In Ireland, Lifting a Veil of Prejudice Against Mixed-Race Children

In Ireland, Lifting a Veil of Prejudice Against Mixed-Race Children

In Ireland, Lifting a Veil of Prejudice Against Mixed-Race Children

In Ireland, Lifting a Veil of Prejudice Against Mixed-Race Children

Fellow pupils at school used to ask Ms. Kavanagh why her mother was Black. Her mother advised her simply to “tell them your grandfather is from Africa.” When she was older, Ms. Kavanagh, who identifies as mixed race, found out that her mother’s adoption covered up a complex family secret. It was her mother’s “aunt” in England, whom she knew as Auntie Kay, who was Ms. Kavanagh’s biological grandmother.

While working as a nurse, Kay had had a relationship with a Nigerian medical student, became pregnant and was sent “to the country” in secret. Kay’s married sister, Betty, adopted Liz as a baby through a religious agency. Betty then adopted three more children, all mixed race, through the nuns. The children became Ms. Kavanagh’s aunts and uncle, an Irish family with Nigerian, Filipino and Indian heritage.

Liz never knew her father’s identity. She died of cancer when Ms. Kavanagh was only 20 years old. A photograph of her mother accompanies a recent single by Ms. Kavanagh, released in response to the killing of George Floyd. The fond image shows her mother making a face and sticking out her tongue. Ms. Kavanagh remembers how her energy would fill a room.

Liz worked as a tour guide, surprising visitors with her Dublin accent and Afro. In daily life, she faced racism and being treated as a foreigner. She harmonized like a professional singer with the radio, Ms. Kavanagh said, but had stage fright and never performed.

When Ms. Kavanagh would ask family members about her mother, they said she was “adopted from birth, it doesn’t even count.” Adoptions carried a stigma of illegitimacy, creating a culture of secrecy that endures to this day, with people adopted in Ireland still denied their birth information.

I first met Ms. Kavanagh while writing a book about the mother and baby institutions. In January 2019, we went to the General Register Office, a dismal building behind a spiked railing and a vacant lot, near Dublin Castle’s cobbled courtyards.


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