Ahead of the publication of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report and as Black History Month ends, survivordescribes how mixed-race children were at the bottom of the ladder in institutions here.
OCTOBER was Black History Month, everywhere in Europe, it seems, except Ireland. In the UK, Black History Month is firmly established and, in the last two years, we have begun to celebrate a Black and Green History Month where the historical connections between people of African and Irish descent are celebrated; it is an exciting new development. In June, Black Lives Matter went global, bringing new meaning to Black History Month.
One of Ireland’s best-known mixed-race people was the late, great Christine Buckley, a heroine of mine and a fellow industrial school survivor. Christine was born in 1950s Ireland, as was I. She was far more sensible than I; she married a lovely Irish man, enjoyed a career, had beautiful children, and changed Ireland forever. That was not to be my path.
In the Ireland of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, colourism existed. Efforts to get the good people of Ireland to foster, not adopt, us “difficult and hot-tempered children, especially the girls”, according to a 1966 Department of Education official memo, led to the placement of advertisements in newspapers mentioning how light a child’s skin colour was.
In Margaret McCarthy’s 2001 book, one of the interviewees among six mixed-race Irish children fostered to an Irish couple commented that “the darker kids had it worse”. I was one of the darker kids, and I did have it worse.
But it wasn’t until an African American friend in 1970s London prompted my education into black history that I began to know who I was.
The plan was to get me to read one black history book per week on the condition that I would write a synopsis of my reading and he would treat me to a big dinner.
Eighteen years of malnutrition in institutions meant I was very much incentivised by food. So I studied the big words that I could not pronounce, in a dictionary I could barely read, with a lot of mumbling and grumbling. But my eye on the big dinner at the weekend was the supreme motivator (who said you can only tempt men with food?).
Collecting two degrees including a masters at the London School of Economics, many years later, allowed me the bliss of emotionally sticking two fingers up at Ireland’s architecture of containment — the same system which had ruthlessly written me off as a substandard baby, perhaps two-thirds human. I took my victories where I could.
I began to seek answers to my childhood in Ireland. Why did I not have the same rights or opportunities that my white peers ‘enjoyed’ (though 'endured' is probably a better description) within these institutions? Why was it that babies, trafficked to the US, came with a guarantee of whiteness?
Why was I, an innocent and intelligent child, consigned to a regime of brutality at St Joseph’s Industrial School for Girls in Kilkenny, where the only image of children with my skin tone was the starving Biafra children, where the Roman Catholic Church at every Sunday Mass pestered Irish people and their children to put the penny in the ‘black baby’ box? I was that child of the ‘why’ questions and it was on one such occasion that I asked why it was that I, as a black baby, had to put my precious penny in the box — I got another hammering for my curiosity; it was a lonely place to be.
Healing can only begin when a trauma is named. Did you know that the earliest entry for a mixed-race child of African descent into Bessborough mother and baby ‘home’, then a workhouse, was in 1907? In the century since, hundreds of us endured life in these detainment camps.
Years later, my beautiful son was to be forcibly removed from me in Drogheda and taken to Bessborough. He was placed on a ward which contained up to 16 mixed-race children aged from newborn to three years. "Nobody wants these", a survivor friend was told by the nun in charge, who described it as "the rejects ward".
While boys were taught a trade, white Irish girls were programmed to be skivvies — but not so for many mixed-race Irish girls of African descent. We were too ‘exotic’ to be a skivvy unlike our white peers, but not given any tools to survive outside the gates of the institutions, at the mercy of every creep standing on the street corner. We heeded Ireland’s historic national call of honour; export its unwanted overseas, mainly to the UK.
In 2013, I attended a Women’s Survivors Network group in London and I realised that there was no mention of people with my skin tone in any of the survivor narratives. This led me to the conclusion that I myself did not know how or why I ended up in the back end of Ireland with the dubious title of being the only ‘black’ not just in the village but the entire county. Again I wondered, why was that?
The following year, three of us appeared before the Oireachtas by way of a submission, we were graciously heard, and in 2015 I founded the Association of Mixed Race Irish (AMRI).
When the awful tragedy of Tuam came to light and the Government convened a commission to enquire into mother and baby ‘homes’, our delegation to the Government seeking acknowledgement that the issue of ‘race’ should be included within the terms of reference was successful. Along with the rest of the survivor community, we await the commission’s report with bated breath.
In December 2019, I led a small delegation of AMRI with a unique perspective to the UN Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Never before had detainees of Irish mother and baby ‘homes’ appeared before the UN CERD.
The Ireland of today is unrecognisable from yesteryear and yet we do not exist on the Irish census. I can’t help it, again I wonder, ‘why is that’?