‘I know I’m Irish and I don’t have to prove that to anybody’

Growing up as a black person with a disability in Dublin, Marguerite Penrose sensed her difference

On June 9th 2020, one week after thousands of young Irish people marched through the streets of Dublin calling for an end to racism and inequality, a new post appeared on the recently established Black and Irish Instagram page.

“My name is Marguerite. I was born in Dublin in 1974. I am a PROUD Irish/Zambian, living in Meath now.”

Marguerite Penrose had never spoken or written publicly about her background. She preferred not to dwell on the first three years of her life which she spent in a mother and baby home on the Navan Road, or her battles with scoliosis throughout her life. She didn’t like remembering the racist remarks outside nightclubs or disapproving stares on the bus. She preferred focusing on the positives – her incredible adopted family and her wonderful friends.

But then she decided to speak out about growing up as a black woman with a disability in Dublin.

“I was so intrigued by the Instagram page. I said said to myself, these guys are young, they’re trying to be proactive in a positive way. Maybe they’d like somebody a little bit older to give their opinion.

“And then the notifications started coming up on my phone. I had to turn my phone off after 10 minutes, it was out of control. I got positive messages from people all over the world, I was totally blown away. I realised, people actually need to hear this stuff.”

I’m speaking to Penrose ahead of the release of her memoir Yeah, But Where are You Really From? Her warmth and enthusiasm for life are immediately apparent within the pages of this beautifully written book, and her joie de vivre only becomes more apparent during the hour we spend speaking over Zoom.

“I hope the positivity shines through,” she says. “And also that I’m just an ordinary person and anybody could be in my situation. I’m just a normal voice, not a celebrity. It’s just me and I hope people resonate with that.”

When Penrose first put pen to paper, about four months after her Instagram post and shortly after she appeared on the Ryan Tubridy show, she was writing the story “for myself”.

“I didn’t think anyone would read it, I never expected it to get published.” Eventually she decided, as a test of her confidence and self-belief, to send the manuscript to a few publishers. Within weeks she had signed a deal with Sandycove-Penguin books.

People don't necessarily have to say something, it's the way they react to you. It's hard because, all of a sudden, you realise how different you are

But then things got tough. Never before had she allowed herself to reflect in detail on her background: separation from her birth parents; her time in the “reject room” of St Patrick’s home where children with disabilities were left, considered unsuitable for adoption; and the agonising surgery she went through aged eight to straighten her back which ultimately failed.

“I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely horrendous. It was the biggest therapy session I could ever had. I had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep. I have a very good memory but obviously a lot of this is locked in the back of my mind.”

One reoccurring strand through the book is her deep and endless love for her parents, Noeline and Michael, and her sister Ciara. “They were really proud of me doing this but were actually surprised too because they knew how private I was. I didn’t even tell my family when I was writing the book, they only found out five weeks before it was announced.”

As a child this love protected Penrose from the ugly biases and racism of the outside world. People stare because they think you’re beautiful and unusual, her parents told her. They only look at you because you’re such a lovely person. “I think those words gave me confidence if people stared, so it didn’t really affect me when I was younger.”

But these stares – both at the colour of Penrose’s skin and her curved spine – only intensified as she grew older. “You also start to notice the vibe. People don’t necessarily have to say something, it’s the way they react to you. It’s hard because, all of a sudden, you realise how different you are.”

One of the most striking and disturbing of these incidents happened when Penrose was in her late teens. She describes in the book how she had started venturing into the city on her own for the first time, taking two buses to reach Senior College Ballyfermot. She quickly noticed some passengers did not want her there. There was the elderly lady who sat in the next seat but moved after taking a look at Penrose’s skin and hair. Or the old man muttering and throwing Penrose dirty sideways glances. Or worst of all, the man who spat in her face.

“I can still remember the shocked look on other people’s faces at what he had done registered with them,” she writes in the book. “They glanced at each other, horrified. Then they gazed down at their feet, or out the window, or suddenly became very concerned with the contents of their bag or backpack. Nobody said a word, and although I was completely surrounded by people, I felt utterly alone.”

Thinking back on that incident nearly three decades on, Penrose still wishes at least one person had asked whether she was ok. “I think I needed an ally. I felt so alone and mortified. And I shouldn’t have been mortified, everyone else should have felt that way.

“It did put me off public transport. My friends joke that I’m such a princess because I don’t like public transport. But I shouldn’t have to get on a bus with so much fear. That stuff directly affects you.”

At least I'm finally on the road to getting more information but people have died not knowing anything about their families. There are 80-year-old women out there wanting to know where their kids are

Penrose says some friends are shocked when they hear these stories. “Some people ask am I being a bit paranoid. Absolutely not. I’m such an open person, I love people and I’m very sociable.”

While Penrose does dedicate a proportion of the book to problems around racism and discrimination towards people with disabilities in Irish society, most of the stories are about her own life and the people who have played important roles. One of these is a woman she never met. Her birth mother.

Penrose says her illness and the time spent in hospital in 2015 – during which her parents were told she had a 50-50 chance of survival – were the “catalyst” that pushed her to find out more about her background. “I was always interested but I didn’t think it was the right time. I was younger and was worried I might not be able to handle the information.”

She discovered there were groups on Facebook and other social media platforms where thousands of members were born to single mothers in mother and baby homes. She also came across AMRI (the Association of Mixed Race in Ireland) and started linking up with members. Her “empathetic and wonderful” Tusla case worker offered vital support during the three years she spent digging up information about her parents.

Eventually, she learned details about her mother’s life. But there was nothing about her father. She did learn he may not have been Zambian and that his nationality had always been unclear. “I’ve been told all my life that I’m Irish-Zambian and then all of a sudden you hear he might have been born somewhere else. It’s hard to express not knowing who you really are, completely. Adopted people in Ireland don’t have that.”

When Penrose eventually accessed her medical records a few months ago she felt frustrated and annoyed. “Some people get real comfort from those documents but when I saw it was like, this is what they kept from me for 47 years? This is the information they felt I wasn’t allowed to have? So I put them back in the envelope and I haven’t looked at them since.

“The system is broken. At least I’m finally on the road to getting more information but people have died not knowing anything about their families. There are 80-year-old women out there wanting to know where their kids are. None of it makes any sense.”

Her search for answers about her birth mother, Elizabeth, has been more productive. What’s more, since she completed the manuscript for her memoir, there have been further developments. Last year she met her two brothers for the first time. “They were so supportive when we met, we’re already like peas in a pod. It’s like we have never been separated.”

After years of looking “different” in the family albums, Penrose finally has two men in her life who she resembles physically. “I never expected my looks to come from my Irish side but I’m very like both of them. We all have the same personalities too. I remember sitting there that first day looking across the table and thinking, oh my God, they’re my brothers.”

She’s still hopeful that one day she may learn more about her father. She is also determined to travel to Zambia and other parts of Africa. Sometimes, when she tells people these plans, they ask whether she’d ever move to Africa.

“Absolutely not, this is my home. This is where I was born, this is where I grew up and nothing will ever take that away from me, no matter what anybody says. I know I’m Irish and I don’t have to prove that to anybody.”

And what about when people ask that question? The one Penrose has been asked so many times that it end up as the title of her book – “where are you really from?”

“I just say Dublin, stop talking and then I wait. Sometimes the conversation just moves on or else you get that look and there’s five more questions. But I don’t take it personally anymore, people are just genuinely curious and that’s absolutely no problem.

“My thinking is I have to be open in order for things to change. I have to be open to hearing all this so I can help educate people. And people should be encouraged to ask questions. It’s the way you approach the question, that’s what’s important.”

Yeah, But Where Are You Really From? by Marguerite Penrose is published by Penguin on May 12th

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