Jess Kavanagh – #IAMIRISH

A lot of my story I guess like most family tales, have been told through the filters of numerous people. Some incidences may have been exaggerated over time. I feel some may have been played-down. When growing up, I do feel one thing my family seem to hold in high regard was their privacy. Maybe something to do with being stared at constantly from a young age. As a light-skinned mixed race person, my feelings were a little different I always wanted to proudly shout my heritage from the rooftops and scandalise the neighbours. Fuck the haters, as the kids say. So I will tell my perspective and interpretation of my history, hopefully I won’t offend any family members in the process.

My biological grandmother was Catherine ‘O Neill. She was from large family, who were based in Clontarf. From my understanding, there was some scandals in the family already over protestants and catholics marrying, so this particular sect of the family were devoutly catholic and quite traditional. Nonetheless her sister Betty ‘O Neill was a bit of a rebel. Rumour has it she may have ran off with some bikers for a final hurrah, prior to her marrying Dermot and becoming Elizabeth (Betty) Kavanagh. But that was probably a rumour. 🙂

Catherine was also an independent woman, having a relationship in the fifties with a Nigerian medical student called Sol Ozumi (I will say at this point, I have no idea if the spelling is correct so apologies if my terrible educated guess is miles off Nigerian surnames). She fell pregnant. In the 1950s in Dublin, there was a little to no chance you would be allowed to keep a child “out of wedlock” and mixed-race. Poor Catherine was sent to a mother and baby home in the country to finish off her pregnancy, after which she could come back home without her child. My assumption was her penance was a 9 month shunning from her family and giving up her rights as a mother, but who am I to know? Appalling stuff altogether.

Needless to say her rebel-sister, Betty was up in arms with the decision of sending away her sister and rejecting a family member. I am unsure of how much protesting was within ears-reach of her parents, needless to say it was commonly known she was unimpressed with the decision. Betty made sure to support her sister by contacting her sister regularly. At the same time, she established a good relationship with the nuns as a charitable, married sibling. A good, solid christian. She would ring up the mother and baby home, chat to the nuns and ask for Catherine. I was told at this point she kept her emotionally-sane during one of the most difficult times of Catherine’s life.

When the baby was born Catherine was allowed to come home. After developing a trusting relationship with the nuns, Betty enquired where the child would go and was informed of the child’s institution-given name and where it was going. The child would be sent to and orphanage in Blackrock. With that information, Betty walked into the orphanage, found her niece and adopted the newborn baby-girl.

Informing her parents of her adoption, she came home. Her father asked “well…is it a boy or a girl?”. “A little girl” she replied. “Well” said her father “As long as it’s healthy, give us a look”. She opened the blankets to show her parents a newborn baby. Half Nigerian, half Irish, her blood. Their blood.

That baby was Elizabeth Kavanagh who was my mother. Betty and Dermot adopted 3 other children, Susan, Dermot Jnr and Anna. All mixed-race children in the 50s and 60s in North Dublin.

Dermot and Nana Betty were my grandparents growing up. Nana was hilarious and kind. My mother, like my grandmother was quite the rebel. She was strong, resilient, witty, clever and a hilarious woman. She raised me on Motown, Soul, Classic Rock and Indie. My incredibly over-affectionate great aunty Kay (short for Catherine) was my biological grandmother. Always full of love and attention for me and my sisters.

I am incredibly proud to come from a lineage of strong women who fought against the status quo and followed what they believed was right in their hearts. There will always be rules in place that don’t make sense and that are harmful. I will always take their lead I try and do the same as they did everyday.

Jess x

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