When ten people, including five children and a pregnant mother, were killed in a fire at a temporary halting site in the south Dublin suburb of Carrickmines in October 2015, there was widespread shock and anger, along with many calls for an improvement to living standards for Travellers.
For artist and Traveller Leanne McDonagh, the tragedy had a particular resonance and spurred her into action.
“The tragedy in Carrickmines, and the aftermath, was so mind-boggling and overwhelming that I couldn’t let it pass without doing something.
“I had already had an idea for a project on accommodation. When the fire happened I decided now was the time it needed to be done. I was shocked and angry, I was like, ‘How is this still happening?’
“Before my family moved into a house, we lived in a halting site and then on the side of the road, and even though our situation wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t bad in comparison to what I’ve seen in the last year or two.
“A lot of Travellers are still living without basic sanitation. I went home after a shoot one day and I was just so depressed thinking about it, how I got to come home and be
comfortable and happy and these people were still there.”
The work featured in the exhibition, entitled ‘Accommodate Vs. Assimilate’, at Triskel in Cork, comprises different photographic styles, including abstract images created through slow exposure.
McDonagh says this artistic approach reflects her intention to take the focus away from personal stories and create a more general narrative representative of the community.
“I didn’t do documentary-style images putting people into focus because I didn’t want to do individual stories. The more people I met, the more they had in common.
"This problem is widespread, it is more than personal. If it hasn’t affected someone directly, it has touched their parents, brothers, sisters or kids.”
McDonagh, who has a degree in fine art from the Crawford College of Art and Design and works out of her studio at Ballynoe near Fermoy, says she likes to take a spontaneous and organic approach to her work.
“When I was in college, I would have tried my hand at everything. When someone asks me what I do, I always reply: ‘I paint, I print and I photograph.’ My process would be to photograph something first, to capture it visually in a way I am satisfied with.
"Then I can work from that. In order for me to create something, I need to photograph it first but I do that in a way that is whimsical and emotive. When I can capture that, I decide if I want to leave it as a photograph. But I also like to paint — I experiment and explore and whatever works, works.”
ART AND ACTIVISM
When we speak, she has just finished hanging the work for the exhibition in the Triskel Arts Centre, a process in which her decisiveness proved to be an asset.
“Nothing goes on the wall unless I’m happy with it. I’m pretty good and brutal when it comes to editing,” she says.
McDonagh is keen to be seen as an artist, not an activist, but says that this exhibition is different in that she wants to provoke discussion and debate about the living standards of Travellers.
“If I had done documentary-style photographs, it would be harder to separate those roles [of artist and activist].
"I want the images to draw the viewer in and get them to question it. That also plays on the idea that just as you should be open to exploring a piece of work, so you should explore a person before you make an
assumption about them.”
While McDonagh obviously has valuable insights into the issues facing Travellers which inform her work, she doesn’t see herself as a spokesperson, nor does she see herself in the role of challenging the stereotypes that exist around the community.
“I’m not a spokesperson for anybody and when you see the exhibition, you will understand why. But I do want the exhibition to create an opportunity for dialogue, discussion and debate. As I went through the process of making this work, I didn’t even think about stereotypes, it was all about accommodation.
“When I meet people, I take them as they are. I don’t make assumptions about people, because when I see people doing that it makes me angry. Everyone I met had their own personal story and I think that is why it worked — people were willing to open up to me, there were no barriers.
“They knew I wasn’t there with an ulterior motive, I was doing it with the hope that in time it might actually benefit them.”
McDonagh says the trust of the people featured in her work was hugely important to the project.
“I think a lot of the time, when someone from outside the community comes in and takes photographs, there is a chance are those images might end up somewhere where they weren’t supposed to.
“In my early teens, someone asked my friends to pose for a photograph and they did. A couple of years later when I was in college researching stuff, I came across that photo with an article that was a load of rubbish.
"When I went back to the people who were in that photo and showed them the article, couldn’t believe how they had let that happen.
"I told them that the next time you stand in front of someone’s camera, you make sure you know what is happening with that image… I would always make sure when I take photographs that people are fully aware of what they are intended for.”
McDonagh came to national attention through her participation in the reality TV show Norah’s Traveller Academy, in which she was mentored by businesswoman Norah Casey. She says the programme made a huge difference to her career as an artist.
“I had a great time on that show; I met so many amazing people and I am still in touch with most of them, even if it’s just a phone call for advice and mentoring.”
She says she would like to take on a mentoring role herself in the future and has already worked with Cork City Partnership on a programme to keep Travellers in education — a
subject close to her heart.
As for the future, she is currently performing the sometimes stressful juggling act recognisable to many female artists who are also mothers of young children.
“I have a 22-month-old, and I am five-and-a-half months pregnant. I spent the summer getting up at 6am before my baby would wake and waiting until he went to bed again to work in the evening.
"I would have always been the type of person who would get up and do whatever amount of work I needed to.
“Now I know that is not realistic. Once my baby is up, I have to look after him, he’s my number one. Things just get done a lot slower. I just have to organise my time better. I thought I was organised before but now I wonder what I did with all my time,” she laughs.