Torment of the child from a mixed- race affair
Both welcomed and rejected at birth, Tim Brannigan's life features deception, jail and reconciliation, and he revisits it all in his memoir. Declan Cashin meets him. Pictures by Ronan Lang
Tim Brannigan likes to say that he was born on May 10, 1966, and that he died the same day too. Minutes after his birth, Tim was ferried away from his mother Peggy, who subsequently told her own parents, siblings and her three other children that her baby had died in childbirth.
For the next five days in Templemore Hospital in Belfast, Peggy Brannigan had one ashen-faced visitor after another express their deepest condolences for her loss while, just a few doors down, her baby gurgled and cooed away like any healthy newborn.
The reason for the deception was that Peggy was a white woman married to a white man, and her new son was black. During a difficult period in her relationship with her husband Tom, Peggy had met and had a brief affair with a Ghanaian doctor named Michael Ekue.
When she became pregnant, Peggy panicked and told her husband that she had been raped.
When the baby was born, Tom went along with the charade. Somehow, Peggy also convinced the hospital staff to assist in her scheme. The plan was for Tim to be smuggled to an orphanage under strict instructions that he was not to be adopted.
Peggy needed time and headspace to figure out what to do, but the plan was eventually to 'adopt' her own son. To her credit, by the time of Tim's first birthday, he was living with his family deep in the heart of the Falls Road.
EastEnders scriptwriters would throw out that idea for being too far-fetched, but it's all true, and laid out in honest, mind-boggling detail in Tim's new book, Where Are You Really From?
Speaking to Weekend on a recent visit to Dublin, Tim recalls the night that his mother finally confessed the truth to him.
"I was 19, and I remember it was the night before Live Aid," he says. "We were at a family function, and we'd both had a few drinks. She was saying how she wanted me to travel and see the world. Then, out of the blue, she said, 'Timothy love,
I've something to tell you. I'm your real mum and you are my son. You're not adopted'."
It's a bombshell by anyone's standards, but Tim, astoundingly, managed to take the news in his stride. He remembers crying, but from happiness.
"Honestly, I found it relatively easy to process," he explains. "At that stage, my relationship with her was already quite established. I viewed her naturally as my mother. I didn't call her by her first name, I called her mum, and I was closer to her than most of my other brothers. It all just seemed right to me."
Having had years to absorb the story, and the chance to revisit his origins through writing the book, Tim says that he understands his mother's desperate motivations after he was born. "I think she was very proud, and was part of a culture of looking out the net curtains and judging others," he says.
"Because her family were close to the Catholic Church, and they had a little bit of money, she couldn't bring herself to tell her parents and it became this massive burden. I think mentally she let this secret get out of all proportions. Even after she told me in 1985, I wasn't allowed to tell my two eldest brothers the truth. They only found out in the last decade."
Peggy went on to tell Tim about his real father, who had refused to support Peggy and had only ever seen his son once as a toddler. Nevertheless, Peggy seemed to want Tim to find out more about his father.
"She wanted me to be excited about having this father all of a sudden, but I had no initial desire to meet him," Tim says.
It would be almost 20 years before Tim finally did meet him. In the meantime, Tim completed a degree in politics at Liverpool Polytechnic, but it was the explosive politics in his native town that were to define his 20s and 30s.
The Brannigans were a proud Republican family and, as was common in the 1970s, a backroom of their home was used by the IRA for meetings and for "storage". The house was regularly raided by the RUC, and Tim came of age against the backdrop of the era-defining 1981 Hunger Strikes, and he joined Sinn Fein in 1984.
In the summer of 1990, Tim was at home for a while after finishing his degree, and one night reluctantly allowed the IRA to leave some rifles in an unlocked car parked outside the house. The RUC came that night and Tim was subsequently arrested and jailed, serving almost five years of a seven-year sentence in Crumlin Road and later the H Blocks in the Maze.
There's a book in that period of Tim's life alone. "It was a collective living experience, in the Blocks, and it made it easier," Tim says.
"After the Hunger Strikes, the H Block was probably the most left-wing, politically correct place in Ireland. I remember having debates in the jail about boycotting Nestlé products and South African fruit in the jail tuck shop. The point is I didn't have to worry about a couple of racists with swastikas on their arms coming to my cell to beat me with snooker balls."
Surprisingly, Tim reveals that the most sustained racism he ever encountered in his life didn't come from his neighbours on the Falls Road, schoolmates, Republican comrades or Loyalist foes, but rather from the British Army -- even its black members.
"I think I escaped the worst aspects of any racism because Belfast was so conflicted," he says. "The last thing the British Army were expecting to see was a black kid, so they'd be shouting things like 'black bastard', 'nigger' and 'go back to the jungle'. But people on the street would then say, 'Don't listen to them Tim, ignore them', and so I became 'one of us' and the soldiers were 'them'."
Upon his release in 1995, Tim worked as a journalist covering the peace talks for GMTV, before moving on to become a reporter and features writer for the Irish News. Tim hasn't been involved in Republicanism since his release.
"When the IRA called the ceasefire in 1994, I consciously decided to move on as well," he says. "It was an easy choice to make. Peace suited me."
Sadly, his mum's health took a turn for the worse in October 2002 and, for the best part of two years, Tim nursed her until she died from a brain tumour in March 2004. With his mother's wishes in mind, Tim decided to track down his father three years ago as part of a BBC Radio documentary.
"Even after all his messing around, my mum held him in high esteem," Tim says of his father. "Whereas I was more cynical about him. I was like, 'Why would I want to track him down? He knows where I am, and he's never bothered. He's clearly made his decision.'
"My mum wanted me to do well, and I think she wanted to say to him, 'Look what I did with our son on my own'. So I started with a view to saying, 'I've been through a lot, but I'm still standing; this is who I am; this is what's happened to me'."
It's a journey that brought Tim as far as Ghana to eventually meet his birth father. Along the way, Tim discovered that he had five brothers and sisters on his father's side, many of whom live in London. After showing initial enthusiasm towards Tim, they have since cut off contact. They're likely taking the cue from their father.
"He's a very successful, quite wealthy guy in Africa," Tim explains. "Money doesn't motivate me, but they might think I'm after something."
Tim met with his father a few times during the documentary trip to Ghana. "It was pretty awkward and stilted," he recalls. "He's a man who seems to be able to compartmentalise his life. His wife, as far as I know, to this day doesn't know about me. We met a few times for a drink, but it was clear he didn't want me around. He was determined to keep me away from his house and the rest of the family."
The last time they spoke, or had any contact, was by text and an argumentative phone call over Christmas 2008. Now that his story is out in print, there could be a chance of reconnecting, but Tim isn't going to hold his breath.
"I think a couple of them are on Facebook so I probably will message them to say, 'Brace yourselves'," he says with a smile.
So has Tim dealt with what must be deep disappointment, and made peace with the fact that any kind of relationship with his father and half-siblings looks unlikely?
Tim smiles and pauses before replying: "There are issues ... in my quiet moments. I find myself thinking, 'What if?', or, 'Will I try again?'
"It's still a bit of an emotional maelstrom, but what can I do? Maybe they'll read this and change their opinions." He pauses again before continuing: "I guess it comes back to what a social worker warned me when I first started looking for my father. She said, 'If you don't want to hurt anyone, then turn around now and don't do it. Someone always gets hurt'."
Where Are You Really From? by Tim Brannigan is out now, published by Blackstaff Press, €13