You might not think it to look at me, but I am Irish. My mother is from Co Clare and I spent every summer of my childhood there playing with my cousins on the beach and harassing the cows, up until the age of 19 or so.

You might not think it to look at me, but I am Irish. My mother is from Co Clare and I spent every summer of my childhood there playing with my cousins on the beach and harassing the cows, up until the age of 19 or so.
Ireland is familiar to me in the same way as the UK; I know the plethora of pink and gooey biscuits available in the average Irish household, the uniquely Irish pastime of listening to death notices on the radio, the way in which people are adept at avoiding painful conversation topics. Ireland is within me. But it is also the country in which I realised I stood out even more.
I grew up in a white household on the green London commuter belt of Surrey in the UK with my Irish mother and white British father. Although my blackness was obvious, and more distinct because it was situated in the context of my all-white family, growing up it was neither explained nor acknowledged. My dad, blue-eyed and mild mannered, my mother, petite and emerald-eyed, and my younger brother a cross between them both, all look as if they belong to each other.
Then theres me. I was unusually tall as a child and am irredeemably brown-skinned. But in the UK, a white identity was constructed for me by my white parents, who did not answer questions about my dark skin and curly hair, why my skin didnt burn like my brothers in the lukewarm summers between London and Clare, and why I had no freckles on my arms where my mother had plenty. Race and its meaning went ignored in our home unless I pressed.
But despite this, I enjoyed a cushioned and cosy cul-de-sac upbringing, with parents who were present at every school play and teachers evening. I had a hands-on father who would take me for bike rides as a child and teach me how to drive as a teenager; a mother who defended me staunchly to others and smugly recited my good grades to her sisters back home.
But besides the joy and affection, I realised as I got older that race was completely unacknowledged within our Surrey home, whilst forming a huge part of my identity beyond it. I had understood my difference from the age of five, but I did not have the tools to understand it.
Georgina Lawton. Photograph: Jamie Simonds © Loftus Media
Georgina Lawton. Photograph: Jamie Simonds © Loftus Media
By the time I reached 14, I realised mixed race was a label many others ascribed to me. Id also experienced my fair share of racism and othering, which I was unable to discuss with anyone, and so I could see I was black, but with parents who refused to speak about why that was, I internalised the idea that there was something unspeakable about who I was.
In Ireland on our family holidays, the silence around my race was punctuated by my increasingly persistent demands for an explanation and my mothers suggestion that I might be a genetic throwback. How does this make sense, you might ask?
Well, Mum was born in Clare, on a farm, in a little house wed stay in every year and where my grandparents had always lived. They were both from Clare too my mothers father, Dada, was a stern, leathery-skinned man who ruled the house with total dominion. My mother often said I might have inherited my looks from him, because of the supposed darkening of the Irish gene pool which had occurred over centuries on the west coast a parting gift from the sailors of the Spanish Armada whose fleet was wrecked near Spanish Point, a beach town a few miles from where Mums family are based.
Georgina Lawton as a baby with her grandfather on the family’s Co Clare farm
Georgina Lawton as a baby with her grandfather on the family’s Co Clare farm
Its an ahistorical take which overshadows the true meaning of the term black Irish but, as a child, I swallowed this story whole! Not least because it anchored me into our family lore. As children, belonging is everything and we believe what our caregivers tell us simply because we want to, and because it is reassuring and self-preserving. The throwback story cemented my place among my white family, but it also offered me a route out of my blackness.
With each passing year, race was more dogged in its pursuit of me and by the time I reached university, I still didnt know who I was. I had begun to unravel my family narrative in late 2015, when my generous, warm-hearted dad had died from a mystery cancer that had ravaged his body for one year.
The shock of that loss was physical, monstrous, all-consuming. No one tells you that grief is bone deep, that it warps your reality and becomes a state of being. When you watch someone you love die slowly from cancer, you begin grieving months before the actual loss. As I saw my once-strong father wither away before me, my body went into shock. I developed an invisible anxious rash followed by a full-on depression for about 18 months. But my mother held it together with the precision of a military leader, never breaking down in front of me and my brother, and caring for my dad, who handled his illness with a steely reserve and forced cheeriness.
But a year after his loss, when my grief was still white hot, I knew I could no longer uphold a nebulous, nonsensical family narrative about who I was. In Dads absence, I processed a series of family DNA-test results he had given me permission to take when he was alive. They proved that my mother had been concealing an affair with a black man she had once known, but that she had not admitted this to anyone, much less herself.
The anger I felt upon learning this scared me. And my mother was unwilling to acknowledge how the silence had impacted me. So I left the UK to travel to black countries in an attempt to try and locate the pieces of myself that I had spent years denying, and to put some space between me and my mother.
When I returned in early 2017, we began therapy together. My mother was initially adamant that I was exaggerating the impact of this racial denial and felt exposed by my decision to write about it, online and in a book. I couldnt understand her lack of empathy, yet reserved a lot of judgement on my father, whose memory I refused to tarnish.
But as we unpacked my mothers childhood in rural, Catholic Ireland in the 1970s, I began to see her as a person, flawed and female like me, yet a product of her time. I learned more about the Catholic guilt she had carried around for years as a result of having an affair and not talking about it, despite the evidence manifesting itself in her mixed-race daughter. It had been hard for my mother to separate the guilt and shame, borne of her affair, from me, her child. I learned along the way, an invisible barrier had been erected between us.
When we went to Ireland in 2017, almost a year after starting therapy, just the two of us, I was hopeful that I would be seen differently by my family. Things were fraught between me and Mum, and my dad had been gone two years. But everywhere I went on that trip, I saw his image: on the dirt track between the glossy fields near my grannys house, on our quiet and familiar beach, beside the shed on my uncles farm. In those small moments, what had been true for 20-plus years was still true: my father was alive and he was still my biological father. Except he wasnt.
Then there was an incident. Why are you talking to the black girl? a man had sniggered as his friend approached me in the lively smoking area of my aunts pub, a place I had been many times before and where Id often felt comfortable.
Is there a problem? Id asked the sniggering group of lads. A problem with me being black, and being here? The man apologised on behalf of his friends, told me hed lived in London with all types and bought me a glass of wine as a peace offering.
I was raging, embarrassed. But when I told my mother in the bar, she pretended not to hear. It was a moment that made me feel as if I were being lowered into the ground in a glass coffin in full view of everyone, begging to be let out while no one did a thing.
There had been racism in Ireland before, of course back the west in the homogenous farming county of Clare, Id heard monkey noises made at me and been told to go back to Africa. Id never had that in the UK, but yet as a child Id love our summer visits to Ireland so much that Id cry in the car all the way to the ferry port when it was time to go back to England. But that year, in 2017, it felt all the more painful because Id thought my mother and I were making progress; I thought we had been dismantling the invisible wall between us. On that trip, I saw Mum revert back to the comfort of her silence and it broke me all over again.
Georgina Lawton and her mum on holiday in Ireland
Georgina Lawton and her mum on holiday in Ireland
Back in London, my therapist tried to explain that Irish cultural norms had shaped my mother. That because none of her family had ever challenged her on why her daughter was black, I shouldnt expect her to acknowledge the reality of my experience after just a few months of counselling.
We spoke of how my mother was raised against the backdrop of a legacy of silence and shame around womens choices, how despicably Ireland had treated unwed mothers and black illegitimate children, how these stories would have filled her with fear.
During those therapy sessions, I was able to place myself in my parents shoes. I thought back to just how Irish my mother is, despite the fact she lived half of her adult life in London with my father.
I thought of our family holidays together, how my mum was illuminated anew beneath the lights of a pub each summer. I used to watch in awe as I saw her not just as my mother, but as a woman who could command the attention of entire bars, singing old Irish songs with her family, getting pissed on Chardonnay and smiling a lot.
I remembered how my dad had loved Ireland just as much as she did. After a week or two in Clare, Id notice his British accent would take on a speech pattern like my uncles: his Rs would harden and thered be liberal uses of sure. In therapy, we spoke of how silence around difficult topics was normal for both my mother and father.
Dad, who was emotionally reserved, had grown up isolated from his family, having spent most of his childhood at boarding school. In Ireland, Id watch him watching my mum with her family, a pint of Guinness in hand, laughing and joking a little more, but always staying sober so he could look after everyone else.
After he died, an elderly man who lived a road away from my granny told my mum that he remembered the time my dad took him home and put him to bed. I realised that in staying to raise me, and choosing not to question my mum, he had a generosity of spirit like no other.
When I was born, both my parents privately admitted that I was not the baby they had been expecting, yet they were equally matched in emotional stoicism, and they did not admit that to themselves. Silence, I realised, was their coping mechanism. And that silence was the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me.
I havent been back to Ireland since 2017 but Im sure I will return. The scents remain potent. I can still smell the smoky air from a thousand turf fires as I step off a plane in Shannon. The whiff of stale beer and old sweat in the daylight as I walk into my aunts pub doorway. The salt and the seaweed from the tepid waters along the west coast. The curry sauce on a takeaway portion of curry chip. The sweetness of a freshly wrapped bale underfoot.
Ireland has been a part of my cultural identity since forever. And it is mainly filled with good smells, good memories and salty food. It is where I developed a penchant for soda bread and real butter, and the country in which I decided I actually really like being outside. (No slice of the English countryside is half as rustic or exciting as the Wild Atlantic Way.)
Grief has marred some of the memories now all the summers melt into one: where we took family trips to Loop Head with my Uncle Brian, who died one year before my father of a similar cancer; where my family and I walked along the Cliffs of Moher; where my dad took me and my cousins to the amusements in Kilkee, helping me win piles of 5c coins on the horse-racing arcade games before taking us for a Brunch ice-cream on the way home.
Im still reflecting on a childhood where much went unsaid, and Im trying to find out more around my heritage but tracing the decisions of parents through the places they lived and loved is helping me become whole.
Georgina is a journalist and host of the Audible series The Secrets in Us. Her book Raceless, published by Sphere, is out now
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