Where are you really from?

Very few babies die then live to tell the tale. But Tim Brannigan did. Born to a Catholic woman in Northern Ireland following an affair with a black doctor, his desperate mother concocted an incredible plan to conceal his birth.

First she told her husband that she had been raped, then with the complicity of the hospital staff, she told her family Tim was stillborn. After five days he was smuggled out to a local children’s home, where his mother was a volunteer worker.

Very soon Peggy, who already had three other children, was bringing the ‘little black orphan’ back home with her for the weekend before finally keeping him for good a year later.

It was not until he was 19 that Peggy told him the truth – she was his real mother. ‘I wasn’t going to leave you in the home. I just had to come up with a plan to get you out of there,’ he remembers her telling him.

But far from being bitter or confused, Tim accepted the bombshell news with equanimity.

‘She asked me if I was angry,’ he said in a recent radio interview.  ‘I said no – you always were my mother anyway.’

Discovering that his father was from Ghana proved to be more unsettling for a youngster who grew up as the only black kid on the streets of west Belfast.

This was during the 1970s at the height of the Troubles and although warmly embraced by his family and close-knit Republican community, he nevertheless could not escape the fact that he is an outsider, first called the N word when he was four.

Routinely abused by British soldiers patrolling the Falls Rd where he lived, he was thrown into confusion when his mates used the same racist language against black British troops.

‘Where are you from is the question I am most asked,’ he says.  ‘When I say Northern Ireland they say, yes but where are really from.’

Where are you really from? is the title of Tim’s biography, the remarkable story of his search for identity that takes him from Belfast to the Ghanaian capital Accra, where he finally gets to meet his father.

A one time UN high flier, Michael,    turns out to be as cold as his mother is warm and there is no fairy tale ending. ‘We got on famously as long we talked about world affairs. As soon as I asked anything about my mother he would say “that is personal”.’

Africa, he admits, is distant place emotionally and physically’ but ‘it has added a different dimension to my life’.

The book is also a fascinating portrait of a community battling against British occupation. Tim in fact grew up in a war zone, shot through with frequent house raids, Bloody Sunday and the H Block hunger strikes.

Peggy and her family are ardent IRA supporters and often hide guns and ammunition for them. On one occasion, after Tim is racially abused in a pub, the IRA offers  to have the man shot. Tim declines.

It is inevitable that he   himself becomes involved in the movement, albeit on the fringes, eventually ending up in the dreaded H Blocks himself.

His ordeal there probably explains the breezy, matter of fact way he tells his tale – after all, there is a very little that could phase you after a spell as a political prisoner in one of the harshest prison regimes in the land.

Black History 365/Spring 2009/

Where are you really from?

By Tim Brannigan

Blackstaff press, 2010

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