Marguerite Penrose“It’s not good enough to presume everybody thinks you’re not a racist. That doesn’t work anymore.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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Ryan Tubridy concluded what he called his “trilogy” of meeting “amazing young Irish people” on Wednesday, when he spoke to Marguerite Penrose (the other parts of the trilogy being musician Dave McCabe and boxer Kellie Harrington). Marguerite has dealt with many challenges in her life, including medical issues and racism. She has overcome her medical issues for the most part and now she’s taking on racism in Ireland. The phrase ‘force of nature’ might well have been invented for Marguerite Penrose. Let’s start at the beginning: 

“I was actually born in St Patrick’s Children’s Home, which was a Magdalene Laundry. I’m adopted now. So, my first three years of life were living in the Magdalene Laundry on the Navan Road.” 

As Ryan points out, himself and Marguerite are more or less the same age, yet the very mention of Magdalene Laundries conjures up images of the 1950s. It does seem extraordinary that they were still around in the mid-1970s – until you remember that they were still around in the 1990s. The story of how Marguerite was born in a Magdalene Laundry involves her birth mother, “allegedly from Crumlin” and biological father, who was from Zambia and travelled to Ireland as part of the Zambian army’s medical corps. Marguerite has no idea how the two met and she has no medical information from either. 

“Sometimes you don’t actually think about the adoption side because it’s so much a part of my life now and my parents are my parents. Yes, I always – especially coming up to your birthday, you do get a weird feeling in you, because you know there’s a part of you that is not there to kind of say, ‘Oh,’ you know, ‘ok, it’s your birthday’. But I know deep down that anybody that has to give up a child, they’re always going to think about them all the time.” 

Marguerite was born with congenital scoliosis and has had multiple surgeries to try to correct the curvature of her spine. She was born without three ribs on one side and had to have artificial ones made (fun fact: Marguerite’s three ribs were made by a dentist!) Following spinal fusion surgery, she was paralysed from the waist down. She had emergency surgery to take the straightening rod out, but the paralysis didn’t go away. The doctors were of the opinion that Marguerite would remain paralysed. But she had other ideas: 

“So then, just through determination, and again, with my parents, sister, family and friends, I kept at it, kept trying to walk. And so it was about, nearly two years later when I did take a first step.” 

Growing up, Marguerite didn’t see another black person until she went to secondary school. And, despite her parents doing their best to prepare her for people’s reactions, she had issues with people staring, touching and asking stupid questions.  

“You always have a sense of, when you’re going somewhere, ‘Gosh, do they know I’m black? Do they know I’m mixed race?’ 

But things got worse than staring and stupid questions as Marguerite got older. Going out to pubs brought its own issues, but Marguerite has a special disliking for public transport. Why? Ryan asked. Because: 

“I’ve been spat at. People go to sit down beside you and then they look and they won’t sit beside you.” 

What is it like, Ryan asked, what does it feel like when someone spits at you? 

“It’s probably one of the worst feelings in the world because you can’t understand. Like, I remember thinking, ‘Why would they just dislike me just because I’m a different colour?’” 

Marguerite told Ryan that this sort of visceral racism probably arises from a fear of the unknown. And it’s also a learned behaviour. That’s why she believes we need our children to be better educated.  

“We need to declare ourselves anti-racist. It’s not good enough to presume everybody thinks you’re not a racist. That doesn’t work anymore. You actually have to say, ‘Do you know what? I’m anti-racist.’ And if somebody says something, call them out.” 

You can hear the full chat between Ryan and Marguerite on Wednesday’s show – including details of her plans for Ireland’s first Black Lives Matter charity ball in Summer 2021 – here. And you can find Marguerite’s Instagram page here. 

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2020

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