‘It’s just horrific, it’s horrendous’ | Emer O’Neill on tackling online abuse

As awareness begins to grow over online hate and racism in Ireland, former Irish basketball player and coach Emer O’Neill spoke to Joe Molloy about her experiences of racism in Ireland.

O’Neill, who grew up in Bray to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, recalled her first experiences of realising she was “different” to the other children in her area in the early 1990s.

“I was about five when I showed it to my Mum that I knew I was different. And one of those experiences was that I was in the bath trying to clean off the brown on my skin. Because I was profusely scrubbing, she asked ‘what are you doing?’. I said, ‘I’m trying to get the brown off’, and it wouldn’t come off and I was really upset about it. As young as five, would be my first I think memory of that,” she said.

O’Neill was speaking as an ambassador for a new initiative by the Olympic Federation Of Ireland called “Don’t Scroll By”, which aims to target online bullying and abuse.

As well as her basketball exploits, O’Neill’s profile has grown in the last 12 months from her activism with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as being part of RTE’s Home School Hub during lockdown.

O’Neill – who has a large following on Instagram – detailed some of the hate that had been directed towards her on social media.

“Online has been treacherous lately, and it’s a free for all. You’d want to see some of the messages I’ve got. I posted a picture of me breastfeeding my daughter; I’m trying to normalise breast-feeding, it’s a beautiful thing, I don’t think women should be ashamed of it, and I think it’s something that should be out there, it’s important to me. Underneath this beautiful picture of a mother nourishing her child, a man wrote ‘Ugly Blackie’.

“I click on his picture, and it’s a picture of him with his two kids. It’s just horrific, it’s horrendous. What inside him, what amount of hate must there be to stop at a picture like that and want to tell that person that they’re an ‘ugly blackie’?” she added.

Acid attack

However, her experiences of online abuse pale in comparison to some of the overt racism she has experienced in person – particularly since she began campaigning for Black Lives Matter.

Emer O’Neill detailed the graffiti on walls, being called the n-word, as well as one group of men who mistakenly attacked a neighbour’s property, believing it to be hers.

“Two doors down from me, there was acid poured on the top of their car. When the sergeant in Bray came to talk to me about all the different incidents that were happening he said, ‘Look I just want to let you know, that acid incident, we believe it was meant for you, they just got the wrong house’.

“The car was totaled, they had to replace the whole vehicle because the acid got inside the car, inside the material, into the engine. We have video cameras where you can see two guys walking up to the car nonchalantly, have whatever bottle and just walk all the way around the car twice, hoods up, and walk off again.

“Those things are scary, that’s now just words, that’s my family, my home, people know where I live. That has been tough. But again the support from the community and the people of Ireland has been amazing and given me the strength to keep going.”