For the times I grew up in I don’t think there were many Irish households quite as diverse as ours. I am one of seven children, adopted by Irish born and bred parents. My two older brothers are my parents biological children and I like to think destiny brought the rest of us together. My older sister landed first, aged approximately one month old, and so began our journey. She is half Irish, half Libyan. Two years later I arrived, born originally to an Irish mother and Jamaican father. Over the next few years, the “stork” continued to visit my parents and having a penchant for the exotic, delivered a brother who is half Irish, half Indian and another sister who is half Irish and half Italian. We used to joke about how different we all looked and compared ourselves to the Benetton commercials popular on t.v. at the time.
I don’t remember the point at which I realised we were “different”. I knew we always felt special and would brag about being adopted and having two mothers and two fathers, but race didn’t seem to come into it until we got older. For me, it was when I starting comparing my hair to other girls. I absolutely hated (and still dislike) my unmanageable Afro curls. This wasn’t just vanity, I was embarrassed at how it looked and at times felt ashamed. I didn’t know anyone who looked like me, had hair like me, who could identify with how I felt. My poor mother would say “shur don’t most women wish they had curls”, and I should be glad. I still cringe when I look back at old pictures and the hairstyles my mother would attempt. I remember her brushing out the knots with her Denmam brush and pulling my hair into the tightest of buns, or braiding Stevie Wonder type plaits and clipping multi coloured fasteners at the end of them. To some this might sound like it has nothing to do with race, but the problems I had with my hair was the beginning of me not liking my reflection and wishing to be just like everyone else. One of the happiest days in my twenties was meeting a Jamaican girl called Carlene who was a hairdresser. Finally someone who could give me what I longed for “normal” hair (even if it was synthetic!). I had hair that moved, could be styled, that could be just like everyone elses! She and I are friends to this day and she is still my hair’s saviour.
For years, apart from my siblings, I don’t remember there being any one black, mixed, or different in our lives, apart from one girl we used to see at Mass the odd time. Some years ago I learned that my birth father was known in the village where he lived (in Ireland) as Bill the Black. To be fair, I don’t believe this was Irish people being racist, but merely stating the obvious. As the only black man most of them had ever met, connecting his name with his colour wasn’t that big a deal.
I laugh when I think back to nights out in the pub, when we first started going out and my brothers introducing us to friends that hadn’t met us before. The incredulous look on their faces was priceless. People genuinely couldn’t comprehend how my “white” sibling could have a mixed sibling. So began the explanation of our adoptions and parentage etc. One person later told me that the first time he called to our house for one of my brothers, he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He didn’t know if some of us were foreign students over for the summer or what.
Having to explain how me and my siblings were Irish became a normal part of growing up. People were fascinated by our story. I don’t consciously think of myself as being mixed Irish, I’m simply Irish. I haven’t pursued my Jamaican roots for a few different reasons but basically I think it’s because I identify more with the Irish part of me. Me and my siblings knew nothing else growing up and I don’t think we ever looked for something more.
I felt a change in people’s attitudes however when refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Africa started arriving in Ireland in the early 2000s. There was a lot of subtle and not so subtle racism developed in our society. People were afraid that we were letting in criminals, welfare spongers and unknowns. It was this palpable fear of the unknown that made me quite conscious of my appearance and I used to get very anxious that people wouldn’t realise looking at me that I was Irish, that I had a right to be here, and would think I was one of these “unknowns”. Thankfully Ireland has moved on a lot since those days and people like me are so much more the norm. I remember the first time I went to London, about ten years ago, and sitting in a bar with my boyfriend looking around at all the people, black and white, having their drinks, oblivious to the normalcy they enjoyed. To my mind’s eye, no one batted an eyelid at the “black” people in the bar. Everyone was just who they were; there was no wondering where they came from or how they came to be there. It was a lovely feeling of simple acceptance. I do occasionally get asked where I’m from when I’m on holidays. Sometimes it’s just people making conversation but sometimes it’s because people can’t hide their curiosity. I have the thickest of Irish accents, long braided hair (most of the time), freckles, and tanned skin. It’s like I’m a series of dots that people can’t connect.
I can only remember two instances where I was racially abused growing up. One time a young boy called me the ‘N’ word but I think if he’d called me fat I would have been more upset. The second time I was in my early twenties and while on the bus home a group of young teenagers at the back of the bus started making fun of my hair and calling me a “Paki”. They even threw their used bus tickets at my head. Even writing this, some twenty odd years later I still get upset. I felt so humiliated and embarrassed in front of everyone – no one spoke up for me except for one of their own group, who bravely told them to leave me alone. I got off that bus feeling so alone, so hurt and a bit afraid. I had never experienced anything like that before. Walking the rest of the way home I met my older brother with his friends and as I choked out my story they set off to find and punish the bullies.
It feels like there has been an underground movement of people having conversations about their lives, connecting threads of shared experiences. I think the biggest change in Ireland is that we are now openly having these conversations and it feels good. It isn’t unpatriotic to criticise our birthplace, it doesn’t make us less Irish. We are literally going back to our roots and looking at how and if we fit in. For me, my reflections have cemented my sense of place and being. #Iamirish #Iamproud.