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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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Interview: 'I just want to be seen as an actor, not a Traveller actor'

Starring in the new movie, King of the Travellers, Michael Collins says he wanted the film to be realistic of the Travelling community. Here he tells us about being refused from Dublin pubs, not getting roles in movies, and coming up against everyday prejudices.

Michael Collins Actor and writer

King of the Travellers star, Michael Collins talks to Christina Finn about the new movie and about issues that face the traveller community on a daily basis. He says:

THE CHARACTER I play in the new movie, King of the Travellers, was a chance-of-a-lifetime role.

We wanted to make a film that was realistic to the community. There is a feud and there is a big Traveller wedding in the film, and I think it would have been very unfair to the film itself if we didn’t put those elements into it, as they are associated with the travelling community. Even though there is a feud in it, there is an anti-violent message in it: that violence only breathes violence and nothing can be achieved by it.

It’s a common misconception that family feuds are prevalent in the Travelling community. I would say about 97 per cent of Travellers are not involved in family feuds at all. People seem to think that all Travellers are involved in some sort of feud and it’s not true. If you pay attention to the media, particularly the journalists who are involved in writing about it, they know the people that are involved in the feuds, but that reporting does an awful lot of damage to us as a community.

‘We were out celebrating the movie and I was refused from the pub’

Recently, we were promoting the movie out in Temple Bar last week and we were all having a great time. It was a lovely launch, tons of media people and we had a nice wine reception. We decided to go for a pint in a pub nearby. When we went to get a drink me and my daughter were refused service. As soon as I walked in I knew the barman recognised me. He didn’t see me as a professional actor, he saw me as a member of the Travelling community.

Peter Coonan (who plays Fran in RTE’s Love/Hate), who also stars in the movie, was very upset about it. Actually, the settled people involved in the movie were more upset really, because we are used to it over the years. When you are so long putting up with that type of shite, you are better off letting it go. I didn’t want to ruin what was a great evening with the crew.

Because that happened, it left us with an insecure feeling for the rest of the week. There is an insecurity there and it’s terrible in this day and age that you are out there working, trying to make a living, trying to make a life for yourself and promote Irish film and you feel you are up against it.

Being branded “knackers”

In the 1970s, Irish people were out on the streets protesting about the apartheid in South Africa, and totally justified doing so, I totally agree – but at the same time, there was a family in the West that were being burned out of their home, who were being branded “knackers” all over the town. People had the attitude, ‘I don’t mind Travellers being accommodated, but just not in my back yard’. That attitude goes right back to 1960s.

And it’s not helped by the politicians. If someone in political life came out and said that all Nigerians should be put on Spike Island, they would be sacked on the spot. But even in Dáil, when these matters are raised, when an apology is due for statements like that, it is just skipped over, we don’t matter to them, we are not a vote to them.

What people don’t realise is the stuff that affects Travellers is the same thing that affects settled people – like unemployment, trying to pay your mortgage, trying to raise your family, we are all the same.

Tarred with the same brush

People have ideas of what a Traveller is, that they are someone that doesn’t work, doesn’t pay taxes, but I had a conversation with someone the other day about Limerick. It’s been in the media because certain things have happened there with crime, but Limerick is a beautiful, beautiful city.

There is a small percentage of the people there that are involved in anti-social behaviour, but the whole of Limerick gets blamed. That is the same problem that the Travelling community face.

84 per cent of people are unemployed in the Travelling community, but there are real issues behind that as to why they are unemployed. You have children going to school and at a certain age, the other children find out that they are a member of a Travelling family and they get called a “knacker” – that word is very prevalent and it’s so damaging to label a child that.

Traveller children need to know they can succeed in life too

In order to change things, we need more Traveller involvement. More people from the community need to help change this mentality. People from the Travelling community who have gone on to do well, need to let themselves be known. Travelling children need to be able to see people like them succeeding, so that they can say ‘well if he can do it, I can do it’.

We have wonderful people in the community, we have young boxers representing people in sport, we have Davy Joyce, a successful barrister, we have members of the garda, doctors too, but there are people who are afraid to say who they are, because of the society that we live in. The don’t want to step forward and tell people where they come from.

In the acting game, the majority of actors and people I have worked with are professional people – if you can do your job, they’re happy to work for you. However, I remember one time, as a young actor, going for an audition. I remember the casting director for the movie thought I was excellent for the part, she didn’t see me as a Traveller, she just saw me as an actor. When I met the director I was asked a lot of questions like: ‘Do you think you are reliable? If you got this job, would turn up on time? Do you drink much? Do you have a permanent address?’

I’ll never forgive that director

Because I was a young actor I didn’t know that these questions were inappropriate, until I mentioned it to some other actor friends who told me that I shouldn’t be asked those questions. But it’s what I am labelled as – a Traveller. I actually never forgave that director. I would love to work with him, but if I met him, I would have to tell him about how me made me feel and tell him that he actually knocked me back a few years.

But that’s the label we have. I’m also writer and I have other writer friends from the community too. If we apply for arts council funding, we are seen as two Travellers, so only one of us will get it. We are not seen as just two writers, we are two Traveller writers.

For people who are going to head along to see the movie, all I can say is I hope they enjoy the acting, enjoy the story. I have written a lot over the years, and what I like to see is people get engrossed in a good story and forgetting that it’s what people call “a Traveller story”. I just want this film to be seen as a good film, a good story.

Michael Collins is an Irish actor who has appeared in the TV series, Glenroe and movies such as Man About Dog, Strength and Honour and Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl. In 2011, he was presented with the lifetime achievement honour by President Michael D Higgins at the Traveller Pride Awards. To view the trailer of the King of the Travellers click here.

Read: Martin ‘very annoyed’ by Fianna Fáil councillor’s call to ‘segregate’ Travellers>

Audio: Hogan hangs up on radio station as he is urged to explain Traveller letter>

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