Where Are You Really From?

Race, republicanism and a mothers love in Tim Brannigan's memoir

Peggy Brannigan met Michael Ekue at a dance in Belfast in 1965. She was from Beechmount; he was a medic from Ghana. Their eyes met, they danced and sparks flew. She was gorgeous and vivacious and republican. He was well groomed, educated and, exotically for Belfast in the 1960s, black. Both were married but swept away by each other. It was a passionate affair and the result was Tim.

His skin colour meant Peggy Brannigan had to go to extraordinary lengths to placate her husband and stave off the judgement of her devoutly Catholic neighbourhood. A black baby would have sent the busybodies fingering their rosary beads behind the net curtains into overdrive.

The little boy was smuggled from the hospital to St Joseph’s Baby Home. Peggy told everyone it had been a stillbirth. When the dust settled she began to visit her son in St Joseph’s, soon bringing him home on weekends. Eventually she would adopt him.

Meanwhile, Doctor Ekue did what so many philandering married men do. He stuck his head in the sand and carried on as usual, never contributing to his son’s education or upkeep. He returned to Ghana and left Peggy to do the rest.

Being black in the almost totally white working class area of Beechmount in the heart of west Belfast (an area this writer knows all too well), Tim obviously stood out. Narrow-minded people made stupid remarks, including the British soldiers lining the streets. Some classmates were unkind and Tim was increasingly aware that he was different from his four brothers. As he grew up he became embroiled in the republican struggle, despite backward men in bars insisting that it wasn’t his struggle or that, being black, he somehow couldn’t count as republican.

This memoir has a narrative arc worthy of an Eastenders Christmas special and is important for the way it charts the experiences of one black man trying to understand his identity. It is also a moving account of an intense mother-son relationship and an expose of Northern Ireland’s medieval attitudes to race and ethnicity.

Written in an accessible, pop-memoir style that eschews pretentiousness, flowery language or self-pity, it moves easily from one drama to the next. Most of all it is a page-turner. Peggy confesses to Tim one drunken evening that he is her real son; the Hunger Strikes and the armed struggle unfold in the background; Tim becomes radicalised and joins Sinn Fein. One revelation hardly waits on the next.

Perhaps one of the most compelling twists in Brannigan’s life story is his five-years spent as a prisoner in the Crumlin Road jail and the H-Blocks at Long Kesh.

After finishing a degree in politics at Livepool Polytechnic Tim came back to Beechmount and answered the door to two IRA men looking for somewhere to stash ammunition. He said they could use the car outside. The RUC found the lot – including an AK47, two grenades and sixteen mercury tilt switches.

Brannigan’s account of all this leans heavily on romantic notions of the honour of the republican struggle, the importance of solidarity to the cause (even if it means spending five years of your life inside) and an at times blasé attitude to IRA violence.

Perhaps because of his early sense of difference – being black in a white community and therefore standing out as a target for abuse or ridicule – Brannigan embraces the republican brotherhood as somewhere he can fully belong. He sides with the view – always widespread on the Falls - that the IRA were not terrorists but freedom fighters in a legitimate war.

Nevertheless Brannigan’s account might have been strengthened by a dash of scepticism and an awareness of the shortcomings of a violent republican agenda. Some of the passages on life in the H-Blocks are almost elegiac – republican prisoners studying for A-levels, debating history and turning in each night with salutes in Irish as though rediscovering Romantic Ireland at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

But these reservations aside, the republican interlude isn’t the real kernel of the story. It’s about Peggy Brannigan and her battles to secure her son’s acceptance. And then it’s about how the roles are altered when Peggy becomes ill and her son has to take care of her. Then there’s life post-ceasefire in the Northern Irish media, a trip halfway around the world to find Michael Ekue in a Ghanian hotel (a BBC radio crew in tow), a tense reunion and dashed hopes. You couldn’t make it up.

Life-writing like this somehow seems beyond or outside critical judgement because it is simply a person’s life offered up on the page - memories, heart-felt experiences, passions, arguments, beliefs, the whole messy, meandering shebang captured in narrative.

This memoir doesn’t attempt to draw grand conclusions on race or republicanism but gives the reader an account of Brannigan’s life-less-ordinary. Moments of self-indulgence and a certain lack of reflection and development around central events are largely compensated by sentiment.

Listen to Tim Brannigan speak at his book launch at the Linen Hall Library.

Where Are You Really From? by Tim Brannigan is available to buy from our online store.

Joanne Savage