“I couldn’t sit back and do nothing...”

A new exhibition at the Triskel is shining a light on Traveller accommodation. Ellie O'Byrne talks to the artist behind the work, Leanne McDonagh
“I couldn’t sit back and do nothing...”
Artist Leanne McDonagh. Picture: Ger McCarthy 

ARTIST Leanne McDonagh’s latest body of work has its origins in the horrendous fire at Carrickmines in Co Dublin which claimed the lives of ten people, including two infants, in October 2015.

From Ballynoe in North Cork, Leanne is a graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. A member of the Travelling community, and a former star of RTÉ’s Norah’s Traveller Academy, her new solo show, called Accommodate vs Assimilate, explores the issue of Traveller accommodation with her trademark mixed-media approach, a combination of photography, print and painting.

Two years ago, following her stint on the RTÉ show where businesswoman Norah Casey mentored Leanne and other budding young entrepreneurs from Traveller backgrounds, Leanne was keen not to be pigeonholed or to end up being seen as a spokeswoman on traveller issues. But now, she’s produced her most political body of work to date: what changed?

“Carrickmines,” she says. “I remember being adamant that I wasn’t going to be seen solely as a Traveller that’s just going to represent the Travelling community, because I still believe that that’s not the case. But in the aftermath of the Carrickmines tragedy, I couldn’t sit back and do nothing. I had to do something to create a discussion on Traveller accommodation.”

The collection of prints is, as ever with Leanne’s work, large and brightly coloured; there are glimpses of figures, flashes of recognisable forms, but a decidedly abstract element too. It’s a body of work designed to evoke an emotional response, rather than to document.

One of the art pieces in Leanne McDonagh's latest exhibition at the Triskel.
One of the art pieces in Leanne McDonagh's latest exhibition at the Triskel.

“The community has been documented,” Leanne says. “People have gone for really sensationalist and stereotypical views. I don’t want to do that. The images I capture appeal to me aesthetically, and I don’t want to pinpoint one person or one home and say, this is their story. I want to give a broader view because this is not one person’s story; this is the story of an entire community.”

It’s a long and fraught story, and one where the approach of successive governments since the 1960s has been to assimilate Travellers into the settled way of life: the shut-down of free land for encampments which began in earnest as a policy in the ’60s was focused on reducing the nomadic element of Traveller culture; local councils opt for serviced halting sites or social housing in settled communities. Now, the issue is being compounded by the very same housing crisis faced by the rest of the population.

For Accommodate vs Assimilate, Leanne visited Traveller families all over Ireland and photographed their living conditions. She was shocked by what she found. “Government policy says that the Traveller way of life is being supported by the provision of a variety of different types of housing: this isn’t true,” Leanne says.

“I think a lot of the settled community assume that once they’re in a caravan or a mobile home, they’re grand, but the simple matter is that some Travellers don’t want to be in caravans; some want to be housed. Some want to be in Traveller-specific accommodation, which is a whole story in itself.”

Cork’s Spring Lane halting site drew attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Ophelia, when the roof blew off the mobile home of one young family, leaving them homeless. Months before this, it was revealed that Cork City Council had an unspent budget of €490,000, which had been ring-fenced for Traveller accommodation, and had gone unspent for two years, despite Spring Lane being in urgent need of an upgrade and housing 35 families in a space allocated for 10.

Even DunLaoghaire Rathdown Council, the local authority in the area where the Carrickmines tragedy had happened, had only drawn down €129,000 of an available €419,000 for improvements to Traveller accommodation in the year and a half following the fire. In Galway, Leanne was shocked to discover that in one house she visited, an electric power box in a house where 13 children were living had caught fire twice in the space of six months.

One of the art pieces in Leanne McDonagh's latest exhibition at the Triskel.
One of the art pieces in Leanne McDonagh's latest exhibition at the Triskel.

“The places I’ve been to would frighten you,” she says.

Leanne does feel that there is a double standard at play, and that part of the problem is a deep-rooted communication problem between the Travelling community and both settled people themselves and the institutions that favour a settled way of life over that of Ireland’s largest and oldest ethnic minority.

“The lack of communication was common throughout,” Leanne says.

“It’s like, ‘you’ve chosen this way of life, get on with it’. But a lot of these people are on land that’s being rented from the council; why isn’t the property to a certain standard?

“That’s why my exhibition is looking at accommodation in the broader sense, not just about roofs over heads, but about accommodating people for who they are and what they believe in and letting people flourish.

“If you allow people to be who they are, they can develop in ways that have never happened before.”

With support from an Arts Council Next Generation Artists’ Bursary and residencies in three arts centres to produce the work, Leanne was still working under pressure, because another thing that’s changed for her since her RTÉ appearance has been the birth of her son.

Leanne's husband and son, Tommy and Thomas Power from Fermoy.
Leanne's husband and son, Tommy and Thomas Power from Fermoy.

Combining mothering with her art has meant a change of pace, she says:

“In the summer, I was getting up at six and trying to work before he woke up and then the minute he’d go down in the evening I’d start work again, so I was on the go constantly. But some days you just have to say ‘Nothing’s getting done today,’ and accept that, whereas before I would have always ploughed through.”

Launching her exhibition with a panel discussion, Leanne is hopeful of generating a conversation on Traveller accommodation.

“We just want to give context to the exhibition and why it came about,” she says.

“The only way to get past this is to get people talking about it; if you have one community voicing their opinions on this, and another, and they never actually meet to come together, then nothing’s ever going to change.”

Accommodate vs. Assimilate runs at the Triskel until Sunday, February 25, 2018.

The exhibition is open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and 2pm to 5pm on Sundays.

For more see http://triskelartscentre.ie/

More in this section

Sponsored Content