Tim Brannigan, a slender black man with graying hair and a self-described 'camp' way about him, has learnt to deal with the contradictions in his life by embracing them. It is through a contradiction that he first introduces himself to the reader of his memoir Where Are You Really From?.
‘I was born on Tuesday, 10th May 1966. I died the same day.’
That was only the first dichotomy that was to shape Brannigan’s life. He was an orphan who wasn’t up for adoption, he was the adoptive son of his biological mother and as the RUC noted when he was arrested: ‘This man is a republican. This man is a black man.'
The product of a fling between his mother, Peggy, and Michael Ekue, a Ghanian doctor, Brannigan’s conception owed as much to his mother’s sense of social justice as dissatisfaction with her marriage. Ekue had originally been interested in one of Peggy’s friends, approaching her at a dance.
‘She jumped behind my mother,’ Brannigan recalls at the launch of his book in Belfast’s Central Library, ‘and said, “I’m not dancing with a nigger.”’
Infuriated at the casual racism, Peggy waited until it was Woman’s Choice and asked him to dance. ‘She had a fine set of principles,’ Brannigan remembers proudly.
Perhaps when she found herself Catholic, married and pregnant she regretted those principles. Or perhaps not, Brannigan’s recollections of his mother conjure a woman who was sure of herself. Sure that she was going to keep ‘her black baby by a man who wasn’t her husband’ one way or another.
Convincing her husband Tom to co-operate by telling him she’d been raped, Peggy put a complex plan into action. She’d tell everyone her baby had been still born, persuade hospital staff to smuggle the child to St Joseph’s Baby Home, and, once enough time had passed, adopt the baby.
It could have easily gone wrong, but it didn’t. Instead, a year after he was born Brannigan was adopted by his birth mother.
The odd circumstances of his birth and upbringing - he was 19 before his mother broke the news to him that he wasn't adopted - don't seem to have had a negative effect on Brannigan. He is close to his brothers, who he claims are the spit of him 'without my tremendous tan', and both turned up at the launch to support him.
As for his mother, his love and admiration of her are obvious whenever he talks about her. She could be hard on him growing up, but he knows that it was because she wanted the best for him.
Most interviews so far have focused, understandably, on Brannigan's account of his birth and subsequent discovery of his true heritage. For Brannigan, however, that is only part of the story that he wants to tell in Where are you Really From?
He describes the book as a journey, one that took him from St Joseph's Hospital to the Falls Road area where he grew up.
By rights, it shouldn’t have been easy growing up as, probably, the only black boy in his street. It probably wasn’t, but Brannigan has always seen himself as Irish. For years he was reluctant to seek out his birth father, despite his mother’s encouragement, because he felt nothing missing in himself. His stance has softened on that over the years, but even now he sees himself as Irish and Republican first and foremost.
To the extent, in fact, that he spent five years in prison as a young man for hiding two chocolate trifles (‘rubbish Belfast slang for rifle’ he explains.) and some explosives in his mother’s car for the IRA.
‘Ruined my life,’ the Brannigan of today states, firmly if with no bitterness. These days he wants ‘nothing to do with men of violence’.
Things weren’t so simple for him at the time. Alleged racist abuse from RUC officers stung much less than comments from fellow prisoners, many of whom, he points out, had never seen a black man before, that ‘this wasn’t his fight’.
It is another of the contradictions that Brannigan lives with. No-one else sees him as being as Irish as he does.
Brannigan laughs, although with an edge, as he recounts a series of encounters with friends of friends asking how he 'liked our Irish weather' to little old ladies complimenting him on his flawless English.
The one that stuck with him most gave him the title of his memoir. Out doing research for his book Brannigan struck up a conversation with an older man in a shop and told him that he'd grown up in this area.
'No,' the man said. 'Where you really from?'
Where Are You Really From? by Tim Brannigan is available from Blackstaff Press and the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon Shop. Tim Brannigan will also be appearing at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.