Snippets from a life story by Philomena Mullen

Unlike the other girls in the industrial school, or the home as we called it, my mother was still in my life. My father, after a fashion, was as well. But it was my mother who dominated my world like a giant sun around which I carried out my wobbly orbit. 

There is a German boy who never speaks in one of my books. I was able to read it openly last summer, even surrounded by the other girls in the home. Kids sitting around reading could be picked on, especially if it was something brainy-looking (i.e. not a comic or a Ladybird). You also had to watch out for the nuns who could pick on you for idling around reading. Despite its bulkiness the title somehow survived scrutiny and I got to finish it. Anyway, this boy, Oskar, who is always banging a tin drum, the title of the book, claims at the start of his story that he can remember being in his mother’s womb. My memories don’t stretch back that far. That’s why I have to let my mother fill in the blanks.

My mother pushed my brown head out of her pinky pale body to the scream of a student nurse. From my mother’s telling and retelling of this, I imagine the nurse had the look of the only person who knows that the asteroid is coming to destroy her world. It took the older, more experienced midwife in the gravid Dublin maternity hospital to scold her and reassure her that I wasn’t a demon. 

Or, so my mother told me. Once I was ejected from that uterine institution, the whole truth about her became a mysterious land to me, and this story and many others about my childhood balance between the real and imagined spaces of my life. The funny thing about this memory is that I have now accepted it as fact. As part of my memory. 

I even think that sometimes, if I strain my chubby ears, I can hear the faint echo of the scream of that young nurse from down the country where white Irish mothers did not spit out brown babies with Afros. A batsqueak of rejection at my birth.

Like all stories my mother tells me, this one held different significance for her than it did for me. Memories shared, such as my birth, were crafted snippets with minimal content, full of warnings that here be dragons should I try to get her to provide any further detail. 

My mother would proudly tell me the story of my birth, the greatest story overtold, without recognising any of its inconsistencies. And without touching on the reason that I was stuck in an industrial school. Yet as every sorcerer must have her apprentice, I would listen, holding my conflicting feelings in balance, and put on my practised smile of support.

This is how she tells it. 

On the Saturday, at six in the evening, her neighbour came to the door and told her there was a phone call for her from Belfast. There was no phone in the house, just as there wasn’t in most houses on Patrick Street. So she quickly threw on her shoes and went into O’Mahonys next door, whose bakelite handset had the ability to bring faraway worlds to our humble Dun Laoghaire terrace. The disembodied voice was that of my father. What they talked about was not permitted to intrude on the tale as related to me. 

On Sunday, her waters broke, perhaps hastened by the previous evening’s excitement of hearing his voice. She prepared her bag and used the phone call as an excuse to leave, telling her mother she was going up to Belfast to visit friends. She had lived and worked there for many years in a shirt-making factory. One of just three Catholics in a strongly Presbyterian workforce, she worked her way up to being a manager. She even befriended the wife of the celebrated Protestant reverend, Wylie Blue, who was not renowned for his affection towards Southern Catholics. It was also where she had met my father, a Nigerian doctor who had trained at Trinity College, in Dublin. She would eventually be offered the chance to own an operating share in the factory but she returned home to Dun Laoghaire to take care of her widowed mother. 

But it wasn’t to Belfast she was heading but to the national maternity hospital in Holles Street. As there was a bus strike on and no taxi could be found, she began walking from Dun Laoghaire into Dublin city centre, a distance of close to nine miles. Luckily for her (and, I suppose, me) about three miles into the journey a car pulled in and offered her a lift. Knowing her, she would have been dropped off a few streets away, and once she was reassured as to the success of her stratagem walked the remainder. I don’t know if this is what she did as I never dared ask. But I knew.

On the Monday, I arrived at six in the morning on the dot (the last time I was ever so punctual) to the accompaniment of the nurse’s screams, a dark brown troll with an Afro not being what her training had led her to expect. No one expected me in 1960s Dublin and yet there I was. 

My bottom barely smacked and my lungs gulping air, a social worker was on the spot to advise my mother that in her own best interests and in the interest of the child she should sign papers to give me up. My mother, proud in the telling, would declaim her loud ‘no!’ 

You see, she wasn’t married to my father. She wasn’t married to anyone. And never did marry. A fallen woman but with the exotic twist that the manifestation of her degeneracy was a black baby. All of Ireland gave money in the 1960s to support the black babies far away in some fabled place called Africa (the home of Tarzan). But only my mother and a few hundred other white Irish women were chosen by life’s lottery, the Irish sweep under the blanket stakes, to make their own black babies. Many of us babies would soon meet up in the institutions. In ones, and threes, and even more at times. 

By Tuesday, my mother and I began to get used to each other’s quirks and foibles. The social worker reappeared and once again advised my mother that in her own best interests and in the interests of the child she should sign the papers and give the child up. My mother, beaming with pride would recount that she refused and ushered the social worker out of her hospital cubicle, with a defiance that bordered on menace.

By Wednesday, my mother and myself were getting on like a house on fire, but another incursion onto the ward was made by the social worker to persuade my mother that in her own best interests and in the interests of the child she should give me up. 

‘I ran her,’ my mother told me, leaning into her tale of bravado. ‘I told her she would be taking her life in her hands if she came back again.’ 

She was then in her late thirties and says she told the social worker, ‘this is the only child I will probably ever have. Now beat it!’

On Thursday, my mother with other women ‘in her situation’ were jettisoned at the halfway house, just a few doors down from the hospital, and as far as I know, she and I stayed there for a few days. 

Then, in someone’s best interests, she left me there and returned to her life, her family, her work, and her mother in Dun Laoghaire. 

By the following Wednesday, all of nine days old, I took myself down to the Dublin Metropolitan Court who duly informed me that I was homeless. A waif and possibly already a stray. The court pronounced that I was to be transferred from Dublin down to Loughrea, in Co Galway. When asked if I wished to say anything in my defence, I held my tongue. I had learnt early that no one really listens.

Ten days later, a Saturday, the straying waif was delivered to an industrial school in Loughrea. I have no idea where I spent those intervening ten days. I imagine, being a hardened criminal, I was put into solitary somewhere but it never formed part of my mother’s story, so I haven’t a clue.  

My mother and I would live apart like this, separated by miles on the map and a fathomless ocean of personal pain. While my mother never intended to sign me away, it was also clear to me that she never intended to keep me with her. She had a concealed pregnancy and her determination to walk the nine miles from Dun Laoghaire to Holles Street if she had to, rather than seek help or inform anybody she was in labour, was testament to this desire to retain her dark secret. Any discussion of this part of the story was glossed over in her retelling, and I went along with her as not discussing difficult subjects became our means of shared communication.

I entered the Irish industrial school system aged nineteen days, and already, I suppose, a hardened lag. Without my mother’s recollection, my years in Loughrea are almost empty of memory. A cavity in the calendar of my story.

The institution in Galway closed down when I was almost four and I was moved to Booterstown in Dublin, a stone’s throw from where my mother lived. It was a propitious moment in her life as well. Her mother was now dead, and this presented an opportunity for her to risk bringing me to the house in Dun Laoghaire. On these occasional breaks for good behaviour I would visit my mother’s home for several hours on Sundays and when I got older for a few weeks of the summer holidays. 

Whose behaviour was deemed sufficiently good to merit such breaks from the institution was never discussed between mother and daughter. 

To carry it off without suspicion, while also getting herself into the good books with the nuns, she deviously included an assortment of other children in our day trips, from the many who never had any family able or willing to take them. These children ranged in ages and several of them I didn’t even know within the home. But they all got turns and loved coming out to Mrs. Mullen’s. 

This behaviour by my mother was universally deemed to be an incommensurable act of charity. One of the seven virtues. An inspector from the Department of Education, who, possibly suspicious of the magnanimity of the gesture, turned up on her doorstep unannounced one day, was so taken by her beneficence that he recommended to the nuns that she no longer had to pay for my incarceration within their walls. My mother in this way worked her magic on those who would normally have been there to censure women such as her. 

She was a genteel woman, not by birth but by disposition. She wasn’t fat but had more of a plump curvaceousness that she knew made her attractive to the men around her. Her red hair, however, spoke to something else about the woman, her temper. Maureen O’Hara swinging for John Wayne was a wimp in comparison to her. She was steely in her stern, bossy and self-righteous manner, with a will and desire to be in charge. Aspiring to eldest child status, but confined to the lower rank of a middle child, she was the sixth child of nine, but nevertheless set out to dominate all who passed within her orbit. She never said ‘shut up’ in her life. She didn’t have to. Her dander up, all it took was a blast of her gimlet glare and a sharp comment, and all opposition withered before her like a wedding bouquet in the hands of a bride jilted at the altar. 

When she ‘gave you the eye’ no words were spoken, just a glance, eyes closed with dramatic slowness, then opened again, while lips were pursed tight. Her disdain dug into you as a bloodsucker burrows into your bare leg on a summer’s day. She was the fiercesome Irish Morrigan, the goddess of your fate, and like that mythical character she brooked no challenge to her authority. I never saw anybody challenge her directly when she was in full eye mode, though I often heard other family members say ‘she doesn’t scare me’ behind her back. 

I had none of her formidable arsenal of glares as I faced the hurly burly of the girls in the home. To compensate for this lack of defence, the one word shudhup became the tin drum that beat out my carefully cultivated silence. 

– You know, Phil, if we put Velcro up on the ceiling and you jumped up, you’d be stuck. 

– Shudhup.

– The sun’s out, do you want to let your tits hang out like those Africans in Tarzan?

– Shudhup.

– Oh, Phil is Cheeta the monkey.

– Shudhup.[he’s a chimp, ya eejit]

– Phil, I saw your family on the cover of National Geographic.

– Shudhup.

– If you married a white man, your children might be ok.

– Shudhup. [I’m never getting married]

– Brown girl in the ring, sha la la, that’s you!

– Shudhup.

– Oh Black Betty, ramalam!

– Are you a Baluba, Phil? Was it your dad who shot at my uncle when he was out in the Congo? 

– Do you eat people like cannibals do in Africa?

– Shudhup.[or I’ll eat the face off ya!]

My mother proclaimed to the masses that she told it as she saw it. And yet, her plainspoken demeanour hid a reluctance to deal with many of the anomalies of the choices she had made. It was easy enough to find chinks in her steel plating. For all of her self-righteousness, she was the only one of the four boys and five girls in her family that had a child outside of marriage. This was the bit that made her the most interesting as she was renowned for her piety. Constantly to be found in church from an early age; if it wasn’t a sodality, it was a novena, if not a novena then a retreat or a vigil. It didn’t matter, if her god or his pulpiteers needed a mortal vessel, she would answer the call. 

She was born and raised on Patrick Street in Dun Laoghaire, during Hitler’s rise to power (though I always felt she would have stopped him with a  couple of her glares), in what was an unusually large two-storey-over-basement house, occupied only by her family at a time when many in the city were living in tenements or small cottages. The house was owned by the Lords of the Soil, the name given to the Longford/de Vesci landlords who owned Dun Laoghaire, Monkstown and Glenageary. She bought it from them for a nominal sum in the 1960s due to the fact her mother had paid rent on it for multiple decades before. Her mother had worked at times in the even larger houses in the area inhabited by retired Colonels and Majors of the British army, dreaming of glory, vain or other, back in the Raj or the Kenyan plains, but daily confronted by the aggrieved indifference of a 1960s Ireland. Sometimes my mother called to these houses as a child where the maids in their crisp uniforms would give her sweets and dote on her, at the door. I don’t know if she ever made it inside but the houses certainly inhabited her.

Their life of privilege and the indelible fancy formed in her imagination of the grandeur of the houses and their owners stayed with her, even when she finally moved from her beloved but now burdensome and dilapidated childhood home on Patrick Street to a much smaller 1970s, three bed semi in Bray. Crocheted antimacassars festooned the backs of armchairs and settees that had travelled with her from the much bigger house, shoehorned into the narrow and cramped living spaces. White crocheted doilies were, at all times, to be found under her long-stemmed Waterford glasses, collected one by one over the years from Arnott’s department store using her budget card. Antique china sets extracted from the floor-to-ceiling mahogany sideboard in the old drawing room in Dun Laoghaire sat decoratively in the new glass-fronted walnut veneer dresser. Seldom if ever used, yet reminders of the grander home that could never be replaced.

My mother loved to talk about how she met my father in Belfast and how he had volunteered to be a buffer between her and another African student, Albert, who had insisted that he wanted to marry her, or as he put it ‘engage her for Christmas.’ She would never talk about the things that mattered. Like, why was I in an institution? Or what did it feel like to be a silent black siren in a boisterous world of whiteness? Her ability to shut down questions that dug any deeper or demanded any further detail was swift and involved the full opening and closing eye routine to indicate that this conversation was now ended and that all parties should withdraw. Enquiries about my birth that strayed beyond the well-worn outline that she drew were rebuffed with a deft flick of the eyelashes above the rolling eyes that told me to back off. 

Throughout her pregnancy, she went about her daily routine, working full time as a clerk for a major coal distributor, while helping her mother to run a boarding house, and with whom she had to share a bed every night for the nine months that I lurked inside her, as all of the other beds were occupied by boarders. But not a word was said between the two of them about her condition. As she was already plump, she insisted she didn’t show. But from what she said about my grandmother being as sharp as a tack, I didn’t fully believe that she had fooled the old woman. Her one concession, she claimed, to my brownness growing inside her belly was having to open the top button on her skirt. And she probably rolled her eyes at even this compromise.

This ability to dissemble and fool everybody carried on after my birth. Locked in my iron mask into the institution in Loughrea, nobody was any the wiser as to her indiscretion or my claim to the Dun Laoghaire throne. Dissemble she did, and continued to do so for many years, making the unusual choice of coming to visit me in the institution in Galway while pretending to visit friends in Belfast. I have a faded confirmation of this, a photograph of her holding me aged about three months on her lap in front of the industrial school, two greying black and white faces expressing surprise at seeing each other again. 

As the years passed, I would be released from the institution for Christmas and Easter, and for several weeks during the summer when I was older, to spend time with her. Depending on how much camouflage she required and the needs of the nuns, I would share my mother with as many as four other children. There were always others there to cover the true nature of my relationship with her. Where others saw the charity of a virtuous woman whose blood deserved bottling for future generations, I saw only her denial of me as her flesh and blood. Each time a stranger or a shopkeeper patted me on the head while enquiring if they could have a curl, or loudly enquired about where I came from or remarked on just how grateful I should be towards the lovely, kind lady who was taking me out and giving me a holiday, I wanted to denounce her as a deceiver, a fraud, a phoney. But each time, Mrs. Mullen’s little darkie simply smiled. Standing at waist height, and staring at the mottled whiteness of their fleshy legs, the colour of sunlight streaming through crumpled sweet wrappers, I got to hear all the classic oohs and aahs:

– ‘Ah, look at her’ she’s gorgeous, where is she from?

– ‘Oh, what a lovely tan you have.’ 

– ‘Ah, you don’t need to sit in the sun.’ 

– ‘Oh, do you find it very cold here?’ 

– ‘Ah, she’s very lucky to have someone like you, Mrs. Mullen, to take her in. Sure their own people don’t want them.’

It was never once assumed that I was her child. Some orphan from Africa, no doubt, whose silent tongue was actually a thick Bray accent. A middle-aged woman approached us while walking on the promenade one day and loudly whispered to my vanilla-scented mother ‘You’re a great woman for taking in the little darkie.’ I shot laser beams at her knees (my anger wouldn’t permit me to lift my head). Whether she felt them or not, her knees were now banjaxed and any hope she had of taking up competitive dancing or representing Ireland in the high jump were to be shattered forever. While her comment, and the fact my mother didn’t correct her, found space in the fester of insult and injury in my heart. The heart can see further than the eye.

My mother would stand in her dominion, never correcting this misinterpretation of what our true connection was. Indeed, it seemed to me she encouraged it. As I got older, people convinced themselves that I must have been adopted. A ‘coloured’ child, with the same surname as her never seemed to provoke any deeper questioning, despite there not being an iota of a chance of a single woman adopting a child of any hue in 1970s Ireland.

Head high, she exuded piety. Needless to say, the more I was around her the more this silence implicated us in a web of deception that affected how I viewed her. I never embarrassed or betrayed her, despite my confusion at her fraudulently earned saintliness. I stood silently and played my role of black baby to her white saviour. And just as a stone in your shoe becomes familiar with time, it seemed to suit us both. It kept a distance between us and allowed me to feel as if she really was just a woman on a mission to save me from a life of degradation. 

For my part, I colluded in this repudiation of me, and by omission allowed strangers to believe whatever they wanted or needed to when they encountered us. I cared deeply for the woman, and cared very little about myself in the eyes of these worshippers at the altar of my mother’s virtue. 

Besides, if I ever did try to step outside of this role our seasonal relationship would quickly turn autumnal, with signs of approaching hoary frost to chill our few exchanged words. For those who didn’t buy into the saintly behaviour, this red-headed ferocity insulated her from questions that might have unmasked her and revealed the truth. The end result was that she got away with it, and was well on her way to sainthood, without the need for those pesky miracles.

Part of me thinks she revelled in the notion of being a good girl gone bad, openly personifying the Madonna while enjoying the deliciousness of having been friends with Mary Magdalene. 

But mainly she enjoyed playing the part of the faithful, patient Penelope to the Odysseus that was my father, who gallivanted across the globe like the galumphing galoot he was and internationally-renowned professor of pathology he would become. My mother, like Penelope, waited at home for the errant man, crocheting with a fury that only a scorned and angry woman can manifest. Busy with his career, he made some occasional show of being faithful to my mother, and of being interested in me, but his relationship to the sirens he encountered on his voyages was that of a man who just sailed fast enough for them to catch him and draw him in. 

I had a wonderful teacher in third class, Miss Condron, who taught me about the sirens and how no one could ever answer the question, what song did the sirens sing?, as to hear them meant your death. No one that is except for wily Odysseus. I grew to love this idea, songs heard by no one. If I did have a siren song, it was sung in silence, and my father never heard it.

Faced with the fragility that was man, my mother became the stuff of legend. She reminded herself of one of those women from the story where, their city surrounded by a despotic Lord, are invited to carry the thing they most treasured in life. Instead of comics and clothes, they end up carrying their husbands, sons, fathers, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker on their strong shoulders. And moved by the power of these women and their love for their menfolk, the enemy let them pass to safety. 

The children of such mythological heroes are just backdrop. Incidental to the larger tale. And yet, I was aware that for whatever reason she risked it all, the antimacassars and doilies, the devotion to benediction, sodality and novenas, and the ‘aren’t you marvellous,’ for the sake of proximity to me, in an environment which was hostile at best, and cruel and unnatural in its conduct towards unmarried mothers at its core. She cheated the system that robbed so many women like her of their children, and they of their mothers. And I saw that she saved me from the thing that afflicted so many others condemned to the institutions. Not knowing who I was or where I came from is something that I never had to face because of her.

A single, white unmarried woman of her time with a coloured child in tow was not an enviable position in which to find herself. Maybe she kept this connection with me as it linked my father to her. Penelope taking care of Telemachus in the hope that Odysseus might come home from his long voyage and stay put. Spoiler alert: he never did. We were always just a port he put into for repairs. Just as war generates its own causes of war, his main role was to be the cause of many gory battles between my mother and I as we blamed this absent man, and pleaded with his occasional presence, to provide something that none of us could give voice to.

The one language we could all articulate was silence. Silence flowed through my very veins. It guided all my relationships with the blanched white world around me. Even as I tell this story, silence still dominates. I sense my mother and father looking over my shoulder, berating me for trying to break our mutual silence. 

My skin kept me mute, walling me in as an apology for taking up that space where whiteness should have been. Families are built on silences. Those places of best not to talk about it, let well enough alone, and don’t go there! This black siren never got to sit on a rock above the green runny-nose of the sea, her voice heard by all who passed by. The cat that got and held my tongue, jumped into a box and Houdini-like locked it from the inside before fecking himself into the Mariana Trench. I had no words and yet I spoke all the time. At school, to the despair of teachers like Miss Condron, I was the class clown. But all my words and madcap acts were just a silent mime. Echoless words to be dropped down a  deep well. 

My mother was the same. The two of us were gregarious people who lived in silences and unanswered questions. We wore silence much as you keep a wet coat on for longer than you should because it just seems like too much of an effort to take it off.

One thing that certainly was never talked about was my colour. Though I think I wanted to have it talked about. I needed to talk about it. But I always chickened out. Like the buttered knife that you leave suspended over the rim of the sink in the expectation that you might use it for some toast later on, but end up washing before bed, I always intended to talk about race…but never got around to it. 

In this I took after my mother.

The 1970s were the period of the spy novel and movie. It was all Richard Burton coming in from the cold, or Michael Caine (when not shooting Zulus) fiddling with his oversized glasses as Harry Palmer. My mother could have played a spy in any of these flicks as she knew how to keep secret her thoughts. 

I remember the night we came home from somewhere on the last bus, in a dismal 1970s Ireland. She had by now moved to Bray and it was just the two of us, no other girls from the home. I can’t recall where we were coming from but it was late and the bus dropped us at the end of her road. As we crossed over from the bus stop to walk up the road, we passed a group of young men, literal corner boys who had been propping up the side of the pub in case of structural defects or unfavourable shifts in the tectonic plates somewhere far beneath our feet. 

Of course they started to follow us. Sure, why wouldn’t they! A quiet street. A feed of drink. A single woman and a brown teenager. They’d have to hand in their corner boy union cards if they turned their noses up at this opportunity. 

They began to make monkey noises. They were right behind us. I mean right behind! I caught the faint whiff of B.O. and Old Spice, and couldn’t decide which was worse. All the way up the road, and it was a long road, they sang Bob Marley, or made ooh-ooh ah-ah monkey sounds and oo-gaoo-ga nonsense noises that were supposed to mimic some African language known only to them.

I was quite used to this. But it was the first time I had ever experienced it with my mother present. I felt a heat in my cheeks that no doubt matched the red lights on the top of the Poolbeg chimney stacks, that warned planes to keep away. And all I felt was pain for my mother who must now face what I faced each and every day. My nerves were as tight as the stretched rubber bands I used in class to flick chewed balled paper at my tormentors.

Yet, my mother’s block heel never faltered as it clip-clopped along, her step remaining steady and sure as we proceeded up the dark road. I was impressed by her composure as I knew how fiercesome she really was. That’s it, lead them into your trap and them pounce and rip their innards out for crows to gnaw at. 

On and on it went as I counted every bead of the necklace of streetlights that laced its way up the road (seven from the corner, so thirteen more to go). I suspected two things about their repertoire. No Woman No Cry was the only song they knew. And crying was very much what they wanted this woman and her child to do. 

My sadness and horror were made worse as I imagined the big talk we would have to engage in about this taunting when I got home.

We reached the house and the Marley tribute act crossed over the road laughing and shouting, delighted with themselves for their clever inventive harassment, and returning, I suppose, to previous concerns about the structural integrity of corner shop design. 

In this new silence, and with the key in the faulty Chubb lock, I braced myself in the hall for the uncomfortable conversation that was about to happen. I had been outed and my illuminated blackness was going to be discussed, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

Except my mother did prevent it. No mention was made of what had just happened. No sign of being affected by what had occurred was evident as she made herself a cup of  tea and me a cup of boiling water (as I didn’t drink tea or coffee). I was so relieved! I drank the water in quiet companionship and went upstairs to sit under my Afro-halo’d Joan Armatrading poster, with a sense that I had gotten away with something, though I wasn’t really sure with what. Perhaps it was late and the reckoning would come with the fry-up in the morning. My mother would have a plan, a strategy for keeping me safe in the future.

Yet, there was to be no mention of it. 

The song of my blackness had no place at our table, along with the doilies under saucers and cups of the best china, or the silverware that my mother’s mother had received as a wedding gift back in black and white days, but which shone brightly thanks to the hours my mother spent polishing it.

My mother poked her head in before I slept to say goodnight. I marvelled at how between visits to the hair dresser her hair was slowly being gentrified, as more and more white hairs moved in to replace the flaming red. Though nothing that a bottle of hair dye couldn’t sort out, as she would say herself. I had traces (faint to all but mother and daughter) of her red in my curly black mane, which amused the two of us. Black Beauty and Maureen O’Hara, together, in Technicolor. 

I looked past her, out to the blinking eye of the lighthouse, a lost child in the dark of the sea. I longed to tell her ‘Please, Mam, let me go there, and on those rocks in that dark place, sing my siren song.’ That’s what I would have said if I had been that kind of child. And she had been the kind of mother who would have allowed me say it.