I was brought up in Birmingham amongst the Irish community and could early on tell the difference between the accents, between those from the north or Dublin or out West or Cork. My mother was one of nine, brought up by my grandparents who ran a boarding house for Irish labourers. We used to visit Nana on a Sunday after she’d been to Mass. She had a soft voice with a slight whistle in it. She was a country girl from Wexford who married a local boy, my grandfather Nicholas, who played the accordion and fiddle and we would sit in their backroom while he squeezed the box and tapped his foot. Nana made a strange apple pie which I hated, it had honey in it or something but she also had a biscuit tin which we occasionally got to raid.
Of course, she was horrified when my mother took up with a black man. She had come to England for her children to have a better life and this, in her opinion, was a step down. She told my mother that her mixed-race children would be ‘neither fish nor fowl’ and that we would never fit in anywhere. In some respects she was right. We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club. She grew to love us, naturally, and my sister went to live with her after a teenage argument with my father.
Grandad was softly spoken too, although he had been a bit of a drinker in his time. I only ever knew him as a gentle man that did as he was told, smartly turned out in a shirt and tie with an Aran cardigan or Merino jumper. He died in his seventies, many years before my grandmother. He suffered from Alzheimer’s which made him regress and become the boy of his youth, a farmhand in Campile. It was terrible to see him picking imaginary turnips out of the carpet, holding them up. ‘See!’ he said.
As I’ve got older, my Irish heritage has become increasingly important to me. Every time I visit Ireland there is a sense of coming home which is strange as I’ve never lived there. But my childhood was lived to the soundtrack of my grandfather’s rebel songs, to the sing-song lilt of all the Irish counties, to the smell of bacon and cabbage and good strong tea. On my childhood street, neighbours on either side and opposite were all Irish, half of the children at school were called O’Connor, Dempsey, Byrne, Whelan, MacNamara, and when I got my Irish citizenship a few years ago, there was a real sense of being complete.
(c) Kit de Waal
About My Name is Leon:
A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.
Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.
As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.
Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.
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