What it's like to grow up biracial in small-town Ireland

The other children from Donegal were all curious about my ginger hair and brown face – to understand me as ‘biracial’ was inconceivable.

JUST LIKE IN the US, in Ireland I’m considered black or mixed-race – but as an old family friend describes it, Ireland has always been my “spiritual home” and I’ve spent more time in this tiny island nation than most full-blooded Irish Americans. The same friend was also there at the beginning of my close connection to this country – spotting two-year-old me on the grass outside our home, curious about the bright red ginger hair on a brown face.

Though my father is Irish on his grandmother’s side from Cork, all his family immigrated to the US decades ago, and we are the only ones in the family to have any ties with the country.

Before I was born, my dad visited the country on a break from work in London and, in total wonderment of the hospitality and peace he felt there, decided to purchase a home on the northwest coast in Donegal. He fell in love with the breathtaking natural beauty, considering it a refuge from the fast-paced life he led in the States.

In retrospect, though I would’ve preferred to spend part of my childhood in Dublin – for the burgeoning diversity, work opportunities, and all the facets of a major city – Donegal is home in so many ways.

However, that’s not to say that I haven’t struggled as an outsider.

I stuck out like a sore thumb

In the early 90s, I was the first person of colour most of my neighbours had seen outside the television. I remember my dad giving me pocket money, reminding me to buy my friends crisps or sweets if we went to the shop. Ireland was largely still poor. In my small town, many people didn’t have cars, mobile phones, or ever go out for nice dinners.

Whenever here, I attended the local Scoil Muire (national school) and when dropped off by my father, all the kids would crowd around me, staring in bewilderment at this brown ginger kid who looked nothing like anything they’d ever seen. My boyfriend’s cousin recalls of me, “I never saw a black person before.” To understand me as ‘biracial’ was inconceivable. They’d touch my skin and hair, starring with jaws ajar. My friends soon became the older girls that had their wits about them and weren’t as nervous to interact with me like the four and five year olds in my age group.

But I quickly developed a severe social anxiety of being seen because I stuck out like a sore thumb. My ‘otherness’ was inescapable and made me a target the moment I stepped outside the front door. At Saturday night Mass I used to feign stomach aches so I didn’t have to deal with the stares when returning to my seat after receiving communion. I spent most of my time here with my father, but when my mother visited, I felt relief. I was less vulnerable. She’d become the subject of attention instead.

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Angela aged three.

I’ve faced bigotry from both black and white people

In the face of so much contrast, I can’t help but think about the parallels between the Irish Republican civil rights movement and the black American civil rights movement. Funnily enough, many people fail to notice that the former was inspired by the latter. Both groups and their diasporas have a long history of imperialism, colonisation, and oppression in and outside their native lands. I find irony in the fact that my existence is somehow symbolic of that – embodies that. But my connection to both struggles certainly hans’t precluded me from isolation.

In my life I’ve faced extreme bigotry from both black and white people, mostly in the States, but in small-town Ireland things have been a bit different. It’s a subtle but very obvious xenophobia or uncomfortable curiosity, if you’re tuned into it. I was never beaten up or viciously attacked like the stories I’d hear about African immigrants on the radio as a child, but people would laugh at me in grocery queues, give cold, unwavering stares, or tell me to ‘go back to Africa’. The bit about returning to Africa only happened three or four times, but it’s forever steeped in my memory.

I came back to a place with more brown and black faces

Now that I’m older, I can’t imagine what life was like for people like Phil Lynott or Paul McGrath when interracial couples were openly shunned and mixed children were thrown into laundries with their mothers and orphaned. Indeed we do have a unique experience, but it’s especially taxing when you’re in a land you consider home that’s largely homogenous. Now Ireland is now only 85% Irish, with other Europeans constituting 10% of the population, Asians at 2%, black people at 1.5 % and mixed-race people at barely 1%.

Clearly, things are a bit different now. I was away for nine years and came back to a place with more brown and black faces, which some people don’t like. For me, although it was a culture shock because I was used to being the only person of colour in the road, it’s comforting.

I was especially impressed at the diversity on my boyfriend’s younger brother’s football team, the doctors in hospitals, the attendants at the tills and taxi drivers. People of colour are working in all sectors of society and younger generations are coming to know multiculturalism as the norm.

I think that’s a good thing, and am certain it will continue to slowly grow, as most other things here do. I can eat Indian and Thai food now, and there’s a few cultural centres and other progressive spaces reminding me that we’re now living in a more inclusive society.

Indeed, as one of the poorest counties in Ireland, although warm and “wile civil”, many Donegal folk have not caught up to urban dwellers in Dublin and the rest of quickly modernising European cities. Many don’t want to. But it comes with the territory. I still get gawks in the queue at the local town shop, whispers in passing, and even the occasional drunken “black bastard” is thrown in – but I’m older and a bit more confident, chalking that up to ignorance.

There’s a certain comfort here that’s unmatched by any other place

Even though I’m a city girl through and through, I’m happy with Donegal this way. It’d be great if skin colour was irrelevant, and it now largely is, but there’s a certain comfort in being able to disappear into the rural abyss while I’m only an hour’s flight away from London. In Donegal, there’s no train system, but there are pubs galore, (mostly) friendly faces that greet you wherever you go, people that make sure you get home safely even though you can walk round the entire town in ten minutes, and there’s greenery like you’ve never seen.

I’m no longer special, people know me and welcome me “home” whenever I return. I’ve had life-long friendships of over 20 years and find a certain comfort here that’s unmatched by any other place in the world.

Old Ireland will never change. It’s still largely a rural society and people enjoy the simple things in life, like family, football, and pub nights. I know my friends and this community considered me one of them, a local, for most of my life, but I’m happy that I finally feel comfortable saying so myself.

It’s no San Francisco, but it’s home.

Angela O is a writer. 

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