TURBULENT TIMES: Annie Yellowe Palma and her brothers grew up amidst sectarian violence in 1960s Northern Ireland
"MY FAMILY is part of the history of Ireland, never to be forgotten, and to be remembered always.”
Those were the words of Annie Yellowe Palma, a social worker and author of For the Love of a Mother. Palma, who wrote the book, was inspired by her upbringing in Northern Ireland, the only girl in a family of six and controversially, the daughter of a Nigerian father Frank Peter, and Irish mother Ivy.
“It was exhausting not being able to get through a day without my colour being mentioned,” says Palma.
“I was confused, frustrated and angry when people pointed my colour out to me, as a negative difference between them and I.”
Palma’s mixed heritage made for a difficult experience growing up in 1960s Ireland – a time where racism, sectarianism, civil war and poverty were rampant.
“I struggled as a child and in adolescence with my identity, as I grew up in a place where it appeared the only way I would escape the constant persecution of racists was to be white.
“Whether ‘mixed race’, ‘half caste’, ‘coloured’, people always tried to push me into a box and define who I am, and I will always resist that.”
"It was difficult, because I often felt like an outcast in my own country,” reveals Palma.
LOOKING BACK: Annie at her brother Jimmy’s wedding in Northern Ireland aged six
The book reflects those elements of Palma’s life, with the story beginning in the 1960s at the height of racial tensions and the Troubles looming over Northern Ireland.
“It’s based on my true story, and it tells the unique experience of living through the Troubles between the Catholics and Protestants and how we coped as a black family,” she says.
The author takes the reader through a candid tour of the neighbourhood, creating an immersive experience that makes you feel like you are right there.
“By reading For the Love of a Mother, you’re almost able to feel as though you have met many of the characters personally, and discover what daily life was like behind the barricades.
“For most of my life there, I knew little about peace as life was very turbulent for us, trying to deal with race and religious issues on a daily basis.”
Palma details the honest truth of Northern Ireland's racism in-depth, from the daily reports of violence particularly in the Belfast area, as well as revealing what life was like in the 1960s for a black family living among what she referred to as, the ‘Irish Mafia’.
“My brothers literally had to fight to earn respect and we learned to ‘hold our own’ as a result of this struggle."
PROGRESS: Annie today
The need to fight for respect instilled strength in Palma, but it all eventually became too much.
"The daily grind of fighting racism lead me to some very low times in my life. I developed a ‘hidden depression’ that almost ended my life. It shocked me to the very core to realise that I could move to London in 1986, she has never looked back and finds her writing to be a form of “self therapy”.
“Since leaving Northern Ireland to settle in London, I have progressed beyond my dreams,” she enthuses.
“I have educated myself to degree level, I’ve written a collection of poetry, I’ve travelled the world from Africa to India and Japan, to name a few.”
During her time in London, Palma attended the University of North London in 1996, where she gained an honours degree in social work.
“It was during my time at university, the first books that caught my eye was a book asking the question, are all Irish people suffering with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to the Troubles,” she recalls.
“Reading that book really opened my eyes to the possible causes of my earlier pain, and made me begin to understand PTSD and its effects.
“I’ve never been diagnosed as such, or even sought any support in this regard, but I instantly recognised me whilst reading it.”
FAMILY TIES: The Palma siblings, from left - Gabriel, Annie, Wilson and Bill
Even though there were groups responsible for racial tensions in the 1960s – from the National Front (NF) and Combat 18 – Palma sought solace in writing.
“I’ve found writing has helped me to move on emotionally and culminated in me producing this book.”
Meanwhile, things have improved for minorities who have immigrated to Northern Ireland in recent years.
Since the Belfast Agreement – a multilateral agreement that brought an end to most of the violence since taking effect in 1999 – there has been an increase in ethnic minorities emigrating to Northern Ireland, and we’re seeing more ethnic communities there than ever before.
Figures from the 2011 Census show the diverse nature of the minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland, with more than 32,000 people claiming their ethnicity as something other than ‘white’.
Also, the number of Northern Ireland residents who were born outside either the UK or the Republic of Ireland has increased from 27,200 at the time of the 2001 census to 81,000 in 2011 (an increase of 53,800 people).
However, even within these slight improvements, issues of racism still prevail to this day and show that the tolerance is wavering.
In 2016, former Belfast pastor John McCreedy revealed that he feared racial hatred towards immigrants could be the “new sectarianism” in Northern Ireland.
“Immigrants are subjected to and must suffer racism, intimidation and discrimination on a daily basis, apparently for no other reason than their background and heritage,” he said in an interview with The Daily Mirror.
"Just as there was a deep-seated level of distrust between Catholics and Protestants during the dark days of the Troubles, now there is a fear of newcomers to our society, be they economic migrants from the European Union (EU) or refugees simply seeking a new home and security.
A 2015 study also confirmed these worries, as the University of Manchester revealed that people living in Northern Ireland are less welcoming to the country's ethnic minority population than in previous years.
In addition to this, the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities shut down in 2016, due to a severe cash-flow problem.
As the former leading anti-racism organisation in Northern Ireland and resulting in her choice to move to London.
While she has no regrets about the move, the creation of this book allowed her to reflect and reinforces the importance of acknowledging minority communities in white-dominated areas.
“I’ve been writing my story for over 25 years, and to be honest, time really is a healer,” says Palma.
“I’ve been able to put a well-balanced, frank account of how my life was then.”
With this book, Palma wants to shine a light on black Irish communities and share her experience of a place that was once hostile towards people that look like her.
“I want the book to encourage people to go out, see the world, and know that learned behaviour can be unlearned.”
For the Love of a Mother will be available on Amazon from the end of March.
Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.