Travellers in theatre – challenging discrimination with Night Shift

The voices, stories and creativity of the Traveller community are often drowned out by the prejudice Irish society holds against them. Although institutions are slowly cracking open their doors to the indigenous Irish community, it is clear that this is happening all too slowly. There comes a point when breaking down this proverbial door is more effective than waiting for society to welcome them in. This is precisely what the all-Traveller cast hoped to do in their performance of the play Night Shift. Claiming their space in Galway city’s Mick Lally Theatre, three Traveller actors took to the stage to share their story. 

Mick Lally Theatre

Authentic representation

Before their final performance, the cast and crew highlighted the importance of accurate representation of the Travellers in theatre. Irish Traveller director Thomas Connors expressed his dedication to finding actors within the community to do justice to Night Shift. “I wanted an all-Traveller cast. I wanted to finally see Traveller women actually play Traveller women,” he said. 

He emphasised that it’s time for his community to be able to take ownership of their narrative and reveal the diverse reality of the lives of Irish Travellers. 

Christine Collins, who played Noreen in the production, expanded on this sentiment saying: “I think it is a very important thing for our community to know that it’s okay to be a Traveller and a woman and be an actress.”   

Night Shift was written by Irish Traveller playwright and activist Rosaleen McDonagh as part of Misleór Festival of Nomadic Cultures. This festival aims to celebrate nomadic communities in Galway through cultural awareness and creativity. 

For actor Mary McDonagh, who took on the role of Noreen’s mother in the production, the festival and Night Shift are about “empowering people in the community to go out there and create”. To her, the Traveller community exemplifies creativity, and she is adamant that they should be afforded the opportunity to be true to themselves in creative spaces.  

Mary pointed out how productions such as Night Shift have paved the way for increased representation of Travellers in theatre. “To have a playwright within the community that is also a Traveller—it’s good for herself, but it’s also good for the community because we have that step forward within the arts,” said Mary.

Complicated lives

Night Shift is an exploration of the inter-ethnic relationship between Irish Traveller Noreen and her Polish partner Piotr. This play navigates the complexities that arise from their clash of cultures and depicts Noreen’s turmoil when faced with the tension between society’s expectations and her own cultural norms. 

In this hour-long play, Piotr, Noreen and Noreen’s mother offer a glimpse into the Irish Traveller experience within their community and outside of it.   

Mary shared her own experience battling prejudice as a Traveller in Irish society: “People say ‘when did you start acting?’—the day I was born. Because we always had to be different for society and put on that different persona.” This pressure to assimilate into Irish society conflicts with their culture and has damaging effects on the identities of Travellers. So, why does this pressure exist?

Mary noted how the discrimination that the Traveller community faces comes down to unchallenged ignorance. Their culture is continually misconceived because it is not well represented. This allows Irish society to perpetuate their prejudgment toward the Traveller community rather comfortably. Mary is optimistic that art like Night Shift will encourage people to acknowledge and confront this normalised prejudice. She referenced a line in the play, to sum up her point: “They think we are a simple people, but we have such complicated lives.”

Christine also shared her hopes for the legacy of Night Shift saying: “If nothing else, it is going to give the people in the audience that aren’t Travellers an insight into a community that they may not know that much about.” She went on to explain that it may also have the potential to help toward eradicating the stigma faced by Irish Travellers. “Who knows, we might change their preconceived ideas,” she said.   

Breaking barriers

Christine expressed the reason she got involved in Night Shift was that it offered an important opportunity to work alongside other Traveller actors to “do something that hasn’t been done”. 

“This festival is taking the time out to have a female Traveller write a script and then, for the first time in any of her plays, have an all-Traveller cast. And if anything, that is a step in the right direction.” Christine added.

She anticipates that the production will open doors for other Traveller creatives to find a place within the arts where they are judged solely on their talents. Her final wish for their last showing of the play was that their team will do the script justice “as actors, not just Travellers”. 

Sharing this sentiment, Mary explained that the communities we grow up in are just one side of the many facets people have. Although being a Traveller is an important part of her identity, it is not the entirety of who she is. “I always say I’m an Irish person. I’m just lucky that I was born into a Traveller family,” she said. 

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