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Rosaleen McDonagh’s essays rage against the machine with admirable grit and guile

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Writer Rosaleen McDonagh. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Writer Rosaleen McDonagh. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Writer Rosaleen McDonagh. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Unsettled

Rosaleen McDonagh

Skein Press, €12.95

Rosaleen McDonagh is an academic, writer, feminist and activist. She is a sexual abuse survivor, a disabled woman, a Traveller. And because she is all of these things and more, this essay collection is like nothing that has come before.

In this short collection of 16 distinct, unsettling, funny and moving pieces, McDonagh immerses us in her world. She is fiery in her feminism, a feminism that stems from a desire for true liberation.

In ‘Mam and Me’, she explores the mother-daughter relationship and what family means. She tells us her father taught his daughters to drive “before any other Traveller man we knew did” and says her mother “insisted all my sisters had some say in who they were going to marry”. She is respectful and proud of her Traveller heritage while remaining clear about the constraints the culture places upon the female members of the community especially.

There are many rage-inducing moments but facts are stated, incidents related, in calm, incisive prose that is beautiful but devoid of melodrama.

Sent to a special school when she was young – McDonagh has cerebral palsy – she was set apart from her own Traveller family and community. While this led to horrors – physical and sexual abuse and the mental ill health that follows – the separation seems to have fuelled an extraordinary thirst for knowledge and a search for understanding of difference, marginalisation and power dynamics.

McDonagh is participant and observer of her own story.

“In the mixed special school, for a number of years only the boys got powered wheelchairs.” What McDonagh adds is personal insight. What does the sexist rule actually mean for girls? The manual wheelchair was of little use; her arms too weak to push it. “Having others push me around was a frightening experience. Having no control, putting my body into someone else’s hands, exacerbated my lack of autonomy.”

This lack of autonomy and the lack of respect from everyone from the male staff member who sexually assaulted her to the Redress Board that questioned her for eight hours, bombarding her with questions and finally offering compensation as long as she signed a confidentiality clause, is a central theme in all of the essays.

But McDonagh has never waited for autonomy to be granted – she simply seizes it. ‘Clamped’, recalls how she tore up the Redress Board’s confidentiality agreement in front of the panel, wet herself due to distress then afterwards took a taxi to a fancy hotel, ordered herself champagne and charged her stay to the State.

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McDonagh’s honesty is unflinching. In ‘Queer Connections’, she tells of her intimate relationship with David, a man who loved, challenged and supported her from their first meeting on the special bus.

In ‘Caked On’, the shocking end of which leaves an indelible mark, she tells of her love for luxury clothing and beautiful grooming while also saying, “Occasionally, when I don’t like a female, I would fantasise about scraping her make-up off with my nails.”

McDonagh’s politics, her fierce pride in her community and family, her intellectual rigour and keen understanding of the human condition infuse this collection. It is full of insightful, beautifully written truth-telling.


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