An RTÉ presenter and activist who called out Tommy Tiernan over a racist joke at one of his recent live shows has said it made her feel like ‘my Irishness had been taken away from me’.
Emer O’Neill left the Vicar Show soon after the joke and in a post on Instagram noted that “a night that was to be fun and full of laughter turned sour with a way too close to the bone joke”.
Tiernan has since contacted Emer to apologise for the joke. The pair spoke in depth over the phone and he has removed the joke from his show.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Emer said she “absolutely” accepts the apology – but warned that the whole incident highlights how racism remains deeply engrained in Irish society.
“It was one of those moments where I was thinking, ‘oh let the ground swallow me up here,’” she said.
“I was the only person of colour in the whole room, so, in that moment, it was like my Irishness was taken away from me. I was now just a black African with my afro.
“As people will do, they were kind of looking to see what the reaction of the person who is brown or black in the room is.
“There was a lot of people staring at me so it was really uncomfortable in a load of different ways.”
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Emer said she spoke to Tiernan for around an hour and believes he now understands the harm in his words.
“At the end of the day something Tommy said himself - and I was kind of shocked he had gotten to this stage - he said to me, ‘you know Emer, on reflection, who am I as a middle-aged white man to decide what’s racist and what’s not, or what’s offensive and what’s not to a community I have absolutely no lived experience in,’” she said.
“He said it had taken him until this point right now, in this moment, to realise that.
“I just kind of said wow because it takes people a long time to get there […] you have no idea unless you were to live day in our shoes.
“For him to make that comment and that realisation, I thought was very powerful and it was a very positive conversation.”
Emer said the abuse she has received since highlighting the incident has been “absolutely horrendous”.
“Honestly, the stuff that was said was just so vile,” she said.
“It proved my point of the fact that there is so much racism ingrained in our society and people, honestly, have no idea the extent of it.
“When you grow up in a systematically racist country or racist world - it’s not just Ireland it’s all over - you talk about slavery and racism dating back 400 years and people say, ‘I didn’t do that to you what is your problem now?’
“The problem is that the things that happened 400 years ago are still happening but in different ways.”
— Emer O’Neill (@EmerONeill14) December 7, 2022
She said people in Ireland are still finding it difficult to get jobs – just because of the colour of their skin.
“Employers are literally putting resumés in the bin,” she said. “I have a friend who changed her last name to her husband’s Irish name and all of a sudden started getting these calls for jobs.
“Then, people have been really open in conversations saying, yes, I might cross the street on a dark night, if I’m walking and I see a person of colour.
“Yes, I might judge them and think they’re not educated and they’re leaching off the system.”
She said the housing crisis and the increase in migrants arriving in Ireland are stoking “a lot of anger from our far-right that is kind of coming out in this altogether racist rhetoric”.
“It is very harmful, I suppose, to communities and I think it’s important that the education is there, the awareness is there and the support for communities is there.”
You can listen back to the full interview here: