DUBLIN (Reuters) - The stark statistics on Ireland's more than 22,000 travellers have compelled many to take up the cause of a community that tends to be marginalised and short of work.
For Irish actor and writer Michael Harding, it was not so much the social issues as the powerful life stories and musical language that drew him in to write first a book and now a critically acclaimed play, "The Tinker's Curse."
Fittingly enough, after shows in Dublin, Harding is taking his one-man narration about the joys and sorrows of a traditionally nomadic people of Irish origin who can be found across Ireland and Britain.
Following a performance in Portlaoise in the centre of Ireland on April 15 that received standing ovations, he crosses to Galway Town Hall on April 29 in the west and then will head north to Navan on May 6.
Harding was introduced to the travelling community, he said, "by someone who trusted me" and went on to spend hours and hours making recordings of travellers' tales.
"I was not interested in social issues. I was interested in stories about love and death and children and babies, the afterlife, all that. We would sit there of an afternoon in somebody's trailer and record and record and record," Harding told Reuters.
"I always promised them at some point I might write a play," said Harding, who has had a long career in acting and writing, including for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland.
The plot of The Tinker's Curse is mostly invented, but its essence is true, down to the heartbroken words of a bereaved mother.
"Every line, every phrase is verbatim from the mother of the baby," said Harding.
It also aims to be faithful to the inherently dramatic language of Ireland's travellers.
"I'm very loyal to the rhythms and music of the language," he said. "The rhythms are innately theatrical. It's full of irony and subtlety and playfulness."
If there are moments of levity, the lasting impression is of the hardship of a community that makes up around 0.5 percent of the population.
It has the highest proportion of young people -- with more than 40 percent aged under 15, versus around 20 percent for the population as a whole -- and the highest levels of unemployment.
Only 13.8 percent of travellers aged 15 and over were in employment, compared with 57.2 percent of the overall population, at the time of the most recent census in 2006 before recession dented the job market still further.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)