Margaret McDonagh tells Travellers’ Voice about her work with the National Traveller Mental Health Network and how the organisation is working together to provide a holistic range of services to help her community.
December 10th last saw the United Nations’ Human Rights Day marked with an assembly outside Dáil Éireann, an occasion attended by Travellers of all age groups. Among the gathering was Margaret McDonagh, a senior figure at the National Traveller Mental Health Network.
Issues of concern expressed on the day included child and infant mortality, a severe level of unemployment among Travellers, and perhaps most starkly of all, mental health concerns in the community – something which, until recent years, remained taboo in both Traveller and settled political discussion.
According to Margaret, “The main aim of the National Traveller Mental Health Network’s protest was to highlight the mental health crisis faced by Travellers in Ireland today, the lack of culturally respectful and appropriate supports available to us, and the lack of political will to address the stark inequalities we face. We delivered a petition that was signed by 4,000 community members and our Allies to the Dail.”
Margaret is under no illusions that much more needs to be done by the powers that be, and, referring to the petition, adds, “We received an acknowledgment from the Taoiseach’s office of its delivery, but (as of yet, we received) no direct response to the key asks or our request to meet with him to discuss the issues further.”
In a new millennium where Margaret points out, “The situation of Travellers has been identified as a crisis, where many members of the Traveller community live in overcrowded conditions, unemployment is over 84 per cent, life expectancy is 15 years less than in the majority settled community,” it is harrowing that in particular, “infant mortality is three times higher and suicide is seven times higher than the settled population and accounts for 11 per cent of all deaths in the Traveller community.” However, there has been some progress made, with Margaret saying, “We had a lot of positive media publicity on the day, and in the days following. The aim of the protest was highlighted, and that in itself was progress, albeit a small step in the long road to equality for Travellers.”
When referring to her position within the National Traveller Mental Health Network, Margaret credits her own colleagues and the contributions they made to the network’s successes, saying, “in 2021 I took on the role of chair for a period as my dear friend Mags Casey took a well-deserved break. Mags is now back in her role as chair of the network and is a passionate, fierce and committed Traveller activist who I believe can move mountains.”
Referring to her motivations and inspirations for her daily duties, Margaret says, “what drives me is the lived experience as a Traveller who lives and works within the community, experience of mental health issues and the lack of supports available to Travellers and the fact that I don’t want future generations of Travellers to go through what we are going through now, and that our people have gone through before us. The ultimate dream would be that Travellers have equal access to culturally appropriate supports and opportunity to progress to education and employment with no barriers or blocks in their way. To see the rate of suicide, drop to zero and Travellers accepted and respected by society. (In addition) I would love to see a day when you can walk into any business, State intuition, health service, county council etc., and see Travellers working there and appreciated for the hard-working individuals that we are.”
I have a deep passion and love for my community, our traditions, beliefs, our deep sense of faith and spirituality; but most of all our incredible resilience.”
Margaret’s personal story is one that many of us can appreciate. She speaks of being “an extremely proud Irish Traveller activist, wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and friend. I have a deep passion and love for my community, our traditions, beliefs, our deep sense of faith and spirituality; but most of all our incredible resilience.”
With this in mind, Margaret McDonagh has seen some darker days too, saying, “I’ve experienced discrimination and prejudice right throughout my life like most of my community, this experience has fueled my passion to help make positive change for my community. I am currently in University studying for my degree in Community Development. I did put the cart before the horse and have been working in community development for many years.”
Margaret is a wealth of knowledge when it comes the goals and ambitions of her organisation
Margaret is a wealth of knowledge when it comes the goals and ambitions of her organisation, saying, “The National Traveller Mental Health Network was established in 2018 and officially launched in 2019. It is a collective of Travellers and Traveller Organisations across Ireland whose goal is to develop a collective space that is Traveller-led, where local, regional and national Traveller mental health issues are highlighted, discussed and addressed. (It is) a space where solutions are explored with a view to being included in culturally appropriate policy on Traveller mental health.”
“This was a very emotional and proud day to see so many of my people gather in support of those battling mental health issues and suicide!”
In two short years, the group had made huge inroads, even meeting with the President himself. “On the 8thOctober 2020, we held the first annual National Traveller Mental Health Day where we presented President Michael D Higgins with the Tree of Hope.” Further to this, a mass was celebrated “in memory of those lost to suicide and mental health issues, and also to remember there is hope of a brighter future for Travellers. The second annual National Traveller Mental Health day was held on the 8th October 2021, and we held a mass in Knock Shrine and planted the Travellers’ Tree of Hope on the grounds. The event was attended by approximately 400 Travellers and our Allies. This was a very emotional and proud day to see so many of my people gather in support of those battling mental health issues and suicide; standing together as a community to say we are in this together.”
What stands out most powerfully from speaking with Margaret McDonagh is the sense of community and togetherness that National Traveller Mental Health Network represents; these are principles that can only grow stronger in such experienced and understanding hands.