Michael Collins: In His Own Words.
In Conversation with David Jo Murphy.
On a rainy day in November I caught up with actor Michael Collins at his home in Cavan for a fireside chat. We spent hours talking about everything from growing up in Finglas, to activism, typecasting, advice for young actors, the Carrickmines tragedy and his plans for Christmas.
The Early Years.
“In the early part of my life we lived down the country, travelling around Offaly and Kildare, I have very vivid memories of Prosperous Hill, the Dry Canal and the Woody Crossroads camps in Offaly and Kildare and which I have used in my first play, called ‘A Cultural Thing Or is It?’
I remember one time, we would’ve been sleeping in the tent on Prosperous Hill and a wind came up along the road and drove the cover up onto the ditch. Me, me mammy and Brother Martin tried to pull the cover down to stop the rain from bating us out of it. I remember begging at the houses around the area and collecting scrap and all these types of memories going into shops and asking them for stuff.
We moved to Dublin in the early seventies and lived in Avila Park in Finglas; I remember sleeping under the old barrel top wagon. Then we moved from the wagon into the trailer, lived in that for a number of years and then we got one of the tin huts on the site. From there (we moved) into the mobile for twenty years, then into a house, then we moved down to Cavan where we are now.
Getting Started in Acting.
I truly believe that because of the way Travellers are reared up and having to depend on begging or trying to get food or work off settled people there was always a slight actor in ya. I’d say the acting was in us all the time and when I’m doing stuff myself I try to use Travellers as much as I can because I believe that Travellers are natural actors.
I did a course in Meath Street (Dublin) in 1985, there was this young writer called Anton O’Flaherty who wrote in Gaelic and he wanted to write a play in English about Travellers. He contacted the Dublin Travellers Education Group and he got a group of young Travellers to improvise with a group of professional actors in order to get the sense of realism. I did that for a couple of weeks and during that time he (Anton O’Flaherty) saw something in me and said “look if I wrote a character would you play him, a young Teddy Boy character called Rocky”. I loved the idea of it and I said yeah without thinking.
Enjoyable Roles and Being Typecast as a Traveller Actor.
Over the years I have been typecast as a Traveller actor and people forget that you’re a member of the Traveller community who’s an actor, which sometimes annoys me. I have no problem playing a Traveller character because as you know from some of the plays and television, the characters are quite different and I put an effort into making the characters different. It’s not about being typecast as a Traveller actor but about being able to play the characters differently that makes you the actor.
When you’re not working, because people see you as a Traveller actor, that’s where the problem lies. I could play a Guard, I could play a hard-man, and I could play a countryman, a farmer, a junkie. I enjoyed playing the character (Francis Moorehouse) in ‘King of the Travellers’ and the character (Sweeper Managan) in a recent film ‘Jack Taylor Shot Down’, who was a kind of a soft gentle character trying to mind the family and keep the family together and yet he was sinister behind the whole lot of it. You have the character in my play (Jim) ‘Magpies on the Pylon’ who’s a very broken man because of the death of his child.
Advice to Young Actors.
The first advice I would give to any young Traveller actors or even settled people who are reading the magazine, is to make sure that you have something to fall back on; get your education, get a degree in something. Six months out of the year and sometimes longer you could be unemployed in the acting business.
If you can get the opportunity, always write something because writing is a great way of keeping you involved in that side of the business.
Travellers Are Natural Story Tellers.
I always believed that Travellers are natural story-tellers. One of the best ways of starting off your writing career is to write from your own experience. I wrote a play called ‘The Native Ground A Traveller in Progress’ which was my own story from the 1960s through the eyes of a child.
As I became more confident with that show, I took on some of the internal issues within the Traveller community like feuding. I wrote a play called ‘Mobile’ which was about two cousins who had two different family names. Even though they were first cousins they were matched up to fight against each other from an incident that happened before they were even born.
Then I wrote a play called ‘Worlds Apart’ about the new communities in Ireland, about a young Traveller woman leaving her husband because of domestic violence. She’s pregnant so she leaves for the sake of the child and she goes to England and trains as a nurse and falls in love with a black man and has two children for him. The last one was ‘Magpies on the Pylon’ which deals with suicide but from the father’s perspective. I always try and write from real situations but broadly so that the issues are not just based on the Traveller community but the story is. I love grounding myself in the Traveller community, people love that, but then ten minutes into the show they forget that it’s about Travellers and it could be about anyone.
How Do You Get People to Tell Stories?
This Christmas take the opportunity to sit down with your father and mother and three or four people and one of ye get up and knock off the television. Say, “listen I’m gonna start off by telling yis a story and then I want you to tell a story”, and I’d say inside of ten minutes you’ll be engrossed in the story and you’ll have a wonderful day.
Christmas and the Wren Boys.
I always spend Christmas at home, we’ll go out to mass Christmas morning, Catherine cooks the dinner on Christmas Eve. Then I’ll light the two fires, we’ll have the dinner in the kitchen and then I’ll retire back in to the sitting room. Gradually the family will make their way in and we’ll look at a film and we’ll have a few drinks and a bit a craic, maybe listen to a bit of music.
Down the country here we’d have the Wren Boys (a group of locals dressed in costumes going from place to place chasing a fake wren), coming in and singing in the pub and they’d be all kids dressed up. You’d have a bunch of coins in front of you and you’d give a couple and then the next ones would come in, so it’s a fun enjoyable day. Then at six o’clock you’re wrecked and you come home and go to bed.
I think the whole thing around Carrickmines blew me out of the water. I thought that the outbreak of grief between Travellers and settled people was genuine enough, the State had the flags at half mast, and the Irish football team had a minute’s silence that I was all very proud of. Then a couple of days after, the disgusting underbelly of racism raised its head, you had “sorry not in our back yard”, protesting against people who wanted to try and get a home for those people who have lost ten members of the family who were burned to death, children who were orphaned and we had a handful of settled people who were ruling the local authority. They were bullying the local authorities into submission, telling them ‘you’re not putting them in there and there’s nothing you can do about it’.
In Wexford I was standing there waiting because it’s the families that needed to go into the church first. This woman came up to me and she said “it’s my first time to meet ya thanks for coming”. I said “It’s great that you’re getting the support from all the settled people in the area, I was up at Bray and it was great, people standing outside.” She said “I’m going to tell you something about Wexford and Wexford is my own hometown, I was born and reared here. Last night I had to get up and travel twenty miles outside of Wexford to get bread and milk for my children. They closed the town completely yesterday, as the hearse was leaving Dublin with the coffins, they closed the whole town, the pubs, the restaurants, supermarkets, coffee shops, everything was closed.” Me and Catherine realized that we couldn’t even get a cup of coffee in Wexford town, and I was never so disgusted of a town in my natural life. I felt more than sorry for the people who lived there, I actually felt very sorry for the settled people who lived there because I think the majority of the settled people who lived in Wexford town didn’t understand why it was closed down. People went on Facebook in Wexford town saying ‘you closed Wexford town down but not in ourname’ a councilor went on and said not in our name. So I’m not blaming Wexford, I’m blaming the local authorities, I’m blaming the government and I’m blaming the Garda Síochána for creating such a terrible hostility on the day of a funeral.
Favourite Sports and Conor McGregor.
I love boxing, I love looking at Travellers in the Olympics, and I get so proud when I’m looking at them. John Joe Nevin and young Joe Ward, and back as far as Francie Barratt, he would’ve been my first time favourite Olympian. I love seeing Travellers in any kind of sports. My favourite sports would he hurling and Gaelic. Every Sunday if I’m not working I’ll go up and look at the game and bring me young fellas along. I met Conor McGregor before he became the star that he is, and the man that I met at the premier of King of The Travellers is the exact same man that I see on the television. He’s brilliant and I love the idea that a young man is putting his life and his energy and every bone in his body into that sport and he’s doing very well. Not alone is he doing well but he’s looking after every member of his family and some of the local charity groups as well which is brilliant and may he long reign.
I like dressing well as you probably know I like people who dress up to go somewhere. I’d only wear tracksuits around the house; I don’t like tracksuits and don’t like when people turn up at a wedding wearing one, I think it’s insulting. I love leather belts with buckles on them; I love the cowboy boots which I always wear. Haha I think I’m getting a bit ould for the cowboy boots, the knees are starting to give out but I’ve a couple of pairs of cowboy boots. I love leather jackets, jeans; I like a suit every so often but I think there’s a time and a place for a suit like weddings and christenings, funerals, that’s when the suit comes out. I like casual dress; once it’s not tracksuits it’s grand.
I’ve no tattoos. I’ve never really got into tattoos; some people have nice tattoos and a relation of mine has this big Celtic warrior. I can’t understand the tattoos with the name on them; a relation would have a tattoo along the front of their arm with the name ‘Collins’ and then they’d have their wife’s name. The only reason I would have that, depends on how much alcohol I drank and if the girls asked me my name I’d say give me a second there and I’ll pull up my sleeve, ‘oh it’s Collins and my wife’s name is….’My young fella got a tattoo, it’s an autism tattoo because my oldest grandchild is autistic and he asked me could he get it.
Human Rights Activism in Ireland.
I think the Women’s Movement is very strong in Ireland. There’s a couple of people over the years fought for women’s rights and who gave us a hand fighting for Travellers’ rights, I appreciate them and I think they’re brilliant.
I think anybody, it doesn’t matter who they are, who stands up for somebody else’s rights or tries to help somebody else is brilliant. I think that the only way that we can combat our own situation in the Traveller community is to support everybody else, and with the help of God they’ll support us, and I think that’s the way forward.
I think anybody out there who does that type of work needs the full support and respect of everybody else. Myself and Catherine and Martin and Davy, are getting older and we hope that younger people will take over; take the reins and keep moving along. You have to remember that we’re not the only group out there, you might get young Travellers that have a problem with gays and lesbians or refugees and asylum seekers; they have the exact same problems as we have and they need to be supported. Because if you start saying no, I can only support Traveller groups then you’re on a losing streak because the whole thing is that we all stick together and we all fight for each other’s rights.
RTE Revisiting Glenroe and Travellers in the Soaps?
No, they should let sleeping dogs lie haha. But you have ‘Fair City’ which is a Dublin based programme and you have a quarter of the population of Irish Travellers living in Dublin and I think over the years they would have gone through every ethnic minority group in the country except Travellers. They never had Travellers on; it’s not about me looking for work because there are other actors out there who can do the job.