Black, Irish and proud
Saturday 22nd October 2016
LORRAINE MAHER tells Angela Cobbinah what inspired her to mount the ground-breaking #iamirish photography exhibition at the Irish Centre in London
WHEN she was growing up in County Tipperary in the 1960s, Lorraine Maher met no other black people and on the few occasions they came into her midst she would avoid them.
“I didn’t want to draw attention to myself in any way,” she says.
“I grew up in a beautiful town full of beautiful people but there was racism all around me. This was the age of the golliwog and the ‘black baby box’ to collect money for starving African babies.
“I knew I was different but my blackness was never spoken about and I spent my childhood just wanting to hide away and not be noticed.”
It did not help that her mother had handed her over to her grandmother to be brought up while she lived nearby with her new family.
“In those days it would have been very hard for my mother to have not only had an illegitimate child but a black one too,” Lorraine acknowledges.
“However, I had a very difficult upbringing and I am living with the effects of that.”
There were children like herself scattered all over Ireland, many fathered by African doctors who were based there in the 1950s and ’60s as a result of bilateral work and study programmes. The unluckiest ended up in the dreaded “industrial schools”, children’s homes run by the Catholic Church where abuse was said to be widespread.
Not surprisingly, Lorraine left Ireland as soon as she could, heading for the bright lights of London aged 17. It proved to be a liberation. “I arrived at a place where I met people of all colours and where no-one questioned my identity,” she says.
“At last I felt I belonged. I dropped my Irish accent and I started seeing myself as a black woman.”
But as time went on, she realised she was still very much Irish. “It is the culture I was brought up in and it is important to me. These days I say I am black, I am Irish and I am proud.”
It is this often painful journey to self-realisation that laid the seeds of the #iamirish exhibition she has curated for the London Irish Centre, tellingly its first ever contribution to Black History Month. Opened last week by Ruaidri Dowling on behalf of the Irish embassy, it is a display of stunning portraits by photographer Tracey Anderson that aims to question the concept of what it looks like to be Irish.
“It is a celebration of Ireland’s diversity,” explains Lorraine, who works as an education manager at the Clean Break Theatre Company and has four children.
“The photos are accompanied by family crests, linked to Irish surnames, to dispel the idea that if you are from a non-white community you are automatically an immigrant. I myself can trace my ancestry back thousands of years.”
The Ireland of today is very different to the one she grew up in, she agrees. The economic boom of the 1980s and ’90s brought in migrants from all over the world transforming the country’s monocultural view of itself and when Muhammad Ali visited Ennis in County Clare in 2009 where his great great-grandfather hailed from he was given a huge welcome.
But according to Lorraine: “Ireland may look very different but it is not as blended as it looks.”
The contradictions were brought home to her by two events earlier this year, which spurred her into organising the exhibition.
The first was the mayor of Ennis’s announcement that he was going to attend Ali’s funeral and the second was news the following day that two African students had been refused entry into a Dublin bar.
“I felt I really had to do something to bring the two communities together.”
The exhibition consists of images of people aged from one to 70-plus but all are anonymous. Despite that, it is full of warmth and optimism.
Bar a few Facebook trolls, the response has been extremely positive, says Lorraine, touching as it does the hitherto hidden lives of children like herself and the generations who have followed.
#iamirish runs at London Irish Centre, Camden Square, London NW1 until October 31. There will be an accompanying workshop and a panel discussion during the month. Details: londonirishcentre.org.