I’ve been watching Norah Casey’s Traveller Academy show on RTÉ Television and was impressed by Leanne McDonagh, a 24 year old artist who graduated from the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork two years ago, but whose artistic career (like that of many graduates) had stalled after leaving college, and Ann Rose Mongan, who had been up-styling clothing and accessories for her friends for several years, but had aspirations as a fashion designer. McDonagh takes photographs of Traveller life as part of her work. Mongan uses buttons in reference to the “beady pockets” Traveller women used to carry their belongings and as personal or family mementos.
The TV show made for fascinating viewing, not least because of the inspirational determination of the young Traveller women who took part. It sent me back to an article I wrote ten years ago about an exhibition of Traveller photographs held at Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in County Wicklow in 2005. That exhibition raised issues about media representation of Travellers and Traveller self-representation, which are interesting to re-visit when examining the current context for McDonagh’s work, a decade on.
So, here it is. CLH
Celebration and Loss – Traveller photographs at Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, County Wicklow, April 2005.
By Cristín Leach
In the late 1990s, NBC’s Dateline ran a report that confirmed some people’s worst suspicions about Irish Travellers. The practice of marrying child brides to older Traveller men was alive and well in the state of South Carolina. Viewers were shocked by a sensational news story built around the programme’s acquisition of a photograph of an eleven-year-old in a wedding dress.
Months later, Counterspin, a National Public Radio programme that promotes accuracy in reporting, offered another take on the child bride portrait. Their guest claimed the girl was not actually eleven, but just seven years old; in her beautiful white dress and veil she was in fact making her First Holy Communion. There had been no groom in the shot, but the human eye sees what the brain tells it and there’s nothing like ignorance touched with a dash of prejudice to tint the vision.
Travellers often claim that media coverage of their way of life is driven by misinformation and misunderstanding, and the child bride story offers a perfect case in point. Similar photographs hang on the walls of Catholic homes all over Ireland, and America, and although there’s no denying that the accoutrements of First Holy Communion prefigure a young girl’s wedding day, it is only when taken out of context that such symbolism can be entirely misread.
At the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, what a new exhibition of Traveller photographs lacks in Holy Communion images it certainly makes up for in wedding shots. Glitzy tiaras, meringue dresses, glamorous bridesmaids with bouquets bigger than pageboys, horse-drawn carriages and more. Echoing images from the pages of Hello! magazine, these girls put Posh Spice et al to shame.
Although it’s unlikely the “child bride” portrait would have passed editors on this side of the water, there’s no denying that Travellers get their fair share of negative publicity in both Ireland and the UK. The Glencree exhibition is one of the latest attempts to redress the balance by putting full responsibility for how they present themselves back into Traveller hands.
Entitled Celebration and Loss, the show was put together by the all-female students of St Basil’s, a County Dublin VEC Traveller Training Centre in Tallaght. It features photographs either taken by the women (who were sent home with disposable cameras by artist Garry Hobbart as part of the project) or selected by them from their family albums.
Artist/community schemes generally fall into one of two categories: those that indulge the artist’s own practice without much tangible benefit to the community (Paul Seawright’s stunningly beautiful The Map project in Tallaght in 2000 is one example); and those that place the artist in the role of facilitator for community creativity. Generally, neither produces an entirely satisfactory outcome, there is always a sense of something getting lost in the mix.
Celebration and Loss, an example of the latter, essentially casts the Traveller women in the role of curators. Some of the selected images are accompanied by text, but the author of the photographs – some are by Hobbart himself – is not indicated. Nor is it particularly important; what is more important is the images they depict.
With a brief to simply show their own lives, the women chose images of extreme joy and sorrow. With an unwavering focus on family and friends, particularly children, they chose images of birth, death and, most eye-catching of all, weddings.
The subject is a touchy one. Traveller weddings tend to make it into the news for all the wrong reasons. Last year a double wedding in Youghal was preceded by newspaper reports of pubs closing to serve “private parties” only and extra Gardai being drafted in to police the streets. That 300-strong celebration passed without incident, but by then the reporters had moved on.
Because the very words “Traveller wedding” conjure up images of drunken violence in most settled people’s minds, Celebration and Loss deliberately offers a visual counter-point: photographs of beautiful young women glammed up to the nines on their big day, mother and daughters in matching red velvet and babies balancing tiny tiaras on wisps of hair.
Much of the Traveller wedding experience is about putting on a show; one photograph of a bridesmaid-trio in pink is accompanied by the chief bridesmaid’s account of how she changed into “a shocking orange fish tail dress” at eight that evening and then removed the fish tail to reveal a miniskirt as the night went on. It might seem a little OTT to members of the settled community, but what these flamboyant weddings essentially point to is the primary importance of family events in Traveller culture.
The bulk of the photographs in Glencree are displayed in coloured cardboard box-style frames hung from the ceiling like miniature dangling TV screens. It’s a quirky effect, which manages to emphasise the personal nature of the images while reducing their impact as stark slices of reality. And some are painfully tragic: a grainy, blown-up image of a little boy who died of leukaemia; a black and white Perry Ogden-esque shot of a teenage boy with his horse accompanied by a letter from his mother to her dead son.
Although adult males are noticeably absent from the women’s chosen images, one family portrait of mum, dad and eight kids succinctly combines both elements of the exhibition’s theme: taken in celebration of the youngest child’s christening, the accompanying text reveals ensuing marital separation followed by death.
The growing problem of young male suicide, road deaths, high infant mortality and low life expectancy are among the key realities of Traveller life, but here they exist only as an unspoken social sub-text to the women’s stories.
When British artist Richard Billingham began exhibiting photographs of his parent’s home life in the 1990s, he opened art world eyes to an unglamorous working-class world hitherto uncelebrated in galleries and museums. And while there’s something akin to this in one or two of the shots in Celebration and Loss, for the most part, posed glamour rules. The Travellers who created the show are not interested in exposing dingy underbellies; what’s on display is a selection of the very images they chose to surround themselves with at home.
As such, the show offers little more than a highly personal insight into the interests and loves of the women who shaped it. It is not really about asking the tougher questions or finding answers to the problems that exist for the Traveller community or between Travellers and settled people. It is more about creating some kind of space for creative personal expression for the women involved.
A smiling toddler laden with gold hoops and a clip-on dummy, a pair of rosy-cheeked grandchildren, sleeping babies and stunning peroxide blonde brides: the show could have been called, Bling and Babies – the real world of Traveller women, if it wasn’t for the tragedy it continually comes back to.
But despite the tangible sorrow, these are deliberately positive images. There is little point in accusing their selectors of myth making or bias. The show’s curators are ordinary women who, when asked to present themselves, put forward images of their family and friends, the good times and the memories, the kind of images they like to look at.
As an exhibition, it is an exercise in social rather than visual eye opening. In a homey sort of way it challenges prevailing media images of Traveller culture by simply pointing out that these women celebrate their families and mourn their losses just like everyone else. But the project’s real legacy also lies in its ability to open participants’ minds. There may be no budding Billingham amongst them, but Celebration and Loss points towards the previously inconceivable possibility of one emerging in the future.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland Culture magazine on 17 April 2005.