Fionnghuala O’Reilly: 'I have to speak up for Black women'

As well as working with NASA, former Miss Universe Ireland Fionnghuala O’Reilly is now hosting a new CBS science show in the US. On a month-long visit home, she talks to Jennifer Stevens about racism and inclusivity in Ireland
Fionnghuala O’Reilly: 'I have to speak up for Black women'

In 2019, Fionnghuala O'Reilly made history as Ireland’s first biracial Miss Universe Ireland and the only NASA datanaut to ever compete at Miss Universe. Photo: Jason Flakes

When Pamela Uba was crowned Miss Ireland in September headlines both here and around the world heralded her historic victory. ‘Irish Beauty Pageant History Made’, read one, ‘Ireland’s first Black Miss Ireland’ read many more. And while Pamela’s victory is one to be celebrated there was one woman who was left feeling invisible by the headlines that she was reading and that her family was sending her.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly, whose dad is from Sutton in Dublin and her mother from San Francisco, was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2019. She was Ireland’s very first Black international pageant winner — something you may not know if you read recent headlines.

Fionnghuala is speaking to me on the eve of a month-long visit to Ireland, from her home in Washington DC,where she works both for NASA as a Datanaut and as one of the hosts of Mission Unstoppable, a TV science show on CBS. We’re having a difficult and emotional conversation.

“The reason why it is such a difficult conversation to have is because there are several layers that complicate this narrative. I wanted to talk about it publicly was because there are a lot of things here that need to be addressed. The way in which this story has spread is very problematic for a number of reasons. We are discussing pageantry and there are international fans of pageantry all over the world that follow reigning titleholders and their stories.

“For many people, the first time they are introduced to these women is through their titles. In 2019, I did become the first Black woman to represent Ireland at any international pageant. That was a roller coaster of an experience. There was a lot that went on, and I’ve spoken about it quite often and very openly. Because I was the first woman of colour to be able to represent Ireland in a way that we’ve never been able to have space for before in history, it wasn’t lost on me how important that moment would be, not just for me, but for all of us.

“Some people may think, well, it’s just a pageant competition. What’s the importance of that? The importance is, that in the history of an international competition, where we have organisations that are built on the empowerment and uplifting of women around the world, a woman of colour has never been able to represent us in any form or capacity. We’re talking about yes, pageantry, but in an even larger arena. We’re talking about women of colour being represented in the media in our country. I realised as a reigning titleholder, that the international community has historically viewed Ireland as a very racially homogenous country.”

Fionnghuala O'Reilly representing Ireland at the Miss Universe 2019 competition.
Fionnghuala O'Reilly representing Ireland at the Miss Universe 2019 competition.

On the night of Pamela’s win, Fionnghuala immediately reached out to offer her congratulations, she was thrilled for the Mayo woman. But she woke up to a completely different feeling, one of invisibility.

“Well, firstly, I want to congratulate Pamela on her win publicly, which I also did the night that she was crowned. I saw the news of her win and I posted on social media about it. I tagged her in celebration because I’ve been waiting for a day like this since I won. I was excited to see that more stories are coming out. That is, in and of itself, a cause for celebration. I congratulated Pamela the night that she won, I went to sleep, and I woke up to watching what happened in the media unfold.

“In the last two weeks, I have just seen my story almost effectively erased in Ireland. I have also seen it throughout the world make international news. I’ve watched as my friends and family began to send me articles, one after the other, after the other, saying, ‘Fionnghuala, have you seen this?’ It was mind-boggling to see how people have also reacted on social media and in comments.”

It’s important that this isn’t portrayed as a story about two women being up against each other for a title, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about the cancellation of somebody’s story, of their existence and victory. It says a lot about Ireland as a country that the media were prepared to accept that the new Miss Ireland was the first Black pageant winner we had ever had.

“I would never want this conversation to be derailed into something that pits women against each other. That is not what I’m doing. That’s not what should be done here. This should be about continuing a legacy that started and is now growing. That is what this conversation should be about.

“The way in which this story is being told is not factual. It is very misleading and it’s harmful to our communities because again, what would this mean for more women who come after us?” The colour of Fionnghuala’s skin was called into question when she won Miss Universe Ireland in 2019. There were people who didn’t think that she represented the country, that she wasn’t Irish enough. Now, since the first week in September there are people saying that she wasn’t the first Black pageant winner because of the colour of her skin.

“I know what it feels like to have your identity questioned. In 2019, I was harassed on social media because I was viewed as not being Irish enough. I am not a fair-skinned woman. I do not have straight hair. I know what it feels like to have people come after you because of how you look and now it is happening again. This time I am being harassed on social media by people who are telling me that I’m not Black enough.

“I’ve used every platform that I have to speak up for Black women, because that is how I identify. I am a Black woman. I have an African American mother and I have an Irish father. I have grown up knowing who I am. I know what my identity is. It’s not up for debate. I’m not asking for anyone else to validate my experiences because I know what they are. It is my hope though that people hold space for my experience and do not diminish me by trying to tell me who I am because I know who I am. I would never do that to another woman, but there are people who take to social media and do it to me.”

Fionnghuala O’Reilly: "do not diminish me by trying to tell me who I am, because I know who I am"
Fionnghuala O’Reilly: "do not diminish me by trying to tell me who I am, because I know who I am"

This isn’t a conversation Fionnghuala ever imagined having and she certainly didn’t expect the world of pageants to be what sparked it, but she has been vocal about race in Ireland and is happy to use her platform to get people talking and understanding what inclusiveness should really look like. 

“I had a conversation with someone close to me and she said this may not have been a fight that you ever thought you would find yourself in. Maybe it’s being brought to your front doorstep because these are conversations that need to be had, especially in Ireland. I had never seen nationwide conversation about race in Ireland until 2020. That was a direct ripple effect from what happened when George Floyd was murdered.

“Sometimes it does make people uncomfortable to have to talk about race because they don’t want to say something that’s incorrect or could be perceived in a way that they did not mean. I get that, but that does not mean that we can tiptoe around this because then we’ll have more decades of exclusion. Right now, this narrative is very exclusionary.

“Women in general are fighting for their stories to be told. When you are at the intersection of multiple identities, for many people that means that your story will be told last. That isn’t right. I think Ireland is emerging into a new place where we are going to have to start confronting ourselves with the question of what inclusivity actually looks like. I’ve spoken at many corporate events in Dublin. I’ve spoken at Google headquarters. I’ve spoken at 3 Ireland. I’ve given many talks about the importance of diversity and inclusion, what that really means and what that really looks like. It’s not enough just to have a policy that says, we accept everyone here.”

Being Black and Irish has been a predominantly good experience for Fionnghuala. As someone without the stereotypical red hair and freckles of the movies, she loves telling people that she’s Irish when she’s travelling and seeing their reaction, and she equally enjoys being asked about her background when she’s at home.

“If I’m abroad somewhere and I say, Oh yes, I’m Irish people are just fascinated and interested. The international community has a very narrow idea of what they think being Irish is and what it looks like. It does get more complicated back home in Ireland, but I think overall the experience is positive,

“There are many people of colour that have maybe one Irish parent and another parent from a different country. There are a lot of different ways that people of colour have emerged in Ireland. My mother has told us stories from when she was living in Ireland, before I was born, when she was the only Black person that she would see for miles, but now I can walk down the streets of Dublin and I see diversity all around me. I think sometimes just being a tall woman with big curly hair, does invite some looks, or some questions, but I think that’s natural. I’ve always been happy to answer and to talk about my background.”

The O'Reilly family, in 1995.
The O'Reilly family, in 1995.

Fionnghuala is home in Dublin now for a month for work commitments and to spend time with her family. Her first Insta story when she landed was of the breakfast her Granny made her (Superquinn sausages, naturally!). She loves coming home and despite feeling disappointed by what happened in the last month, holds out hope that this conversation will be the catalyst for change that we need.

“In 2020, I participated in the Share the Mic Now Challenge on social media, where Black Irish women were given the opportunity to take over white Irish women’s social media. I thought that was such a great experience because so many people didn’t get to hear these stories. Since then I’ve seen social media pages like Black and Irish emerge to share the stories of so many people and no two stories that I’ve seen have been alike. I think that’s something important to note, is that everyone’s story is going to be different. We’d all be doing ourselves a disservice if we tried to compare each other.

“The fact that not many of us have heard Black Irish stories in Ireland shows that there are not enough platforms for us to be able to tell our stories.

“No one should have to hear one story at a time. We should be embraced and given space to co-exist and to celebrate each other. That is something that is happening even now. I’m disappointed in many organisations, but I feel that the media has failed us, both of us. Because they are setting us up to have to compete to be able to share our stories. That’s not what inclusion actually looks like. It was my hope that more women would be able to tell their stories but not to the detriment of erasing someone else’s and someone else’s contributions, especially in this arena because it’s so much larger than any one of us.

“It is about the history that we have seen and the legacy that we are now building for a more inclusive culture. I have gone back and looked at a lot of interviews that I’ve given and the same sources that reported me as the first Black woman to represent Ireland are now reporting stories that directly contradict that. It was disappointing and harmful not just for me, but for all of us. Because if we’re in 2021 and we are able to effectively marginalise women of colour and their achievements, then what does that tell us about the progress that we think that we’re making?”

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