President Michael D Higgins, who presented the TV star and playwright with his award, paid tribute to Mr Collins for his 20 years of work in supporting Travellers’ rights.
“Many of you here today will, regrettably, know what it is like to feel excluded, and others will know how it feels to be unfairly stereotyped due to ignorance, prejudice or misinformation,” said Mr Higgins.
“Michael is a true example of how we can use our particular gifts and talents to challenge society’s perceptions and expectations.
“He has done an extraordinary amount to promote understanding of the Travelling community and to inspire, within that community, a rightful pride in their rich culture and tradition.”
Mr Collins, who grew up among the Traveller community, set up the Traveller Wagon Wheel Theatre Company. The father of four has performed in the Abbey and Olympia theatres in Dublin, and in his early career starred in Glenroe.
He said he was deeply honoured to receive the award and delighted to meet Mr Higgins.
“I’m from the Travelling community and I would have gone through different types of discrimination,” said Mr Collins.
“When you would talk to people about our rights, they would come across as ‘Here we go again, the Travellers are looking for this, they’re asking for that’.
“It’s stereotyping like this that I have wanted to address.”
Mr Collins’ latest play, Magpies on the Pylon, address the issue of suicide among young Travellers.
“The play looks at the whole family dynamic, the breakdown of the family and an unwillingness to talk about suicide.
“I hope the play makes people think this is something we should be talking about.”
The award ceremony was organised by the Irish Traveller Movement.
Assistant director Brigid Quilligan said the reason behind the event, now in its third year, is to showcase the work carried out by members of the community for the community.
“These events give a huge sense of confidence and pride among Travellers who rarely have the same unguarded opportunities to express opinion or be positively discriminated for and celebrated.”
President Higgins added that as he pledged during his election campaign, promoting inclusivity in Ireland would be a priority.
“You have shown us how a truly inclusive society can allow a harmonious and mutually enriching co-existence between citizens from many different backgrounds and from many different ways of life,” he said.