When she was a child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, Emer O’Neill’s mother found her sitting in the bath, scrubbing herself furiously. Her mother asked her what she was doing.
“And I said I was trying to get the brown off but it wouldn’t come off.”
On Wednesday’s Ryan Tubridy Show, Emer talked about growing up as a black girl born in Ireland in the 1980s. Ireland did not come out of the conversation well.
Emer and her mother have a very open and honest relationship, which is how Emer knows that, initially, her mother was going to give her up for adoption, thinking it would be best for her daughter. She changed her mind when she spoke to the adoption agency, who told her what they reckoned might happen:
“They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll gladly take her, but we have to be really honest with you, she won’t get adopted, so she’s going to be in a children’s home until she ages out of the system.’”
A single mother living in Bray, Co Wicklow, Emer’s mum was abused for being a white woman with a black child, called an “n-word lover”. (Hearing this, Ryan seemed astonished that people would use that word, but Emer told him it happened all the time and still does.) Emer herself was taunted by other children. Their house was frequently broken into; it was set on fire; it was flooded.
“From all accounts from my Mum, she really did live in fear.”
Emer’s mother managed to buy them a house and they moved, but the abuse didn’t stop.
“There was a crowd of kids – a couple of years older than me – they would follow me around when I was playing with my friends and call me the n-word and tell me that they were going to kill me.”
This to a girl of around 7,8,9. So, Emer and her mother had to move again and things improved. But it’s questionable how much has changed for the better in Ireland since Emer was a girl. She has a 6-year-old son and – unbeknownst to him – he’s echoed what his mother said when she was around his age:
“My son is still saying things like, ‘I want to be white like my friends,’ and ‘I want to be white like my Dad, Mum,’ and ‘Why am I this colour?’”
We like to think, as Ryan said, that we’ve got better, more tolerant, more diverse. But Emer’s experience surely gives the lie to that notion. She responded to the police killing of George Floyd in the US in May by making a video speaking out against racism and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I wanted just people, I suppose, to realise that racism is here in Ireland on our doorsteps and it’s happening around you every day and you’re probably not even aware of it, but I feel like the more you educate yourself, you will start to see it pop up in your day-to-day life and just think, ‘Wow, how did I miss that all these years?’”
Although the reaction to the video was largely positive, Emer found out that 2020 Ireland isn’t much more embracing of diversity than 1985 Ireland was: she got a call early in the morning telling her that her name was plastered all over a wall on one of the busiest roads in Bray.
“Basically, on the wall it said, ‘Emer O’Neill’ – my full name – ‘f**k up, slut. All lives matter.’”
Then, on the day of her son’s sixth birthday, two young men egged their house. And it hasn’t stopped. There’s been more graffiti, much more. Listening to Emer tell her story, it’s difficult to understand how she’s been able to put up with so much for so long and still remain as calm and dignified as she sounded talking to Ryan. Their conversation ended on an upbeat note, at least, with Ryan reading out messages of support for Emer from people in Bray and around the country.
You can hear Emer’s full conversation with Ryan here.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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