Deborah Obarisiagbon shares the experience of living in modern Ireland as a young Black woman.
In a recent article in the Irish Times, the founder of Black and Irish, Leon Diop recounts that “When I was growing up, I let a lot of people dictate how I saw myself.” I didn’t realise I was black until I was about six years old. I could see that my hair was different, my skin was different, my eyes were different, but I didn’t feel like I was different. That all changed when the kids in my estate banned me from playing with them simply because they didn’t want to “turn Black”, as if it was some infectious disease that was rampaging its way through our small east Cork village. After that day I quickly realised that not everyone viewed life with the colourblind lenses I lived life through. I was Black, and no matter how much I tried not to be I would always be Black.
Unfortunately, too many of my Black peers have similarly heartbreaking stories like this – this is the plight of every black person in Ireland. Once monochromatic, Irish identity is now kaleidoscopic, reflecting the diverse hues of its inhabitants. This is evident from the 2022 Census in which reports that 23% of the population identified as something other than White Irish. 67,546 people identify as Black or Black Irish with an African background, whereas 8,699 people claim to have descended from any other Black background. Yet I am constantly plagued with questions about where I am from. Most are not satisfied with my answer of “I’m from the real capital of Ireland” (and this isn’t because I mean Cork). The inevitable question following on from this is always “No where are you really from?”. And I never know how to respond. I was born and raised in Ireland. My passport is Irish. My accent is Irish. My humour is painfully Irish but that is never enough.
Once monochromatic, Irish identity is now kaleidoscopic, reflecting the diverse hues of its inhabitants.
Being Black and Irish in 2023 is the constant internal battle between the Irish Culture that I am constantly surrounded by and that is practically ingrained in my head and my Nigerian culture that even despite the thousands of miles that separates I feel so strongly attached to. Undoubtedly, the best decision my mother ever made was to immigrate to Ireland almost 21 years ago, our lives have changed for the better. But there’s a constant nagging feeling of ‘at what cost?’ The jealousy that consumes me on holidays like Christmas when everyone’s extended families join together yet mine is confined to a small screen and phone conversations. Being able to fully submerge myself into a culture that I so strongly identify with but can never fully experience without the deafening sound of the ticking clock signalling my eventual return to Ireland.
Being Black and Irish is sacrificing so much of your culture like your native language, your well-seasoned food, your accent in attempts to make yourself more like your Irish counterparts. Even to this day I codeswitch when talking with my friends, I avoid bringing foods that may be perceived as “smelly” and avoid wearing certain hairstyles. Being Black and Irish is the irrational need to work ten times harder than your peers to secure the same job opportunities and then having to work ten times harder to prove you aren’t the token person of colour. Being Black and Irish is wincing every time your English teacher insisted on saying the n-word because it’s “just a word”. Being Black and Irish is knowing that most Irish people are the kindest and friendliest people yet seeing constant instances of micro-aggressions and discrimination still affecting young black people like me. It’s seeing the video of a young Black gymnast being skipped and not given a medal like her white peers and wondering has anything changed?
Being Black and Irish is sacrificing so much of your culture like your native language, your well-seasoned food, your accent in attempts to make yourself more like your Irish counterparts.
But being Black and Irish comes with so many positives. It means having the best of both worlds by being able to identify with two of the most enriching cultures in the world. As Ossie Davis once said, “I find, in being Black, a thing of beauty: a joy, a strength, a secret cup of gladness.” Being Black in Ireland means contributing to a melting pot of cultures, creating a vibrant fusion of traditions, languages, and cuisines. Irish traditions have a unique ability to interweave harmoniously with diverse African, Caribbean, and other cultural influences that always made me feel like I was welcomed in this place that I called home. My friend’s constant efforts to learn more about my culture, to understand my Nigerian heritage and to stand up for me and other people of colour is exactly why I am proud to be Black and Irish.
But being Black and Irish comes with so many positives. It means having the best of both worlds by being able to identify with two of the most enriching cultures in the world.
Being Black in Ireland in 2023 is a multifaceted experience, shaped by both progress and persistent challenges. Being Black in Ireland means embracing the beautiful complexity of identity. It involves celebrating ancestral heritage while integrating into the fabric of Irish society. It means challenging stereotypes, breaking barriers, and fostering conversations about race. It's about advocating for change, educating others, and standing resilient in the face of adversity. As Reni Eddo-Lodge says “Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can't afford to stay silent.”