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

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

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.

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”

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

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