‘Growing up in Ireland I was the only black person’
A new exhibition in London challenges the perceptions of what Irish people look like
Lorraine Maher, aged nine and today, who is curating the exhibition of photos of mixed-race Irish people at the London Irish Centre in Camden.
Lorraine Maher’s son Aaron died from cancer two years ago. Aaron, who along with his brothers, Dwayne, Darnel and Rù-ffel, had visited his mother’s homeplace in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, many times and met his Irish family often, was proud to be Irish. Aaron would have chosen to play soccer for the Republic of Ireland, no doubt about that. He was also a fervent Tipperary supporter.
Maher visits his grave often.
“In the graveyard in London, he has his Irish flag and his Tipperary flag on his grave with his St Lucia flag.”
His dad is from St Lucia, and Aaron was proud of his dual heritage.
Aaron’s photograph is on his gravestone, too. “I see people looking at the grave like they are thinking: what has Ireland got to do with him?”
But Aaron was proud of his Irishness, she says. “He had two heritages and both made him proud.”
Even though it is now more common in Britain to use the term “dual heritage” rather than “mixed race”, Maher is not completely sold on the newer description.
“It is challenging because my only heritage is Irish,” she says. “So that is what the conversation I wanted to have is about. For mixed-race Irish people our ancestry, our roots, our blood are Irish.”
Maher lives in Camden and will sometimes visit the London Irish Centre, which is based there. While at a meeting at the centre for mixed-race Irish people, she visited an exhibition that was showing at the centre. “It didn’t reflect me at all, so I decided to inject a bit of colour into it,” she laughs.
With the #IamIrish exhibition Maher has certainly injected a bit of colour. Now the centre is hosting Ireland’s first foray into Black History Month, which takes place in venues all over Britain in October.
Born and raised
Celebrating mixed-race Irish people, the #IamIrish exhibition runs from October 6th. There will be photographs of people who were born and raised in Ireland and photographs of others who were raised in England, but were brought up with an Irish parent and in households rich with Irish cultural resonances.
Maher joined photographer Tracy Anderson to create the exhibition, which features mixed-race Irish people from the ages of one to 72. Anderson is from Jamaica, but has now been spurred on to find out more about her Irish great-great grandfather.
“This project maps the roots, lives and experiences of mixed-race Irish people, challenging perceptions of what it looks like to be Irish and opening up people’s minds to the wonderful diversity of the Irish people,” says Maher.
As 2016 marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, it provides the perfect opportunity “to remember the country’s history and the heritage and traditions of its people”, says Maher.
All of its people.
The #IamIrish project “celebrates the voices and the lives of independent Irish people everywhere who happen to be mixed race”, says the curator, who has used portraits and family crests that she hopes will “dispel the idea that if you are from a non-white community, you are automatically an immigrant”.
Maher was never an “immigrant”. She grew up in 1960s-1970s Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, where she was the only black person she knew. After Presentation Convent Primary, she moved to Scoil Mhuire in Greenhill.
“I’m mixed race. I identify as a black woman from Ireland, who is quite pale,” she laughs. “The only heritage I ever had was Irish heritage.” Maher is aware of her other ancestry, “but it is not important at the moment for me”, she says.
“I grew up in Ireland being the only black person,” she says. “I’d see a black boy swimming at the baths in Thurles, but I didn’t speak to him. Another girl came to Carrick. She was eight or nine, but she had family in London, so she knew about her other side – how everything fitted. I only knew what it was like to be Irish. But I knew as a child that I was different.”
Going to London when she was 17 “was very liberating” she says, adding: “There were all sorts of people here.”
“My ex-husband is from St Lucia, so I have black children,” she says. But the Tipperary woman can see “the odd flick of red in them”.
There are people who can’t understand how or why her four sons identify with their Irishness, she says. “They just can’t get their heads around it.” She hopes the #IamIrish project will help. “It’s about belonging and heritage. Who is anyone to tell people who they are?”
Maher plans to bring the exhibition to Ireland. “When I started this, I didn’t realise the impact it would have. People have called me up about it because it has got people thinking about heritage. People from everywhere in the world have contacted me.”
Not all of those people have been Irish; not all of them have been black either. Some people have rung her to say how ashamed they are that their own parents put “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” signs up in workplaces in Britain in the 1960s.
Straddles many seas
It is a story that straddles many seas, and Brexit is the latest thing to muddy the waters. “It feels like it has changed things.” And not for the better, she says.
Meanwhile, her hometown has changed, too. “Carrick is more mixed now, but I am not sure that Ireland has blended yet. It is maybe too early. I hope that I can make a contribution, being an Irishwoman.
“Racism is a lived experience, and people with mixed-race children and grandchildren in Ireland and beyond tell me how important understanding is for them because everyone’s blood is mixed together.”
In March, Maher went to the St Patrick’s Day parade in London. She walked with other mixed-race Irish people. “We knew all the songs. Other people would ask us how we knew the words and we’d say ‘because we’re Irish’. They couldn’t believe that. Especially because some of us were older and they had no idea there had been Irish mixed-race people for so long.”
Maher hopes the #IamIrish exhibition will challenge people to think about what an Irish person looks like.
An Irish person looks like Lorraine Maher. An Irish person looks like her Tipperary-supporting son Aaron. Ireland should be proud he wanted to be part of it. #IamIrish runs daily at London Irish Centre from 10am, October 6th to October 31st. It is part of Black History Month. There will be a panel discussion on race, colour, culture and heritage between prominent members of the black and Irish communities on October 27th. Contribute to the discussion on #IamIrish or you can DM @iambirish on twitter