Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
It’s nearly 100 years since the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin, an armed struggle that would lead to Irish independence after centuries of British rule. For the Irish side of my family, this was not an abstract moment in history. It changed all of our lives and all of our destinies; it meant new homes, new loyalties, new opportunities, but also great loss. Put simply, my Irish ancestors lived through the kind of violence and displacement endured by millions of people across the Middle East today.
My grandfather, Jack Sheridan, was barely four years old when, in 1918, he was forced to flee his homeland with his parents and siblings. He was from Clonmel in southeast Ireland – and was basically a child refugee. Or, more technically, an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), since Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom at the time. Jack’s father was a soldier in a British Army unit, the ‘Connaught Rangers’, and was simply on the losing side.
In Gaelic, the language of Ireland, the name Sheridan means ‘untamed’ or ‘searcher’, while my grandfather’s hometown, Clonmel, means ‘Vale of Honey’. It all sounds quite idyllic; but Jack’s life was really anything but. Adding to the trauma of violence and displacement at a young age, he soon lost his mother in England: a victim of the flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people after the First World War.
With few other opportunities available, my grandfather joined the British Army cadets as a teenager. I remember he was always keen to stress his Britishness, perhaps because of the anti-Irish abuse he experienced from an early age. I remember his stories about serving in the Royal Hampshire Regiment in Kashmir and Palestine during the 1930s. Then, during the Second World War, he became a ‘Desert Rat’ with the British Army in North Africa, before fighting his way through Italy, France and Germany. He survived the war, but was quickly shipped out again: this time to Palestine (where I believe the picture above was taken). Because of this, he missed my mother’s birth in December 1945, but made it back to London just a few years later. He died in 1992 having never returned to Ireland.
My mother, who now lives near Cheddar in the west of England, turned 70 last December. She loves history and literature and has a library at the back of her home — a house shared with my father, two cats and half a dozen vintage motorbikes. She’s also interested in politics and has recently grown worried about the ‘migrant crisis’ and what it means for Europe, including Britain. She reads a lot of mainstream media and was horrified at the gang violence in Cologne, which seemed painfully reminiscent of earlier events in Cairo. I try to remind her that, in this respect, education is more important than ethnicity; but of course there are no easy answers.
Speaking of nature and nurture, I was very much shaped by my education. At the age of 11 I was lucky enough to win a bursary (i.e., a partial scholarship) to Hampton School on the outskirts of London; then at age 18 I went to Durham University, England’s third oldest, where I studied for a BA in English Literature, Philosophy and Italian. Since then I’ve taken several opportunities to live and work abroad, mainly funded by the European Union. In 1997 I did my Erasmus year in Florence; then in 2000 I joined a Leonardo da Vinci work scheme in Barcelona; and then in 2002 I got an EU traineeship in Brussels. I then worked as a journalist in Rome and a press officer in London, before settling in Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands.
On UK and UN passports, I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world: from Bolivia to Panama to the Dominican Republic, from Kenya to Zimbabwe, through Cambodia, Thailand and Japan. I’ve seen a lot of the Middle East, too, from Egypt to Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, mainly in 2009-10. For all of this — and for growing up in a country at peace — I am blessed. But for better worse, I am who I am thanks to the courage of my migrant ancestors; thanks to their determination to build a new life, despite the risks and trials of starting afresh. They may not have had much choice, fleeing violence and conflict, but they made it. I am now a UN official in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and this is Mygration Story.
ADDENDUMMy father’s side also includes migrants, this time from Germany. His great-grandfather and great-uncle, Conrad and Daniel Zuschlag, came to England in the 1870s, and ran a pub in London that still bears the same name — but that’s another story.