Monday 23 April 2018

'I was weary and angry over Carrickmines fire' - Michael Collins

Raw tragedy: Michael Collins and son Johnny in Traveller play Ireland Shed a Tear? Photo: Al Craig
Raw tragedy: Michael Collins and son Johnny in Traveller play Ireland Shed a Tear? Photo: Al Craig

Maggie Armstrong

It was the kind of news you wanted to shield your eyes from. Ten people had died, five of them children, one a pregnant mother - all from one extended family.

A year since the Carrickmines fire, is there any conceivable way for a piece of theatre to engage? Michael Collins' play for the Dublin Theatre Festival, Ireland Shed a Tear?, takes on one mountain of a job: commemorating a raw and recent tragedy, and bringing the disparate, antagonistic communities of Travellers and settled people together in a darkened room to do so.

Collins, an actor and writer, performs this two-hander with 10-year-old Johnny, his youngest son, who is "a good little actor and he enjoys it". He'll get off school to be in his dad's play. Father and son use songs and poetry to tell a story of one (loosely fictional) family who fear for their safety and face eviction since Carrickmines.

You'll have noted there's a question mark in the title. That's you they mean, Ireland.

During the funerals for the victims last October, townspeople lined the streets near Bray and Wexford. Ireland did shed a tear. But then there was the botched rehousing of the grieving families in a car park, after residents opposed their being accommodated next to their properties. There were the fire audits by local authorities showing the flimsy provision for Traveller accommodation across the country.

"I had an awful lot of mixed emotions," says Collins, a theatre-maker best known for his Traveller parts in Glenroe, Mrs Brown's Boys and the film King of the Travellers.

"I was weary and angry, so I kept writing stuff down, talking into the Dictaphone. If you record your emotions, then you can feel your emotions and say yeah, that works or that doesn't work," says the father-of-five.

He didn't know the victims well, but the situation hit a nerve because of the circumstances he grew up in. His father, Johnny, was a tinsmith and farm labourer who wrote poetry. The family lived "in the country" until the 1960s, when these trades were dying. Plastic killed off tinware and the combine harvester killed off seasonal work. Michael and his 11 brothers and sisters moved to a "field in Finglas", north Dublin. There were no toilets, no water, no electricity, no refuge collection. It was a hazardous life. In schools in Finglas and Clondalkin, Traveller children were segregated in the classrooms, with segregated playtimes. Collins left school "at 11 or 12" and did odd jobs, collecting scrap and picking potatoes until he could qualify for social welfare: "That's just the way life was at the time."

He couldn't read or write, though he remembers that, as a small boy, he could recite The Three Little Pigs and The Gingerbread Man. He learnt to read so he could become an actor, joining the Dublin Travellers Education Group to take a course in adult literacy - "which is a very, very difficult thing for any adult to do". He absorbed plays by getting actor friends to record their lines into a tape recorder for him. The Abbey soon had a part for him, in The Honey Spike, about Traveller migration.

His one-man shows, It's a Cultural Thing or Is It? and Magpies on the Pylon - about the high incidence of suicide among Travellers - have pioneered a revival of stories from this fracturing community. From mould-breakers like Collins, playwright Rosaleen McDonagh, and Love/Hate actor John Connors, we are catching glimpses of Traveller life.

"I always find that Travellers are very natural actors," says Collins. "In King of the Travellers, the only time they'd ever get nervous is when you put a camera in front of them. It's only when you say action, they freeze."

He uses his work "to break down barriers with settled people that come to the show. It's not me bating the head off this audience saying we need this, we need that. It's about telling a story, through the tension of drama. The audience will feel the story".

Travellers are discriminated against in "subtler" ways these days, he remarks when I tell him about a taxi driver who proudly told me he wouldn't let Travellers in his car, though he had "nothing against Travellers".

Collins would like his work to speak for other "underdogs" - black, Muslim - held back in the world this way.

This show has, however, a political urgency for Travellers. It's "for the people, so that they're not forgotten, and the living victims in this tragedy which could have been avoided. Everybody knew that our lives were in danger, everybody knew there was a possibility something could happen. And then in Carrickmines it happened.

"And then all the Travellers around the country living in similar circumstances were saying, 'Jesus Christ, this could be us'."

Ireland Shed a Tear? plays in The New Theatre, Temple Bar, September 28 to October 9 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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