THE question mark says it all in Ireland Shed a Tear?, Michael Collins’s dramatic response to the Carrickmines fire last year, in which 10 people, including five children, lost their lives, writes Alan O’Riordan
The tragedy brought a public outpouring of grief, and, it seemed at the time, a lot of soul searching about the way Travellers are treated by mainstream society and the state. People lined the streets during funerals. Politicians and religious leaders wringed their hands. Newspapers gave blanket coverage. But it was no wake-up call, Collins now wryly observes. It did not reset a dysfunctional relationship.
Ireland Shed a Tear? will be staged during the Dublin Theatre Festival, almost a year to the day since the tragedy. But in that year, says Collins, things have returned to a familiar pattern. “This was one of the biggest tragedies, where so many people lost their lives in a fire, since the Stardust,” he says, referring to the 1981 fire at a nightclub in Dublin. “And at the time, there was a genuine outpouring of grief from both the Travelling community and the settled community. A year later, these people are still not accommodated properly.”
Collins cites the short-lived solidarity in the wake of the tragedy, which ended in disputes about where Travellers would be housed, and locals blockading a proposed site. Collins reserves particular criticism for Enda Kenny: “Saying people are entitled to say who should live beside them and who should not live beside them. These were neighbours for 10 years. I just didn’t understand that,” he says. (Kenny made the remarks on Newstalk, where he said “There is a procedure and a process where you can consult with local people.”)
The experience of Carrickmines and its fallout left him feeling “like an alien” in his own country.
He began to record his feelings, to take note of the dozens of conversations he was having at the time. But he also began thinking about Travellers’ way of life, and the contradictory, capricious way the state has had in dealing with that. The result is a two-hander play, performed with his 10-year-old son, Johnny. The pair use songs and poetry to tell the story of a family who fear eviction in the wake of the Carrickmines fire.
In the piece, Collins links back to his own experience, of travelling the country with his father, a tinsmith and farm labourer. But, as machine farming and plastic killed those trades, Travellers often were forced to rely on social welfare, and for that, he says, they were told to get permanent addresses by the state.
Collins himself remembers moving to a field near Finglas. “It didn’t cater for the next generation. People were growing up with no place to live. We were forced because of social welfare to live in those fields. Then the kids had nowhere to go.”
Now homelessness threatens many Travellers, including Carrickmines survivors, as local authorities conduct fire audits of sites.
“In our story, we have this man who brings in the council and the fire department, he opens his door to them and tells them what’s wrong. But then he finds out he’s getting evicted because they say the site is not fit for habitation. So, his kids are there, his family. He’s listening to a council who couldn’t accommodate him in 30 years and they are telling him he has to do it in two weeks?”
It’s indicative, says Collins, of local authorities “covering their arses and kicking the can down the road”.
It’s yet another rock-and-a-hard- place dilemma, and what drives the drama in Collins’s piece. “That’s why I wanted to use it as a backdrop. I wanted to show the way families like the families affected in Carrickmines and others are being treated now.”
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