Unsettled (Rosaleen McDonagh)

Reviewed by Jennifer Henley, PhD

Unsettled, Rosaleen McDonagh’s slim memoir, is a life considered and remembered in sixteen essays. It presents the reader with a perspective, a lived experience, of being a significantly disabled Traveller child growing into a feminist woman—one now established in Irish academia. Her first book is the culmination of decades spent in residential schools, assisted living, and settled housing, while being treated to multifaceted discrimination.

McDonagh is Irish; she is ethnically a Traveller, which, as a group, was recognized as distinct from the general Irish population in 2017. She is also severely impaired by her cerebral palsy. Her story is one of growing up and becoming an adult who was separated from her Traveller family for much of her life. The goal of the Irish government was to “settle” itinerant populations and, with that in mind, full scale assimilation was unleashed on McDonagh.

Being a Traveller, an Irish Traveller, means being ostracized and usually placed at a disadvantage in Irish society. Travellers have higher poverty rates, shorter lifespans, and higher rates of incarceration; they are mostly exempted from education beyond primary school. It is, nonetheless, a rich culture that has existed in Ireland since at least 1650, but possibly as early as 1100. They are, whether settled folks like it or not, native Irish.

In her youth, McDonagh was taken from her family for academic terms to attend residential school. This was due to her physical disability that included misaligned legs and feet, cramped hands, a contorted torso, and a speech impediment. As a result, McDonagh was ill suited to live a nomadic life in a trailer or wagon. Her time in residential schools was a nightmare and she was sexually assaulted regularly. In part this happened because she is female, but it was also due to the fetishism revolving around female Traveller bodies.

I understand her experience as she describes it to be of multifaceted (or intersectional) discrimination; McDonagh refers to herself as a Traveller feminist. The term “intersectionality” was introduced by Dr. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw in 1989, when she wrote that being a black female is doubly oppressive, racism and sexism intersect and make for a different and more inequitable experience than just experiencing one or the other. Accordingly, the oppression a black man suffers is different than a black woman, and the oppression a white woman endures is different from a black woman. Discrimination overlaps and overlays, and it is exacerbated and made more complicated when there are issues of race, religion, class, caste, immigration, disability, and more at play.

When someone faces disadvantage due to multiple factors, that oppression is intersectional—it has multiple points of intersection in the person’s experience. This matters because responses and solutions to those offenses must be intersectional as well. Finally, to approach discrimination intersectionally involves considering the lived experience of each individual and not only the group(s) to which an individual belongs or within which they have membership. That is because while a group may be held together by one or more form(s) of disadvantage, each individual can have more (or a unique combination of) facets when it comes to enduring and facing oppression. In her introduction, McDonagh emphasizes that she speaks only for herself; she notes that “[her] book is not the Traveller story. It’s just one of many to come.”

McDonagh also comes to internalize intersectionality as something more than an esoteric lens when she’s called in to testify about her abuse. Suddenly being in a room with five able-bodied, settled (non-itinerant) men questioning her, she felt what it meant to suffer multiple types of oppression at once. Or, another way to put it: she realized what it is to be othered and discriminated against on multiple levels. She says, “[t]hat was the day when Traveller feminism gave me strength, when the word ‘intersectionality’ became something other than an abstract academic term.”

In the course of her memoir, McDonagh never apologizes for being a Traveller any more than she’d apologize for being a woman. As readers, we are invited to experience her adolescence, first night out, first love, being queer, and to travel through school with her as she excels and earns a bachelor’s degree, then a doctorate.
McDonagh misses her family all the while and she reconnects with them as much as possible. She gives us insight on Traveller culture that few really know, because Travellers tend to keep to themselves. For good reason, though, as efforts are made to wipe out their culture by the Irish government and, consequently, by the majority of Irish people.

Hers is not a story of victimization without healing. McDonagh spends time working to build Traveller community and, with her advanced education, she is a playwright who promotes Traveller rights. All the while, she celebrates her culture and identity as a woman, a Traveller, and someone with severe impairments. She has solid friendships. She regains and relishes her connection to her community. Her family is Planck’s constant despite the way she’s pushed to reject and release them from her life. She does a lot of serious personal “work” in these essays.

Unsettled had me engaged in the details and stories, but also in seeing a larger argument by and vulnerability of a woman fighting to be seen, who isn’t seen in the history of her homeland. Travellers are othered and yet she’s relatable. And I thought of my own experience of intersectional disadvantage and subjugation to stigma. There’s a political awakening inside the book and there’s a raw defiance that gives it some umph. As a piece of Traveller feminism, McDonagh ticks all of the boxes.

Title: Unsettled
Editor: Rosaleen McDonagh
Publisher: Skein Press
Year: 2021

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 16, Issue 3 – Fall 2022

About the Reviewer

Jennifer Henley, PhD, finished her doctorate in philosophy in 2003 at age 29. That same year she entered the Peace Corps and proceeded to serve two years in Sangmelima and Ambam, Cameroon, working on HIV/AIDS prevention, university-level English instruction, and as a provincial inspector for South Province elementary schools. Since her return from service, she directed the AAT department of the SF SPCA and conducted research on the benefits of engaging in the human-companion animal bond, as well as playing a key role in writing protocols for conducting animal visits to hospitals, psychiatric centers, schools, nursing homes, and more. Dr. Henley lives in San Francisco with her partner and seven-year old daughter. She endures ADHD, OCD, psychosis, epilepsy, and agoraphobia. Despite these difficulties, Dr. Henley recently celebrated 1.5 years without being committed to inpatient care. She loves reading and writing and is a published poet, appearing in the anthology Poems for the Ride (edited by Angel Rosen).