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Irish and mixed heritage: 'I'm a proud Irish woman and that identity is part of who I am'

#IamIrish exhibition opens this month to explore issues around identity and culture with Irish people of mixed heritage.

try 1 Source: Lorraine Maher

“NO MATTER WHAT the mix is and how long people have been outside of Ireland, you ask them who are they and they’ll tell you they’re Irish,” says Lorraine Maher, creative director of the #IamIrish exhibition that opened last week at Axis Arts Centre Ballymun.

The exhibition explores the issue of Irish identity through the experiences of Irish people of mixed heritage in an attempt to “challenge perceptions of what it looks like to be Irish” and demonstrate the diversity of Irish people.

Disa and Storm Source: Tracey Anderson

The exhibition first opened in October 2016 at the London Irish Centre, with funding from the Irish Embassy. Its success has now brought it across the sea to Dublin as part of the celebration of Black History Month 2017, with funding from the British Council and the Dublin City Arts Office.

Maher says it is “a powerful and symbolic opportunity to unite these celebrations of Black and Irish heritage and put Ireland’s long history of dual heritage firmly into focus”.

After its opening in London, Maher was inundated by people online who told her that she was telling their story, many with different varieties of mixed-Irish heritages.

“When I first did it, the story was about being black and Irish,” Maher tells TheJournal.ie. “But that’s really expanded because I’ve met people who are Chinese and Irish, Asian and Irish, Iranian and Irish, people from all over.”

And though different from her original intention, Maher began to see similarities in each person’s story.

“The narrative seems to be same: of feeling very proud to be Irish but still feeling like they don’t quite fit in and I think as a society we need to be pushing that agenda more, we need to be saying more and more ‘we belong here.’”

AS2J5963 Source: Tracey Anderson

Originally from Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary, Maher left Ireland for London when she was in her teens. She said growing up in Ireland, “I always knew I was different.”

But at heart, she stills feels very rooted to Ireland.

“I’m a proud Irish woman and that identity is part of who I am,” she says, herself of mixed Irish and African heritage.

“I know for lots of mixed-heritage Irish their stories began in industrial homes and their experience of being in Ireland wasn’t always the most positive one. I feel like we here championing on their behalf and opening doors for young mixed-race people to come along and to be able to say, ‘I am Irish.’”

Maher worked together with photographer Tracey Anderson to take intimate photographic studies detailing the experiences of mixed race Irish people living in the UK. With the Dublin opening, the portraits now include mixed-heritage Irish people living in Ireland who reached out to Maher after the initial London showing.

Lolly Source: Tracey Anderson

Ranging in age, gender and mixed ethnicity, the photographs tell the stories of each individual and look into the roots and identity issues centered around Ireland and ‘Irishness’.

The subjects in the photographs researched their family history and family crests as part of the project and a snapshot of their stories will hang alongside their photographs.

“Conversations on diversity, heritage and identity have certainly increased and improved in Ireland in recent years, but they don’t always translate in daily life,” says Niamh Ní Chonchubhair, programme manager of Axis Ballymun.

“Visibility is key here. Often, what we’re seeing on our screens, stages, billboards or walls isn’t reflecting what our communities look like. People like Lorraine have done so much to shine a light on the broader spectrum of Irish identity.”

Dylan Source: Tracey Anderson

Niamh says that the exhibition is a stimulus for a conversation about identity, race, culture and heritage and to help the conversation go further, Axis and Lorraine have developed a series of creative engagements.

Schools and community groups have been invited to participate in workshops and talks with Maher, and the Axis theatre will host a panel discussion, ‘“I Am Irish” a conversation’, on Wednesday 25 October at 6.30pm.

For Maher, the Dublin opening of the exhibit enables more stories to be told.

“It’s really unfolding,” she says. “People are speaking out and wanting to be counted.”

The exhibition will be at the Axis Arts Centre, Ballymun till 31 October, Monday to Friday 10am to 8pm. Tickets to the panel dicussion are free and can be booked here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/iamirish-a-conversation-tickets-36145797052

Read: What it’s like to grow up biracial in small-town Ireland

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