In the 1970s I went to a girls Catholic (read Irish) secondary school in south Manchester. Most of the girls were like me, second generation Irish, with a sprinkling of Irish born, like my friends who were had recently arrived from Dublin.
There were a small number of black girls in the school who to me were just school friends. Marilyn( who fancied my brother) and Bernadette who was held up as a role model for the rest of us. I had little awareness, at that time, of how difficult their lives as black Irish people were going to be.
This only became apparent to me when many years later when, as an activist in the Irish community, I was doing some research on Irish identity, and one of the women I interviewed told me that she had found out she was adopted. Her real mother was an Irish woman who had had an affair with an African man.
Tim Brannigan in his book “Where are You From” tells a similar story, although it took place in another Irish community across the water in the North of Ireland.
It is a familiar story; a woman goes out on the town, meets attractive man and has an affair which leads to a pregnancy. Only this is 1966, the woman is married, the man is African, and there is no legal abortion so Peggy (Tim’s mum) has to find a way of giving birth, not telling her family that it’s going to be a black baby, and keeping her marriage and family together.
The story of how Peggy cons everyone into believing she has had a stillbirth, whilst the baby is then whisked off to a local children’s home says a great deal about the tenacity of the woman.
One year later Peggy, who has kept in touch with Tim, brings him home as an “adopted child.” Tim grew up in a Republican family in Belfast during the so-called “Troubles”. Being black there was different from the rest of Britain. “In Northern Ireland, I may not have been unique but I was certainly a rarity, a “novelty” as some people described my presence”.
But racism did exist. Tim grew up in a society where racist programmes such as The Comedians and Till Death us Do Part were mainstream alongside a nasty political agenda led by politicians including Enoch Powell.
Outside school Tim had to contend with living in a community that had British soldiers walking down their streets. “It was soldiers from the British Army who introduced me to the full range of racial insults”. One incident stands out when a black soldier tries to bribe eight year old Tim with a pound note for information about the IRA.
“Where are you really from” is not just Tim’s story but a story about an important period of Irish history. In 1972 the British Army shot dead 14 innocent people in the Bogside in Derry and Tim witnessed the reaction in his community. “The bloody conflict was intensifying and my family was right in the thick of it. I was six years old.”
Intertwined with a deepening political crisis in Ireland Tim also had to deal with his mother telling him the true story of his birth. But his response was “I was happy with my place in the world. I was still me; still black, Irish and Republican.”
Being Republican meant joining Sinn Fein, being part of a community that supported the IRA and in time Tim going to prison. He had been framed by a local informer and was to spend five years in jail. But no ordinary prison; these were the H-blocks where Republican prisoners were organised into a “commune”. “It’s very existence was a challenge to the prison authorities. It gave a socialist, collective to every aspect of our lives.”
Tim left prison in 1995 as events changed in the North of Ireland. He went onto to become a journalist, stayed in Belfast, spent the last year of his mother’s life looking after her, and finally met his father.
“Where are You Really From” is unique as a memoir of a working class black Irishman. His story is made all more more interesting because he grew up in a Republican community in Belfast in one of the most turbulent periods of its history. Unlike some of my black Irish friends he survived his origins because as he acknowledges : “I had a hero for a mother who fought from the day I was born for what she thought was right and what was best for me.”