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Tiernan told O’Neill that it wasn’t until he had been called out over the joke that he realised it was wrong to use it
RTÉ presenter Emer O’Neill said it was “very positive” that comedian Tommy Tiernan rang her to apologise for an offensive joke that led to her walking out of one of his live shows.
O’Neill attended one of Tommy’s gigs in recent weeks and left soon after the start when a joke about a zoo and taxi drivers was made, which Ms O’Neill described as “overtly racist”.
The PE teacher and activist shared her experience on Instagram which gained attention, and soon after, she received an email from Tiernan in which he apologised and suggested they should also speak by phone.
He told her that she was right to call him out and take a stand and admitted that his joke was offensive.
“He rang me that day and we chatted for nearly an hour. And it was a very positive conversation as far as I'm concerned. He did a lot of talking. He expressed things to me that I just felt were so powerful,” O’Neill told RTÉsToday with Claire Byrne.
“One of the things he said to me was that as a middle aged white man, he did not have the right to decide what was and wasn't offensive to an ethnic minority group considering he has no lived experience as one. And I just kind of thought, wow, because it was clear that he had done some reflection, he really did.”
Tiernan told O’Neill that it wasn’t until he had been called out over the joke that he realised it was wrong to use it. Tiernan has since pulled the joke from his set on his ongoing tour and has discussed why he has not used it, along with offering an apology live on stage each night since.
“He said that it wasn't until this moment in time that ‘I actually understood that as a white person, I don't actually have any say in what's offensive to you’ and he said it took until this moment in time to understand that,” O’Neill said.
“I told him what that meant. That it was huge, and it takes people a long time to get there. I don't know why we as humans are so hesitant to allow the concept that there's racism, you know, everywhere we look.
"But I do believe that once you allow yourself to see it, you can never unsee it again. And you'll see it everywhere. You'll see the discrimination, the lack of representation.”
O’Neill, whose father was from Nigeria and whose mother is Irish, felt that her conversation with Tommy was “really genuine” and that she hoped it might lead to greater change in Ireland.
“I really, really felt like there's some change that's happened here, and it's amazing. [I felt] the effects that it could have on our country could be so huge for some reason. The voice of a white person a white Irish person is so much stronger than it is coming from someone from an ethnic minority group,” O’Neill said.