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Lorraine Maher takes time out of her busy schedule to tell us about her life in London, about IamIrish, Black History Month and much more!

Lorraine Maher

Tell us a bit about yourself Lorraine and about living in and leaving Ireland as a young adult?

My name is Lorraine Maher. I am originally from Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. Although I have lived in London for over 35 years now, Carrick is and always will be my home.  I consider myself very lucky because I currently get to work across Ireland and the UK .

I left home in my early teens and set sail for some wild adventures. I had heard so much about the crossing between Rosslare and Fishguard that the journey felt like taking an historic trail.  I still remember the day I arrived on the train into Paddington station, greeted by my mother’s first cousin. I was mesmerised by all the different people that I saw around me, up until this point, I had only ever seen two people that resembled how I looked neither of whom were my family. 

Over the years that followed I became increasingly disconnected from the Irish community both at home and in the UK. I did not find traditional Irish spaces very welcoming to me. But I did find a community of people who did not care how I sounded, how big my hair was or what colour my skin was. They gave me a sense of understanding that I had never felt before. I found an Afro Caribbean community in London, much of whom were second generation immigrants to the UK, their parents from the Windrush generation. They just embraced me and taught me to love what I
had secretly been hating …. how I looked and where I came from. 

As a child I have been called “half caste” a term that is massively offensive. I have never felt half of anything and caste has multiple meaning none of which are good.  Every time I was called this, I was being called impure, not quite good enough. I mention this here, as this feeling was the reason that I left Ireland.  

Although I have multiple freckles and had many streaks of red running through my hair, I never quite fit the notions of Irishness as I am brown. It didn’t matter that I come from a proud family of Irish people that have passed down traditions of song, food, and stories of freedom.   My mother’s forbidden moments had resulted in
a lifetime of unacceptance for me. 

Over the years of being in London I have now met many people who looked and sounded as I did, and no matter the dark tale that they told of othering growing up in Ireland what was clear was that the biggest thing that we all had in common was our love and pride of our ancestral homeland ………Ireland.  

No matter what the tone of our skin, we are Irelands sons and daughters and I want my children and their children to always find pride in our roots and for all those other people out there that get the same questions – where are you really from the answer is simple, I am Irish.

You made a very powerful statement about identity and IamIrish – tell us more about the IamIrish and its work.

IamIrish (IAMI) is a not-for-profit grassroots organisation that connects, supports, advocates for, and empowers multi-heritage / multi-ethnicity Irish people & those of the Irish Diaspora to be fully represented within society and to strengthen and encourage their common bonds around Irish identity, heritage and belonging.  Inspired by a persistent lack of representation of the Black Irish experience, I created IamIrish to uncover and celebrate a more diverse representation of Irish identity, questioning the notion of ‘Irishness’ and what this means for Irish communities today. What started as a photographic exhibition in 2016 has grown to become an international incubator for thoughts, creating equitable and inclusive opportunities for Mixed Race, Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic individuals of Irish descent to lead, respond and be represented across the world.  
We want to change narratives through our work, we seek to dispel stereotypes such as that if you are from a non-white community, you are automatically an immigrant.  
We celebrated Black History Month last month how did you mark it?

In Ireland and the UK Black History Month is celebrated during the month of Oct in the USA it is celebrated in Feb. The Theme of BHM this year was Proud to Be, so we took this opportunity to celebrate who we are 365 days of the year. We celebrated the skin that we live, Irish History makers, Irish change makers, we took a moment to highlight and explore the incredible talents of the Irish Diaspora. We delivered a hybrid programme of workshops, Panel discussions and events from storytelling, wellbeing, music to offering professionals working in the community
the opportunity to learn some skills for engaging diverse groups through Forum Theatre. 

We fed into event with our friends at Irish Film Festival London and the Liverpool Irish Festival.  We had our first in person events in Partnership with the London Irish Centre we presented Amplify a spoken word event bringing artists from Ireland the UK together and a night of illuminations of the Icon Centre in London with the #IamIrish Exhibition.  Connected a family meet up with drumming and children’s entertainment at Axis Arts in Ballymun Dublin and the #IAmIrish exhibition opened as part of the IBAM festival at the Irish American Heritage Centre Chicago in
Partnership with Irish Community Services and Ireland Network Chicago.

Do you think Ireland has changed since you left and if so in what way(s)?

If you had asked me this question 15 or even 10 years ago, I would have told you firmly no but over the last few years or so I am leaning more and more that way.  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and the Covid restrictions over the last couple of years really left me longing for the days that I just pop home whenever I wanted to without having to give it a second thought. I miss home, I miss my family.

Not a lot seems to have changed in the town that I grew up in apart from the expansion of the borders and now when I go home I have to ask my sister who all the kids are as I don’t recognise the youngest ones anymore. 

There is still lack of investment in small towns in Ireland, lots of unemployment, lack of housing, the local shops are struggling, but I think this brings space for lots of opportunity. The same story you will find across many towns in Ireland, but the people of our town are still for the most part the same, friendly, inviting and very
community spirited. 

As for the country as a whole so much has changed, we have so much to feel proud of.  I see a real shift in the hearts of Irish people for inclusion and acceptance but there is still much work to do. We cannot get complacent, there is a rise in far-right activity in Ireland, it is not enough to be anti-racist,  it is time for people to be non-racist and embrace all those who live on our beautiful Island – as it says in Article 3 of our constitution:   “It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island” 

What do you like to do in your spare (if any!) time? 

Lol – I don’t have much spare time. I have 4 children and 8 grandchildren, soon to be 9, that keep me fairly busy. Oh, and a day job, most people are unaware that IamIrish is my heart project, so all the work is done in a volunteer capacity.   We have been operating for 5 years now with a volunteer staff team but are delighted to say that we have just employed our first paid member of staff, a Development and Operations Manager, so hopefully I will get to do a bit more baking now, which I love.
A random fact about yourself?

Random facts about me – I once shared a PA with Paul McCartney, I love black and white movies and am known to enjoy a bag of Tayto and a Club Orange and contrary to popular belief I am very shy!
Absolutely anything else!! 

Thank you for inviting me to share a little bit about IamIrish if you would like to find out any more about our work or would like to get involved we would love to hear from you at hello@iamirish.org  you can check out our website www.iamirish.org or follows us on socials @iamblirish . If you would like to view the #IamIrish exhibition, click here (www.licexhibits.org)