Our ‘Mygration Story‘ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UN University. 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, loyalties, and 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 4 years old in 1918 he had 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 ended up 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, against his will: this time to Palestine (where 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.
Jack’s daughter, my mother, now lives in the west of England, near Bristol. She loves history and literature and has a library at the back of her home — a house shared with my father, two cats and a few vintage motorbikes. She’s also interested in politics and has recently grown worried about the ‘migrant crisis’ and what it will mean for Britain — which of course, fairly or unfairly, fed into the recent referendum on EU membership.
Update: No escape from Brexit?
As of summer 2016, the new political divide has somehow shifted from being left or right to being open or closed. The question is: can this neo-isolationism shield the UK (or indeed the US under Trump) from thorny international issues such as migration and climate change? Or will ‘we’ simply wreck our economy while losing our place at the decision-making table? Macro: how will this impact international agreements and the future of liberal democracy? Micro: how will it affect the lives of millions of people already living abroad, like myself?
In my youth I was lucky enough to study and work across Europe — all funded by the EU. In 1997 I did my Erasmus academic year abroad in Florence (where I spent most of my time with Germans, Swedes and Tuscans); in 2000 I joined a Leonardo da Vinci work scheme in Barcelona (where I learnt a lot about regional cooperation between Catalans, Bretons and Welsh); and in 2002 I landed an EU internship in Brussels (with amazing colleagues and bosses from Belgium and Denmark in particular). I then worked as a journalist in Rome and a press officer back in London, before settling in Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands.
Besides all that, with UK and UN passports, I’ve been able to see 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, before the Arab Spring. For all of this — and for growing up in a country at peace — I am blessed. But for better or worse, I am who I am (and was able to become 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.
The question for me, living abroad, is: what value will this UK passport have once Brexit is complete? To continue working and travelling freely across Europe, should I try to get a Dutch, an Irish, or a German ID — the first based on residency, the second on ancestry, the third on marriage? Will I somehow be ‘landlocked‘? More importantly, will my daughters enjoy the same rights and opportunities that I’ve enjoyed and made the most of? Or are we simply going to have to get our papers in order — like the rest of the world? When it comes to British exceptionalism and EU membership, that may be the ultimate irony.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
My 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.