Rosaleen McDonagh – A letter to my 16 year old self

Dear Rosaleen,

Some day you will enjoy living in your Cerebral Palsy (CP) cis- gendered body. There will be a time when you will have control over that very important part of you. You will feed it and nourish it with healthy fresh fruit and vegetables. You will not be a meat eater for much longer. Expensive oils and moisturisers will be part of your daily routine. In your handbag there will be run around perfumes for everyday use and then there will be the ones you will wear less frequently for special occasions. 


It might take a while but you will have agency in every part of your life. You will grow to love and enjoy your CP way of talking and being in the world. Some years will pass when you have done your time in various institutions and care homes. They may appear to have power over you but in your heart and  mind you will learn how to turn that bully voice down. The wheelchair you desire will find its way to you at the right moment. The damage done to your body by badly fitted wheelchairs will bring encouragement for you to strengthen your core muscles and hold your head up high. The chair will be small, neat, petite like you. It will be black almost like a power sports wheelchair. Yes Rosaleen, you will be a petite women.


Living on the site with your family with no amenities or sanitation will be enshrined in your memory. This experience will make you value the luxury and concept of disabled toilets and changing rooms.  A swanky apartment in a safe area with two bathrooms and a fancy cleopatra type bath will be yours. This will bring a lot of pleasure and pride as well as well-deserved comfort into your life. All this comfort you will have earned. You will have worked hard. Rosaleen hang in there. Your big girls body will belong to you and nobody else. The scars from the forced operations will fade. Suppelty is how your Cerebral Palsy will move. Grace, poise, and dignity will be part of your aesthetic. When looking back there will be a register of how you tried to contain, minimise and control your Cerebral Palsy movements. Raw emotions may resurface at this particular point. Embrace them your history is your gateway. The harsh voices of people that shouted at you to move, to walk, to lift a cup, to hold your head in a certain way, to speak – these voices will be white noise in your consciousness. 

Haunted by the experience of being in a special class will be the dominant factor for motivation. Your restless mind, will turn to curiosity, your anxiety will transform it self into confidence and self assurance. The hunger to learn and the want to shake stigma and shame will propel you into believing and knowing the true value of education. Later in your life it will be the fuel that will empower you to go to university, yes university and get degrees and PhD’s . Trust me you will. Little Rosaleen, the very people that put you down will have to show respect when you write letters after your name. You will be the first Traveller to be elected to Aosdána.  Don’t be afraid, the time in the psychiatric hospital is only about resting and taking time out. It will give you a chance to process the life you’ve led up to a certain point. Decision making will always be a bit hazy for you. Life choices those decisions will be easy. Your everyday decisions, the red or the blue will always demand second questioning. Books will be your greatest companion. Music your deepest love.


The challenge to create work of a high standard will come from disability activism. Your gaze will focus inward. Independence and critical thinking are already your forte.  Arts and culture encapsulating the lens of impairment and gender will become your raison d’etre. Disability studies will be an academic discipline where you will excel. Studying in  Northumbria  will bring you into contact with like minded people who have lived with racism and ableism.  This will be a very exciting adventure.

Your speech impediment will always have that beautiful Traveller lilt. It will be culturally and politically stimulating within mainstream Irish politics and arts. The confusion you’re feeling about your identity will resolve. You are Traveller enough. Your impairment is intrinsic to who and what you are. You are woman enough and you are most certainly good enough. Politics outside of academia and arts will hold a keen interest. Your roots, your heritage, your first language, are vital. You will fight for them to be recognised and honoured by the Irish government. This work and analysis will take place in Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre. Here is where you will blossom and  shine.

There will be people that will influence you for the rest of your life. Acceptance, true acceptance will be given with no preconditions attached. Proof of your value and worth will never be required. It will bring you that sense of commitment, duty and responsibility. There will be no moving away from Traveller politics. Your challenge and contribution in Pavee Point will be fulfilling and satisfying. There will be a boldness and a bravery to your actions. Resistance to any form of coercion or assimilation is the ideology that you thrive on. The atmosphere and environment of Traveller activism in all its fora excites you beyond. Gay and Deaf Travellers will be your allies. The gift of generosity concerning shared experience will serve you best in the act of solidarity.


Your gender will hold you back like most women. As you fight the battle against sexism, ableism, racism and misogyny your name will be added to the long list of women warriors and allies.

The power, the courage and the challenge will be in your voice your body and your hands. Your voice will be mimicked but you will always have a strong retort. That retort will be the greatest weapon. Rosaleen darling you will be the writer with clarity and precision while they’re fumbling and stumbling with words. The violence, the sexual abuse, regardless of how much therapy, darling Rosaleen this pain will never leave. Memory is a gift which brings an appendage of pain. This pain can be used as a pendulum that will allow freedom to articulate the harm that was done to you.


Silent sadness will remain a feature in your life.  Not having children will bring its own hurt.  That heartache will never dissolve. Your understanding of womanhood will become much more refined.  The realisation that gender moves beyond ovaries and wombs will be a solitary journey. You will remember the date, the month, the year and the person who recommended that sterilisation. With the support of your dear mother you will find ways to protect your bodily autonomy. The fight in you for a multitude of struggles will be called upon. The fight to protect your reproductive health will become the greatest and most private fight of all.


Your family are loyal and powerful. The gift of love and appreciation lies with your family. Your influence and laughter in their lives keeps the connection strong. Your ambition will be admired by their children. Education will be the meeting point. The second and third generation of Pancake McDonaghs will be scholars like you. Fear will try to get near you especially when your parents pass. Your brothers and sisters and their children will continue to cherish and adore. There will be many many joyful celebrations in London. These events will always put you at the heart of the family. Cerebral Palsy will touch the lives of a new generation of McDonaghs.


You will be loved many times.Regardless of how you feel about your body at sixteen very positive experiences of intimacy are on the way. The unconventional single life will be your preferred choice. The expected role of a Traveller woman will be an ideology that your stubbornness will not allow you subscribe to. Romance, intimacy and love will provide you with tenderness and mutual respect. Your recovery from violence and abuse opens up many possibilities to investigate what it is you want from life in an in-depth fashion. Interesting non-conforming masculinities will hold your attention. The special one will come with intent and gentleness. The balance between the intellectual and the sensual demands continuous focus. Writing will be the real love that will consume your energy. Reading will invigorate in ways that the human touch can’t. Like many women in history your career will be something you fight for. Confronting conventions and gender specific roles will be the best game you play. Like minded women will enjoy this shared journey. Love will always have a presence.

The Traveller aesthetic, makes you erudite and colourful. You will break rules, you will make rules. The affirmation and self-esteem you find may appear to come from external garments. This is how you camouflage your true intelligence.  There is a giddiness and mischievousness that you will grow into.


Rosaleen the next twenty years are going to be painful. You will endure. Eventually there will be  clarity on how to fix your fractured identity. Your Traveller ethnicity will have expression in many different forms. You will remain a loner but recognise the most stimulating company is your own.  In your later life you will travel, even as far as Australia. Your words and your CP voice will be in books and on radio and television.  There will be acknowledgment by your peers both Traveller and settled. Rosaleen believe me your future and the second half of your life will be extremely fulfilling.


Your feminist moment will be in the courtroom. Those five men who sat in judgement of you will become faceless and voiceless. The feminist moment has already happened in many ways that you don’t realise. Coming into this world with an impairment gives you a particular insight and will lead you into developing and being part of disabled feminist dialogues. As a Traveller women just as you did as a child you will guard and protect that identity as much as you can from the pernicious racism dear Ireland spews.


You will write plays and have many productions. Writing on women’s health and reproductive rights will give you a space within the feminist movement. You will be a leading feminist within the Traveller community. Your friend Donal’s , after he has left the planet, essence and spirit will protect and make sure that you stay in that safe place of Traveller politics.

Eventually true and authentic friendships will show themselves. Each will support, encourage, challenge and often reign you in. Katherine from Cork, Suzy, and Ronnie. It will surprise you to find deep friendship among settled women. All three will have a journey that you can identify with. They will know and forgive you when you find yourself muttering a phrase, “This is too able bodied, this is too settled.” The fogginess and confusion regarding your relationship with settled people will become apparent. Institutions are very different from interpersonal relationships. These lessons will be hard. The learning will make you grow in wisdom and flexibility.

The tenets of trust and loyalty will be the fruit of these friendships. There will be no catching up. The algorithms of your life will match theirs. Generosity of time are expected and demanded. These friendships will infuse your own reality. Trust me they won’t let you down. The words ‘Knacker’ or ‘spastic’ will not part of their vocabulary. These three women will know and understand your true capacity.


There will be letters from younger women  with Cerebral Palsy. Their questions and queries  will make you smile. There will be regular correspondence with one or two. Eventually you will think of them as your children. Rosaleen, it’s been great living inside you watching you grow and develop. Your strength and vulnerability will always keep you balanced.  


4 thoughts on “Rosaleen McDonagh – A letter to my 16 year old self”

  1. Absolutely stunning. I have been thinking about this all day since reading this morning.

  2. Absolutely mind blowing . Congratulations on your compassion and kindness to your 16 year old self .

  3. Blew me away you’re a exceptional person so strong so forgiving and so understanding. This should be compulsory reading for all well done Rosaleen

  4. Thank you for writing this. You paint so vividly with words that one cannot help being transformed by them – ready or not.

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