We have so many fantastic books in the library, it’s high time we started doing book reviews! This week Jo Manby has been reading Where Are You Really From? by Tim Brannigan (Blackstaff Press: Belfast 2010) ‘Kola Kubes and Gelignite, Secrets and Lies – The true story of an extraordinary family’ is the subtitle of this fascinating memoir by the journalist Tim Brannigan. It is dedicated, in turn, to Peggy Brannigan, his ‘beautiful and extraordinary mum’; his brothers; his mum’s partner Tom, and finally to his ‘new-found brothers and sisters.’ Who they are and how he came across them is revealed in the later chapters of the book.
It was recommended to me by a colleague who said it was well worth a read. The amazing story begins with Tim’s birth in 1966 in Belfast. ‘I died the same day,’ Brannigan writes; ‘my mother had managed to create not so much a phantom pregnancy, but rather a phantom death’. Peggy was married to Tom and they had three young sons at the time, Ciaran, Paul and Damien (a fourth, Declan, was born later). She had had an affair with a Ghanaian, Dr Michael Ekue, whom she had first met at a dance, and had fallen pregnant by him. She did confide in Tom, her partner, of the plan to go ahead and have the baby, but then to pretend the baby had died, although she also told him that she had been raped by Dr Ekue, which was not actually the case. However, she needed a strategy to conceal her indiscretion from her devout Irish Catholic parents.
Fortunately, Peggy had a connection with the nearby St Joseph’s Baby Home. As a schoolgirl, she had been encouraged to visit as a volunteer, later taking children on walks and days-out. She kept this up all her life. She was able to arrange for Tim to be transferred immediately to the Home, and then to adopt him a year later, in 1967.
Brannigan writes engagingly about growing up Black just off the Falls Road; about his mother’s bravery and devotion, her willingness to risk everything to keep him close by her, but also her high expectations of him and her strong desire that he would, at some point, trace his own father. He tells of the inevitability for families in his area to become embroiled in Republican politics. He and his brothers were more than a few times asked to hide armaments or explosives, literally behind the sofa on occasion.
Brannigan in his teens had a ‘low-key Sinn Féin role’, selling the party’s papers, putting up their election posters and making collections in local bars. Once, after a rare incident of racist abuse, he was approached a few days later by two men offering to have the perpetrator shot. As Brannigan remarked, if he’d agreed to that every time someone made a racist remark there would have been a blood bath.
In 1990, Brannigan, his mother, and Chris, her partner, were all arrested and taken to Castlereagh Interrogation Centre, after guns and explosives were found on their property. Brannigan was sent to Crumlin Road Jail for seven years. The notorious H-blocks had moved on a bit since the days of the ‘blanketmen’ protests and hunger strikes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ‘screws’ had to ask the IRA’s permission to come down onto the wings.
The IRA encouraged the men to educate themselves; Brannigan attended courses on creative writing and drama, women’s studies, and studied for A level French and English, as well as passing his Maths GCSE. As Brannigan brings his memoir closer to the present day, we see him lose his beloved mother Peggy and also discover previously unknown brothers and sisters as he manages to track down and meet up with his birth father. Brannigan’s Epilogue is brief but perfectly formed, a summation of where he considers his true home to be.