An African American in Ireland

Barack Obama's visit to Ireland reminds this writer of her own eye-opening encounters on that island.


Watching Barack Obama enjoying a pint on Monday at that pub in Moneygall, Ireland — the town of at least some of his forebears — during his visit to that country and the U.K., I couldn’t help recalling my own biracial encounters with Ireland. Not surprisingly, the president was given a warm reception. I, too, felt very welcome — with a few exceptions.

It was 1992, and I’d decided that I was going to do a driving tour of the island. I’d long had a fascination with Ireland’s politics and culture, especially its rebellious relationship with the land where most of my own white roots lay. Being a bit of a rebel herself, my white English mother — who had married my black American father in the U.K. in 1959 and settled in the U.S. in 1960 — wanted to come along. We decided that we would spend a few weeks traversing Ireland and then take the ferry over to Wales to meet up with relatives.

From the start, landing in Shannon Airport, we had a wonderful time. I even enjoyed navigating the roundabouts and driving on the opposite side of the road. (Being an inexperienced driver of New York City origins, I actually didn’t find it as difficult an adjustment as I could have — or as daunting a prospect as I should have!)

This was before the Celtic Tiger — the period of tremendous economic growth, starting in the mid- to late 1990s, that brought many immigrants to Ireland — and so, for most of our visit, I was the darkest thing in town. At our first pub crawl in Bunratty, one guy just kept patting my hair and exclaiming, with a broad smile, “Michael Jackson!”

And overall, that kind of open-faced, even endearing racial cluelessness typified my experience there. I felt very comfortable, and my mother and I happily explored the food, culture, history and incredible scenery. We also enjoyed playing “spot a black person” (usually unsuccessfully) as we drove into town. Most of my more sobering experiences probably had more to do with my being an obvious outsider than with being black.

In Enniskillen, a town in Northern Ireland, I was stopped by a police officer and asked for identification and what I was doing there. But given the town’s history with the IRA and its existence along the border with the Republic of Ireland, perhaps they had particular reason to be security-conscious. (This was before the cease-fire of 1994.)

And then there was the time I was walking back alone along the Falls Road after a visit to West Belfast, the Republican, largely Catholic area of the city. To leave that area and return to the “nonsectarian” city center, you had to go through a British-army checkpoint. I thought that this particular checkpoint would make a great photo opportunity, so at what I thought was a discreet distance, I took a bunch of photos of the British soldiers, sitting in their tanks with their guns out.

As I walked toward them, I noticed that one of the soldiers was tracking me in his sights. I found this somewhat disturbing but also thought, “What’s he gonna do, shoot me? Nah!” So I continued walking, trying to present my most street-savvy New York demeanor. As I approached him, he said — from behind the very large weapon with which he was still tracking me — “What were you taking pictures of, then?”