‘It was very lonely being the only black girl in the class’

Author Annie Yellowe shares her story about growing up in Northern Ireland
Author Annie Yellowe shares her story about growing up in Northern Ireland

The daughter of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, Annie Yellowe Palma grew up contending with racism, sectarianism and poverty in Portadown during the 1960s.

One of six children, her mother often chose alcohol rather than food for her children and Annie was routinely bullied because of the colour of her skin.

In her new memoir outlining her life here in Northern Ireland, she talks of suffering poverty and neglect, bullying at school, constant comments about her race and bearing witness to some of the horrors of the Troubles.

Annie describes how she wanted to write her memoir as a way of showing the extent of racism and sectarianism in Northern Ireland at this time and hopes the work shows clearly the moral horror of bigotry and the real disadvantages faced by people from ethnic minorities during this period.

“I was brought up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and at the height of the Troubles, behind the barricades in a very working class area of Portdadown. I lived with what I refer to as the ‘Irish mafia’ and knew only racism, sectarianism, poverty, violence and severe neglect for over 20 years of my young life.”

Annie lived near the notorious ‘murder triangle’ in Co Armagh and referred to the local loyalist paramilitaries as the ‘mafia’ who controlled what happened on the streets.

For the Love of a Mother is a book about life in Ulster through the eyes of a black girl, exposed to the daily struggles of hardship and often deprived of a devoted mother’s love because of her parent’s struggle with alcoholism.

The author takes us on a candid tour of the neighbourhood. You feel as though you have met many of the characters personally and find out what daily life was like behind the closed curtains.

Annie was born in Liverpool, the only girl and middle child of six, and moved to Northern Ireland at the age of four when her parents separated.

“We grew up behind the barricades in Portadown, in streets that were sealed off from everyone and had vigilantes on all sides. We saw people marching, members of the UVF and the UDA with their guns right outside the door. For us that was normal. We were surrounded by violence in those years and in those days we thought of this as just the way life was, not realising how outrageous our living situation was.

“It was doubly complicated for us because we were mixed race.

“I grew up with people bullying me but others I lived near insisted we were one of them - they tolerated us because they knew my mother and they knew my family.

“But at school people would make comments about my hair and my big lips. And sometimes other kids would say ‘you can’t play skipping with us because your’re a darky’ and my mum would tell me to go out and say I could play with them because I was a Protestant. Then sometimes they would relent. But they were kids - they didn’t know what they were saying they were just repeating what they were told.”

Annie attended Killicomaine Junior High School and was lucky to have five brothers defending her from bullies.

Her personal struggles are juxtaposed with the violence unfolding nearby.

Felix Hughes (35) was beaten to death by loyalist paramilitaries not so far from where Annie used to go to make daisy chains, and many other murders and beatings took place in the area.

“We grew up thinking violence was normal. In the book I wanted to show that the racism I encountered in Northern Ireland was just like the sectarianism that was fuelling the Troubles being played out on the streets. Both are about hatred and about ignorant ways of thinking.

“We saw things no children should see like paramilitaries with guns standing outside our doors in uniform. I saw people making petrol bombs. I even remember as a child going over to some men with scarves over their faces asking if I could help them make them because I didn’t really understand what they were for. I didn’t understand these bombs were being made to kill and maim people.”

Annie was particularly affected by the murder of family friend Sam Johnston, who

“came to my home on many occasions, who talked with us, played with us, ate with us, laughed with us, watched television with us and was shot to death in Batchelors Walk. This was a wood we enjoyed as children, climbing trees, watching tennis matches, secretly smoking. The first kiss for many of my friends was had in those woods. Sam was my brother’s friend. When I heard my brother’s sobs, I felt so sad for him. On the night Sam was murdered, we were all watching one of our favourite wildlife programmes.

“My mother’s face drained. ‘Oh, my God’ she wailed, “Oh my God, not Sam, not poor wee Sam Johnston.” I wondered if the ‘tit for tat’ killers knew how much devastation they had caused, how much grief, how much pain.”

While internecine conflict played out on the streets of Portadown Annie was constantly battling racist attitudes and describes how it blighted her life. Once a school friend tried to scrub her skin believing it would make her paler. She had to deal with constant verbal abuse and was used to being stared at and treated differently.

“It was very lonely being the only black pupil in the classroom. The bullying I had to deal with made me a more aggressive person; because I was so used to being picked on I became defensive. I developed a vicious tongue because I felt I had to retaliate and be tough in order to deal with it when people attacked me because of the colour of my skin.

“I had great friends too though - people who very much loved me and regarded me as one of them despite the colour of my skin. They were protective of me and would have even knocked people out if anyone else called me a n*****.”

“Despite the dysfunction around us we found fun and laughter in many situations. We were very resourceful children with great imaginations and the book is interspersed with plenty of moments of utter hilarity even in the most serious of situations. We had a strange existence in that we were accepted in our community by some and yet still racially abused on a daily basis by neighbours, the police and the British Army. This was mostly verbal abuse that occasionally spilled into acts of violence. My brothers literally had to fight to earn respect and we learned to hold our own.

“The local loyalist paramiltaries and our friends could be fiercely protective and would come to our defence when others tried to insult or hurt us.”

Annie writes about a chaotic home life that meant she often was left to parent herself: “My mother turned to drink. In those days to be a white Irish woman in a Protestant community it was frowned upon to have children out of marriage and she had us to different fathers so she had to deal with a lot of stigma. She kept us with her instead of putting us into care but it was a difficult situation because of her drinking and her partner used to beat her so I grew up in an abusive environment.

“I became desensitised to such terrible things. I was used to being around people who were drunk and neglect was normal for my siblings and I. My grandfather used to threaten my mother that he would have us taken away from her if she didn’t look after us properly. But mum at least always kept us with her.”

:: For the Love of a Mother (The Black Children of Ulster) by Annie Yellowe Palma is published by Cloister House Press and is also available as an ebook. See www.annieyellowpalma.simplesite.com.