Irish African: ‘My Irish birth certificate was the key to my life’
There were not many Africans in Ireland in 1956, but I was one of them
Fr Anthony Musaala: ‘I am proud to be one of the present day “black Irish” and Ugandan at the same time’
There were not many Africans in Ireland in 1956, the year in which I was born in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin. My parents had arrived the year before from Uganda, my father to study law and mother dress designing. We lived in two rooms on Rathmines Square, where according to mother we were instant celebrities because of our skin colour, as rare as phoenixes at the time.
We left Ireland for the UK in 1958. When I was nearly nine years old we moved to Uganda because my parents had finished their studies.
My mother gave me my Irish birth certificate when I was 19. This was fortuitous considering that the Uganda we lived in then was going pear-shaped under the rule of Idi Amin, which was a time of very unhappy memories. At the time I didn’t know how much my Irish birth certificate would be the key to my life.
Many people were leaving Uganda, mainly to go to neighbouring country Kenya, so I dropped out of school and took the train to the capital Nairobi vowing never to return (though I later did). My mother, and later my sisters and brother, soon left Uganda and followed me to Kenya, and by 1975 half our family were living as refugees there.
While I was in Nairobi, I was introduced to a reporter who had covered the political situation in Uganda for a UK television station for years. He suggested I apply for an Irish passport. I’d never considered this and neither had my parents but after listening to his suggestion in August 1975, I headed for the Irish consulate in Nairobi. There was a red haired woman at the counter in the consulate who peered at me quizzically over her half-moon spectacles as I explained why I’d come. I presented her with my birth certificate, somewhat triumphantly. It was the old long form birth certificate, parts of which were handwritten. She studied it carefully with eyebrows raised before disappearing into a back office.
She re-emerged smiling saying that I was eligible to apply for an Irish passport. A week later I had my first Irish passport with a green hardback cover and little golden harp on the front. It was an unforgettable day.
With my new Irish passport that same year I travelled to the UK. My sister, who was also born in Dublin, did the same and moved to London. She became a barrister. We didn’t go to Ireland because we didn’t know any there and had relatives and friends in London.
I lived a feisty life in London, doing various jobs and clubbing as much as possible, but by 1981 I began to feel empty, alienated and purposeless. After some soul searching I became a monk, but left the monastery after four years and entered a London seminary. I was ordained a priest in 1994. I returned to Uganda to work as a priest in 1996 when the country had returned to normality. Despite having put down roots in Uganda, I still long to see Ireland again and to connect to the “Irish spirit”. Half of me is Irish, or wants to be, and very often thinks it is.
Now, whenever I look at my birth certificate I do so with awe. I think of my parents and thank them for going to Ireland when they did, and I thank Ireland too for being where my life began.
There are now an estimated 40,000 Irish of African descent living in the Republic, and I suspect that like me, they sometimes think about what it means to be both Irish and African. African Irish who live in Ireland or outside of it want to be accepted as Irish, which many of us already are legally. The challenge is to be perceived as fully Irish, not as immigrants.
When I was in the UK in later years if anyone asked that most unhelpful of questions “Where are you from?” I would say from Uganda, Africa. But if I let slip that I was born in Ireland, things got complicated. “So you’re Irish then?” But as I left Ireland at two years old I had no memories of my birth country. Another complication arose from my perceived Anglicised personality, my English voice education and manners.
I redefined myself as African-Irish. Identity is a plastic thing and can be shaped, and reshaped by you. It is important is to accept all your identity strands and gather them up into the one “you”, in any way you want.
I am aware that there is still an Irish gap in my head which yearns for Irishness whatever that maybe. As a musician, I have written a wistful Irish “air”, full of nostalgia and lament for the land of my birth, which I have no memory of seeing. Recently at a multicultural party in Australia I sang my version of “Christ is the seed” in Irish, with some Luganda bits woven in, and felt very good about it. A bi-cultural identity is a work in progress.
Now that my African cultural identity is already well formed ( I speak Luganda fluently, know the kiganda customs and understand the customary reckoning of relationships within my clan) I do feel the longing to delve deeper into Irishness in a more contemplated manner.
I would like to learn the Irish language. Language encodes a lot of the culture. As Africans who already speak English we must to adapt to Irish English. Irish people tend to speak quickly so you must be alert. Irish English is full of witticisms, idioms, and slang, and of course different accents for each county. I’ve learned to not to take everything literally.
If ever I lived in Dublin again, I think I would get Dublin accent. After all, I am a proper Dubliner. I am proud to be one of the present day “black Irish” and Ugandan at the same time, and hope I can enjoy Irishness wherever I find it in my own way.
Fr Anthony Musaala is a dual citizen of Ireland and Uganda. He works in a catholic parish in Kampala with the youth and with refugees. He is also a composer and singer of gospel songs and hymn ballads.