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HAIRS & GRACES Rosaleen McDonagh, 6th Oct 2020

My mother a small women just under five foot. She took on the establishment. The row was over my hair. The establishment , the nuns who ran a special school for children with disabilities. Right through history many disabled people were understood as burdens. People to be cared for. People to be bossed around. People who were taught to have no agency. Short crew cut hair-cuts cut down on the workload for carers. Short hair was manageable, clean and took away any sense of individuality. The nuns had a great way of letting us know we were nothing special. Hair , long hair was considered a vanity , almost sin like.


It was my Communion. Every women and girl in my family had long hair. My mother got very concerned. The Communion was eight months away. She pleaded with the nuns to at least let me have a bob hair style. The nuns argued , my mother dug her heels in.  For the nuns my Traveller ethnicity was something they thought would be easily cleaned up or cut out. The hair , my hair symbolised exactly what a bold Traveller looked like. **** There are photographs. My mother and my grandmother had managed to get the growth in my hair long enough to put ringlets for under the Communion veil. The nuns hated my hair and they let me know it. The day after the Communion my mother had taught me how to plait and wrap my hair up myself. The nuns tried their best over the years to keep my hair short. Their energy and wrath was wasted. My hair grew and grew. By the time of my confirmation it was down to my hips just like my sisters. Everyone in special school had learnt how to plait. We rebelled , we grew our hair. A small revolution but an important one. It set me up for the other struggles that would come my way.


It was the eighties. My mother took enormous pride in my hair. At that time it never occurred to me the significance of my long hair in a Traveller identity context. All around me music , art , literature and the media their message was Traveller ethnicity is wrong. Most of my settled friends and peers had short hair. The pixie look. My massive mane seemed out of place. The memory is blurry. The row was real. Going into the site , heading to my mothers trailer. The shock , the disappointment the anger and rage. The words that passed between us. They are etched in my heart. She felt betrayed. My hairstyle , punky , spiky , short and looked ridiculous on my pudgy face. There was no framing. At the time having short hair for Traveller women was considered odd and a little bit strange. The long hair echoed our grandmothers and female forebears. It was part of tradition. Oiling and plaiting your hair for an occasion is similar to what hair straighteners and extensions are today. Wearing your hair in a bun might mean you are a worker or you had jobs to do around the camp or the trailer. When you are going to a wedding or an occasion you could let your hair loose.


My sisters and cousins believed  as a result of the short hair , that it was only a matter of time when my ethnicity would become something that would be denied or discarded. Cultural conflict shouldn’t centre on a woman’s hair or her appearance. For me working through my  identity trying to manage the reality of being a Traveller women was very confusing. My hair was constantly getting in the way between who I was and who I wanted to be. There was stigma and shame attached to being a Traveller. The only way to protect myself was to keep my hair short.  Popular culture considered women with shaven heads to be radical and subversive. This is what I wanted to be. It was naive. My hair was not the problem , racism was. The short hair really hurt my mother. There was a sadness , a hurt that broke each of our hearts. My hair meant everything to my mother. It felt like the fight she put to the nuns had been squandered. It took me many years to realise the effort and courage she had in standing up to the nuns was about Traveller and women’s human rights. She fought for my dignity and with a snip of a scissors  it was on the floor alongside clunks of hair.   My hair strong and thick described my relationship with my mother. She valued me in ways that society did not. Her disabled daughter was not a burden and having long hair did not create extra work. Looking in the mirror , running my fingers through my hair became difficult. Instead of seeing my face , it would be my mother’s face that would stare back from that cursed mirror.


My punk hairstyle was a metaphor for the internal conflict. The messages of shame related to my ethnicity and my disabled body had infiltrated my confidence and self-esteem. Having short hair did not take away the racism nor did it hide my Traveller ethnicity. Racism was always there. Spending time trying to live up to somebodies stereotype is a wasted exercise. The experience of short hair taught me many life lessons. Mostly around judgement , perception , freedom and choice. As women we are rarely ever forgiven for the mistakes we make. The punishment centres on our reputation.


The eighties came and went. The row between mam and myself wore  out. She forgave me. My hair grew. People admired it. People talked about it. It didn’t matter what was in style my hair was always worn long with pride. Up-styles , plain styles, work styles and fancy styles were worn with a certain knowing. My hair gave me the elegance and grace that my disabled body couldn’t. The products , the hair apparatus , all brands were part of my self-care routine. Now in my middle years there is a silent subtle suggestion. That suggestion is from society. A society that believes women of a certain age should not have long hair. A society that dismisses women as we age. A society that makes women’s hair a commodity. My hairdresser regularly requests more than an inch more than a trim. My answer is with a twist of my head telling her that fight has been already won. 

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