Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE comes home to Limerick where once her family wasn’t welcome

Donal O'Regan

Reporter:

Donal O'Regan

Obi Nwanokwu, London, Nora Berkery, Cappamore, Agnes Coleman, Cappamore, Bridget Cummins, Galway, Chi-Chi Nwanoku OBE, Tony Cummins, Galway and Gus Nwanokwu at the show

Obi Nwanokwu, London, Nora Berkery, Cappamore, Agnes Coleman, Cappamore, Bridget Cummins, Galway, Chi-Chi Nwanoku OBE, Tony Cummins, Galway and Gus Nwanokwu at the show

IF THINGS had been different Chi-chi Nwanoku, OBE, would have been coming to the Cappamore Show since she was a little girl rather than for the first time.

Chi-chi Nwanoku has gained a reputation as one of the finest exponents of the double bass today. She is the founder, artistic and executive director of the Chineke! Foundation, which supports, inspires and encourages Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. 

Chi-chi was awarded an MBE for services to Music in the 2001 Queen’s Birthday honours and an OBE in 2017 for her services to music. 

And from Buckingham Palace to Ballvoreen – there she was sitting quietly at a picnic table in a field at the recent agricultural event held in County Limerick at the end of August.

Her late mother, Margaret Hevey, hailed from Lackabeg, Cappamore. She would have been 93 a week after the show. When Margaret, a nurse, met and married Dr Michael Nwanoku, from Nigeria, this was considered taboo in rural Ireland.

“Even though my mother always told us beautiful stories about growing up here, it was very clear to us that it was a no-go area to visit," she explained.

"It transpired that she was made to feel that her husband and her children would not be welcome. And she used to say, ‘You know I didn’t know which one was worse, the fact that he wasn’t Catholic or the fact that he was black!’ Probably the fact that he wasn’t a Catholic was probably worse than him being black in those days. It’s incredible. That angered her,” said Ci-Chi, who described her mum as a “rebel and a pioneer”.

Her grandmother – Margaret Mary Flynn who married Christopher Hevey – was also a strong lady. She secretly travelled to London to visit her daughter and the recently born Chi-chi in the fifties.

“My mother kept on writing to her family in Cappamore even though they had said never darken our doorstep again. She continued to write to them to tell them what she was doing and update them with her news. They said never darken our doorstep again and so she did as she was told but my mother carried on writing until at least I was born.

“I was the first of her five children. When I was three-months-old, there was a knock at the door and there stood my grandmother. She spent a week with us. It was very brave because her husband would not have known. I think a couple of her other children lived in England so that was her camouflage but she came to visit my mum,” said Chi-chi, who proudly wears her grandmother’s wedding ring.

While the Nwanokus weren’t welcome in east Limerick in the 1950s, London wasn’t exactly paradise for mixed race families either. Signs outside lodging houses read, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”.

“I’m two thirds!” laughed Chi-chi, aged 62.

"My parents didn't give up, they used to go look for rooms to live in, which had that sign and they'd look at each other and say, 'Well we haven't got a dog so let’s give it a try'. And then of course the doors would be slammed in their faces but the thing is they had such a great sense of humour. They could laugh at themselves.

"At my mother’s funeral, I remember Gus [a brother] got up to speak, we all spoke, even her grandchildren spoke at her funeral. One of the things that Gus said in his speech at the church was, 'You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. And given the chance to choose our parents we would choose the exact same people to be our parents’. And everyone, the whole church erupted,” she said.

Chi-chi was at the show with brothers Gus and Obi and Irish relatives. They stayed with a local relation – Nora Hogan Berkery – one of many who got in touch after she heard Chi-chi interviewed by Ryan Tubridy.

What does Cappamore mean to Chi-chi now?

“I do feel at home here because we have been met only with warmth. OK It might have taken a generation. When I came back with my mother, after she had not been here for 36 years we were met with warmth and we were met with a lot of people saying, 'Look, Margaret we were ignorant back then, we didn't know any better'. And it’s the fear of the unknown.”

And she and her brothers also felt that warm welcome at Cappamore Show.

“We only feel warmth. I think Ireland above any other country has made the most positive steps that I have ever seen, between gay marriage to the religious things, to outing all kinds of wrongs."

This article only scratches the surface of the remarkable Nwanoku and Hevey family story. But to learn more, Gus Nwanokwu has written a book entitled Black Shamrocks that is available from Amazon.