’ Health Study by researchers at University College Dublin found that suicide rates among male travellers were 6.6 times higher than the general population.
“The female suicide rate is also higher but the difference did not reach statistical significance,” the study said.
In 2008, the life expectancy of Traveller men was 61.7, unchanged since 1987, it said.
Those are symptoms of a system designed with someone else’s needs in mind, one that is so often culturally inappropriate, said Mc Donagh.
“It’s like you’re trying to box someone into somebody else’s box that is the shape of a triangle,” said Mc Donagh, drawing a triangle with her hands.
Traveller actors don’t get a fair shot at roles, said Mc Donagh. Her beef is not with non-Travellers portraying Travellers as such.
“That’s fine if a Traveller had already auditioned and they just didn’t make it,” she said. But that’s not what usually happens, Mc Donagh says.
“It’s given straight to a non-Traveller.” She wants to change that, she says.
Collins, one of the actors, said she doesn’t mind settled people playing Travellers. Across the café table, Thomas McDonagh, the other actor, gives her a thumbs up.
But “Traveller actors’ accent is genuine, so they don’t have to pretend or do vocal coaching to get the role”, said Collins.
Mc Donagh said she is planning to pitch to the bigwigs in the audience during the opening speech of the cabaret show.
“Would love for the Arts Council to support me going forward as a yearly event,” said Mc Donagh.
She has had funding for her projects from all sorts of organisations over the years. And been turned down by others.
“I have an actual acting group that has 20 people in it that I manage,” said Mc Donagh.
The actors live all over Ireland. They regularly meet on Zoom and read through scripts, she said. “And we throw in applications for different various projects.”
But her big dream is funding to set up an international performing arts school that serves Travellers worldwide, said Mc Donagh.
Somewhere that fosters rigorous learning and offers hope to those who have tried and failed to fit in, she said. “I want people who are barely surviving.”