A Respected Custodian of Traveller History and Culture!
Sometimes in life we get to meet a one-of-a-kind individual, a person who can turn their heads, their hands and their hearts to doing just about anything, that person is often described as being the best-of-the-best. Mr Michael McDonagh, (RIP) was one such person. Husband, father, grandfather and family man, renowned raconteur and highly respected custodian of Traveller history and culture, Michael, who was a founder member and board member on several national and international organisations; was also a man very much loved by all. It is for this reason, in our special 30th anniversary year, Travellers’ Voice magazine feel both proud and privileged to dedicate this issue to not only salute and pay tribute to Michael and the great work he did, but to also express our deepest sympathies with his family following their enormous loss.
Everyone who came into contact with, or who were fortunate enough to spend time with Michael (who passed away on 18th September 2021), immediately fell under his spell. However, for those not lucky enough to have met him, in order to give you a small flavour of the man himself, we caught up with his loving wife Nell.
Married at just 17 years of age, Nell lovingly, yet humorously recalls how the pair were “married for three days before we spoke,” however, the couple’s deep love and respect for each other is evident in the fact that their marriage was still going strong 46 years later. This was also a unique union that produced five loving children and 12 grandchildren, every one of which adored their father and grandfather, with Nell saying, “It was a very different life back then (when we met), but Michael was a very loving, very powerful and wonderful caring man. I was extremely blessed and fortunate to get the man I did. I remember my last child was born of a Friday and I was back to work the following week. I was blessed to have a man who gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do and that was extremely unusual in those times,” explains Nell who says she herself “worked all my life. I was involved in programmes all my life. We were very different people; where Michael was quiet, I was loud. He was also a very humble man; a man who didn’t do things for recognition. He was a man who had an impact on so many lives.”
Indeed, Michael’s legacy, for those whose lives he did impact, was one of extraordinary brilliance; a fact which was evident in the sheer volume of people who attended his funeral in a bid to pay their respects. According to Nell, “When he died, people from all walks of life contacted us. Ordinary, everyday people whose lives Michael had touched. Men, women, young people, and older people who all said Michael did this, Michael did that, or Michael helped me in so many ways…
He wanted to be involved in everything. He wanted to get everything done. If he thought something would work for Travellers then he wanted to get it done,” says Nell. Michael, who was reared in Dundalk, County Louth, later moved to Navan, County Meath when the couple married, he was also a member
of the Irish Defence Forces, with Nell saying “oh he loved the army, he was always a soldier. He was in the army for 10 years and he went to the Lebanon once. He joined the veterans association and his greatest pride was that he was in the army. He had great pride in being an Irishman and he had great
pride in being a Traveller, but first and foremost he was an Irishman. When he left the army he could have got a job, and he did do the markets for a while, but he loved the history of Travellers and he loved studying and telling stories about the historical timeline of where Travellers came from. He was also a great listener and a beacon of light for Navan Travellers. He actually got involved with Meath Travellers when he was working as a caretaker at St Michael’s Convent. He saw a vacancy as a community youth worker and he applied for the job. He touched so many people’s lives, and he was a great ally for Travellers who were in prison; sure he’d often be gone from here at eight in the morning to ten in the night,” recalls Nell fondly.
So, how did the man who once met Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul 11, and the King of Spain, as well as heading up ‘the most successful Traveller organisation in the country’ spend his downtime…”oh he loved to sit down on a Saturday and Sunday morning with the grandchildren to watch documentaries on WW2, he also loved a good quiz show because he was very much
into learning,” says Nell.
A graduate of NUI, Maynooth, Michael, who left school at age 12, threw himself into creating, developing and delivering many initiatives for his community; the latest of which was a genealogy project with Meath County Library that looked at the history of Traveller families down the decades. He was, according to Nell, “passionate about tracing families and making connections and links between townlands that had been home to Traveller families down through the years.”
Described by funeral celebrant Fr Michael McCullough as a “non- judgmental man who transformed hostility to hospitality,” ‘noble soul’ Michael was held in such high esteem, Uachtarán na hÉireann himself, Michael D Higgins joined members of his family and mourners as this proud ‘driving force’ Traveller gentleman was laid to rest. The organisation Michael has built are putting in place a series of plans this year in a bid to not just celebrate the life and work of this great man, but in order to ensure that his legacy lives on, the Meath Traveller Workshop has vowed to plant a tree and unveil a memorial plaque in his honour. While we recognise and celebrate the evolution of Mr Michael McDonagh’s life, it would be remiss of us not to mention the love, the support, the strength and the solidarity bestowed upon him by his devoted and loving wife Nell.
Michael was a man who wore many hats. He was a man who was a father to five biological children; however he was also a father figure to so many more. While he quite literally built Meath Travellers from little more than a pen and a sheet of paper, it is evident, from the wonderful relationship he shared with his wife Nell, that he could not have done any of it without her. In fact, in loaning her husband to the service of her community, it’s probably fair to say that Nell McDonagh shaped him into the fine man, husband, father and grandfather that he was. When asked the question, if your husband was alive today, what would he be saying to young members of the Traveller community? – Nell didn’t hesitate to reply, “he’d say be proud of who you are. He’d say never be ashamed of who you are and where you came from.”
Ann Duddy: A lifetime friend of Michael’s and a Traveller Activist:
“Michael was one of the most wonderful, inspirational people I’ve ever met. I worked with him for years and he was so wise. He would help people to sort out any problems they encountered, and he could get people to think differently about things. He’s a huge loss to the whole community.”
Fr Micheal McCullagh: A lifetime friend of Michael’s and the first Parish Priest for the Parish of the Travelling Community:
“Michael McDonagh was a kindly father figure to us all.”
Martin Ward: Michael’s friend and work colleague:
“What can one not say about Michael McDonagh? The man was vibrant, skilful and full of compassion and empathy for his fellow Travellers, and people in general. I found Michael to be passionate and very tuned-in when it came to issues of concern affecting the community; and he never shied away from any issue. Michael was active and actually met his fellow Travellers while out and about, and heard first hand from them the issues of the day.
He worked tirelessly for the improvement of the lives of Travellers whether it involved accommodation, training, employment, health and education; he was diligent on those issues, and he had his finger on the pulse. Michael, and his good wife Nell, were the custodians and guardians of Cant and Traveller traditions and folklore. Michael and Nell, with their crew of Tinsmiths, and other Travellers with specific skills, travelled the length and breadth of Ireland with their Traveller Heritage project. This programme did a lot in ensuring Travellers were seen as an important cog in Irish society, and that their contribution was recognised by that same society. I served on many committees with Michael, and especially on the Involve board. Michael was always calm, and showed a lot of wisdom, especially when it came to Traveller issues and employment law, and always pushed for educational opportunities, training and employment. Michael was a great problem solver, and his advice was always taken on board. Over the years, from talking to Michael and Nell, I found out that their grandmothers were Wards from Tuam; I was proud to find out that these women were my father and mother’s people. Michael was not only a tragic loss to Nell and her family, but also to our community. He had vision, and his ideas were ahead of his time. History will give a true picture of the important impact this great man and friend had on the positive developments that have accrued within Traveller society.”
Marina Cunningham: Michael’s work colleague and Manager of Meath Traveller workshop:
“I worked with Michael for five years and I learned so much from him. He was inspirational, and a manager who gave you so much support, but at the same time, allowed you to do your own thing. He saw the good in everyone. He was always a glass half full man; a positive person. He was one of life’s gentlemen. He always had a kind word to say to everyone, and about everyone. He had a way of making you feel like you could do everything you set your mind to do.”
Liam McGrath Documentary: Maker, Scratch Films:
“Michael was an inspirational guiding light; he guided us through all those documentaries (we made) such as The Blood of the Travellers and The Traveller.”
Mags Casey: Human Rights Activist and dear friend of Michael’s:
“He was the biggest inspiration that I’ve ever come across with regard to civil rights and human rights; and every time I was in his presence, I felt I was in the presence of a king…such was his greatness!”