Ireland’s 21st century traveller tenements
The haunting strains of Davy Spillane and Sean Tyrrells’s version of ‘One Starry Night’ greet you as you enter the New Theatre for Michael Collins’ latest production, ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ Presently a traveller boy screams for his mother and runs for the protection of home. ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ is a dirge, a lament, a cry in the dark against the darkness itself for the sake of a child. It’s a tale of the traveller people, of one of their, and our, greatest losses. A tale which, like all tales, partially sanitises, romanticises and sentimentalises its past. But one which unapologetically politicises the present. Steeped in the oral traditions of poetry, storytelling and song, Michael Collins’ keening for those travellers who perished in Carrickmines in October 2015, is a gut wrenching punch to the heart. And if the message overwhelms the medium in part, it still tells a powerful and necessary story.
Collins clearly identifies the 1960’s as a turning point in traveller history and culture. The advent of social welfare and its need for claimants to have a settled address, along with the technological advances which dried up seasonal work, resulted in travellers being crammed into too small and too few spaces. Inevitable tensions arise from too many families in too small a space sharing taps that freeze over in winter, wires that run over ground, trailers that can go up in flames in five minutes flat and barriers that prevent an ambulance from entering. It was only a matter of time. And that time was October 10th, 2015 when ten travellers lost their lives in a fire on a halting site in Carrickmines. Apparently the second largest number of dead in a single fire in Ireland since the Stardust tragedy in 1981. That led to reforms in how nightclubs were managed for the safety of patrons. The new fire audit of halting sites seems to be leading to travellers being evicted onto the roadside with nowhere to go.
Written by Michael Collins, ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ is essentially a one-man show, with a few short and delightful cameos from Collins’ 10-year-old son, Johnny, serving as a reminder of the innocents who suffer and the future being shaped. Merging facts and memory, Collins covers much of the history of the traveller experience, and if he doesn’t address all the issues, he does enough, though sometimes takes a little too long to get there. Lisa Krugel’s set design blends the factual with the romantic, as does Cathy O’Carroll’s evocative lighting design, which steeps the handing down of tradition between father and son over the firelight in the shadows of memory and history. Anthony Fox’s assured direction gives Collins room to breathe, which Collins sometimes seems to take a little too far, sometimes seeming to lose his way, or himself, in the rage of the experience.
Emerson spoke of the impulse that manifests itself in the stuttering and stammering that gives birth to poetry. There’s something of this to Collins’ deeply felt outrage, an impulse that gives birth to either art or the clenched fist. Collins has wisely chosen the former, and if ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ could benefit from some tightening up, it’s still a hugely potent and powerful play. But not a cathartic one. The social isolation of given groups results in their personal and political isolation and that, as history has taught, can take societies to the darkest of places. And we’re not immune, as Wexford has shown in its alleged poor handling of the funerals of the traveller community.
From the tent, to the wagon, to the trailer, to the mobile home, the traveller community have been an integral part of Irish culture throughout the centuries. ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ is the shape a scream takes, both in prayer and proud defiance, a responsorial psalm of a community to a society which condemns them to appalling living conditions then condemns them for living that way. A response to an unspoken but accepted racism, where even acceptable words like traveller or halting site still have derogatory connotations. ‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ may risk preaching to the converted, to those already working with, or sympathetic towards, the traveller way of life, but it is a play for us all and of us all, a play for now and of now. It may feel too raw at times, as if there’s a lack of aesthetic distance between the events and the work. But Collins is speaking like a Seanachí of old, huddled around the fire, railing in poetry, story and song against the injustice of it all, against the prejudice, discrimination and subtle and direct ostracisation of his people. Crying out to be heard in the darkest and loneliest of places about the most frightening and horrible of things. Go hear what he has to say. See if you like what you find.
‘Ireland Shed a Tear?’ by Michael Collins runs at The New Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival until October 9th.
For more information, visit The New Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival