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Frances Black is a well known Irish singer, campaigner, politician, addiction counsellor, and social entrepreneur. She achieved fame early in her life as part of Irish folk super group Arcady and then later with her family in the band the Black Family. She featured on the renowned Woman’s Heart album which became the biggest selling Irish album of all time. Frances has recorded a total of 10 solo albums to date and has toured the world including the U.S, New Zealand and Iraq.
Frances battled with alcohol dependency in her twenties and went on to become an addiction counsellor before setting up the Rise Foundation in 2009 to support families affected by various forms of addiction. In 2016 Frances surprised many people when she entered the world of politics and was elected as independent Senator.
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The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:01:28] RM: My guest in this episode is Frances Black. Frances is a well-known Irish singer, campaigner, politician, addiction counsellor, and social entrepreneur. She achieved fame early in her life, as part of Irish folk super-group Arcady, and then later with her family, in the band The Black Family. She featured on the renowned A Woman’s Heart album, which became the biggest-selling Irish album of all time. Frances has recorded a total of 10 solo albums to date, and has toured the world - including the US, New Zealand and even Iraq. Frances battled with alcohol dependency in her twenties, and went on to become an addiction counsellor before setting up the Rise Foundation in 2009, to support families affected by various forms of addiction. In 2016, Frances surprised many when she entered the world of politics, and was elected as an independent senator. I absolutely loved hearing Frances’s fascinating life story when we met in her office in Leinster House. And so, without further ado, here’s my interview with the lovely Frances Black.
[00:02:31] RM: Frances, thanks very much for joining me on the Love and Courage podcast. I want to start by talking about your mother, if you don’t mind. Because I’ve just walked into your office, here in Leinster House, and she just jumped out at me. And you’re just after saying, she’d be laughing at the thought of you being in here.
[00:02:47] FB: She would have been laughing. The first thing I did when I got in here was: I brought in her picture. And it’s that picture of her, there, where she’s sitting with her arms folded, in her red cardigan. And she just has a big smile on her face. And I suppose when I got in here, when I got elected into Leinster House, into the Seanad, I would have… I just kept thinking of my parents. And they came from inner-city Dublin, from the tenement houses – Charlemont Street… Well, my father came from Rathlin Island, which is off North Antrim - a small island off North Antrim. But my mother came from The Liberties. And they both moved into a one-roomed house – a one-roomed flat – in a tenement house, when they got married back in the 40s. And that’s where we were born and reared – and it’s not too far from here. Charlemont Street’s just up Harcourt Street and around the corner. And that’s where all the tenement houses were. And my brother, Martin, often says to me: “Imagine, Fran, when we were kids and sitting around the table, us all having dinner and living in the tenements. Did we ever think that you would be a senator in Leinster House? Who would have thought?” So I look at that picture sometimes, and I think: “Well, ma, what do you think?” And my dad – I know he would’ve been thrilled, as well. They would’ve been, both, very proud - no doubt about it.
[00:04:12] RM: Were you born in that house?
[00:04:14] FB: Yes. We were all born and reared in Charlemont Street. And it was a fantastic place to be reared. As I say, it was… The house that we lived in was a house…it was a tenement house, there was three floors. You had three floors, and on each floor and in each room – there’d be about three rooms – there would be a family. And it was the same upstairs. And downstairs was an old woman. And…but next door, it was a little bit bigger, the house – and I think, somehow, the families there seemed to be a little bit less…worse off than we were, for some reason. And there was millions of kids – each family had about 10 kids, they were really hanging out of the rafters. And in each room there was about 10 kids. So, next door was like…but we had great fun.
[00:05:08] RM: What decade was this, now?
[00:05:10] FB: This would have been, for me, I was born in the 60s. So this was in the 60s. And it was in… That all kind of ended throughout that ten-year period, so what happened was: my father, he started to rent out more rooms in our house. And then, when the family upstairs moved out, my father rented those rooms. So we got bedrooms, and things like that. And then he rented out, there was a little shop in the building, as well. So we were kind of over a shop, and he rented out the shop, and he set up a little – when I was about 10 – they opened up a little grocery shop. And they kind of became small-time businesspeople. And they were the local…the small, local shop on Charlemont Street.
[00:05:54] RM: And was it hard times, growing up?
[00:05:56] FB: Yes, it was hard times. I mean, I know I remember my mother in particular… My father, wherever he would get work – he was a plasterer – and wherever he would get work, he would go. So, he might go down the country, or whatever. But that wasn’t that often, that he would get work. But I often remember her waking up with that anxiety in her, around: “Where am I going to get food today, for the kids?” And she had tick from Mrs. Sennet and Mrs. Lawler, who were the two shops up the road. So you’d get tick, you know?
[00:06:28] RM: Credit?
[00:06:29] FB: Credit, yes. So, she could get the food. But we lived very frugally, really. And it was only when they opened up the shop, and they got a loan of 300 Euro from the credit union - which was a phenomenal amount of money, to get stock. And my father would have done all of the preparing – you know, getting the shop ready, putting up the shelves. Cleaning, painting, and all that. They did all that, and they got 300 Euro from the credit union, and they just bought a few bits and pieces, and that’s what they did. That’s how it all started for them. That would have been in the early 70s. So, after that we didn’t go hungry, because there was always food in the shop. Do you know what I mean? There was always bread and cheese and lovely food – chops. But yes.
One thing, I suppose, that my mother – even though she really did… I think she particularly went through hard times. Because she would have… In those days, the women had a lot of the responsibility of everything. And she used to worry a lot, and she was anxious. So I know that singing brought her joy. She loved singing, and before she met my father, she loved going to the dances. And, in those days, it would have been kind of old-time ballroom dance. And the band, then, at half-time, would ask my mother to get up and sing while they took their break. And she’d get up. And she loved it. She just loved singing. And she knew all the old music-hall type songs. So yes – I’d say it was a tough time for her, definitely. I don’t know if my father would have been as impacted – and he wouldn’t have had as much responsibility. She would have looked on him as one of her kids [laughter]. That’s just the way it was, you know? He was just another one of her responsibilities. That’s the way it was.
[00:08:24] RM: So, she must have been a very resilient woman, then.
[00: 08:26] FB: She was an amazing, an amazingly strong person.
[00:08:29] RM: So, we talk a lot about mental health, these days, and how to mind yourself and think positive thoughts. But I often think that previous generations – well, they had mental health issues there, too. And they were some tough cookies, too.
[00:08:42] FB: They were. They were. And I think, when I think back, I often think my mother would have suffered, at times, with depression, and anxiety, and stress, and worry. But she did, she got through it – and she made sure she got through it. She just kept going. Great resilience.
[00:08:58] RM: Yes, on that subject of depression: obviously, mental health is a big part of your work – recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about depression. And, more and more, we have great role models, people that are coming out and speaking about depression. Even Bruce Springsteen was talking about it. But I’m sort of thinking, like: “Really, is depression…” I know there’s a spectrum and a scale, but is it not something that we all go through, at some level? At some point in our life. I’ve come to think of it as “a depression,” rather than “depression” that you have forever. And, again, I don’t want to dispute somebody’s experience of how they have depression – how do you feel about it?
[00:09:35] FB: I mean, I do think a lot of people go through – at some point in their lives – a very dark time. I’d say most people do. You have to. There’s no-one escapes grief. And it’s how, then, you can… Or trauma, or whether it’s an emotional trauma. And maybe it’s an old childhood trauma. It could be lack of work, you know? It could be so many different things – or not going down the right path that we want to go… It can be triggered by so many different things. And I think – I think – the biggest challenge that people face is learning how to verbalize what’s going on for them. And I think we don’t know how to verbalize. We don’t have that knowledge. And I can only talk about myself. When I went through my dark times, I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know where to go – and I didn’t know how to put a name on it. And I certainly didn’t know how to put a name on what I was feeling, and the emotions that I was feeling, and the horrendous, dark…that darkness that’s within.
[00:10:46] RM: So, did you share it with anybody?
[00:10:49] FB: I didn’t, because I didn’t know. I thought I was just weird. I thought I was different, I thought I was the only one going through it all.
[00:10:57] RM: What period of time are you talking about?
[00:11:00] FB: Well, I would have been on and off all my life, I suppose. And I suppose it’s only in the last, probably, 15 years – or maybe even less, 12 years – where I got an understanding as to how to cope with it. And I really went out of my way to learn the tools to cope with it. And I think that’s always a challenge. But, overall, from the time I was a very young child, I think I would have went through periods of low self-esteem, never really living up to… Never measuring up, never feeling good enough, never feeling part of… Which, I think, a lot of people… It’s that disconnect, isn’t it? You know, and always feeling on the outside. And that would have been from a very young age – and it would have come at different times in my life.
The children were… when I had my children, I was 19 when I had my son, I had my daughter when I was 21 – and they brought so much light into my life. They really did, they really did. But I have no doubt, throughout their childhood, I would have had dips. I would have went down, then came back up again. And throughout that process, I would have used alcohol, for certainly a period of time, to numb out, thinking that that was going to help. But it didn’t. It actually magnified the problems. And I’ll say that again: alcohol magnified the problems, it really, really did. Because that’s what it does: alcohol is a depressant. So, thankfully, I learned that quite quickly. I wasn’t aware that it was alcohol that was making me feel darker, that was making things worse – I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But when I did, I made sure that I wasn’t going to be dependent on it, and it wasn’t going to be the one thing that makes me powerless. So, I suppose, that was a fantastic eye-opener, for me.
[00:13:02] RM: Was this socially acceptable drinking, or was this drinking that would have been seen as a problem?
[00:13:07] FB: Well, I… Don’t get me wrong, I would have been a heavy drinker. But in hindsight, when I see, now, what drinking is today - it would have been the same. So, my drinking would have been the bottle of wine a night. So, the kids go to bed, you manage to get a few bob together – and that wouldn’t have been every night, because I wouldn’t have had much money at the time. I had very little money, because I was separated. I was on my own with two kids – the marriage had broken up, I was on my own, I was trying to just get by. And on Thursday, you’d get your pay, or your wages – and I was working at the time in a little coffee shop. I was working in Ricardo’s Snooker Hall, and I was running the coffee shop. And I loved the job, because it really gave me a sense of connection. I was so crippled with shyness, would you believe? I was so crippled with shyness, that it was when I started to work in Ricardo’s that I started to come out of myself a little bit, and connect with people, and all of that. And that was brilliant, for me. But, I had a broken marriage behind me, get paid every Thursday, and you get your cheapest bottle of wine that you can possibly get. And you go home, you get the kids their dinner, and all of that kind of stuff. And they go to bed, and then you’d have your bottle of wine. But that became…I became so preoccupied with what time I was going to put the kids to bed, earlier, and you know, I was really looking forward to just that feeling of numbing out, so as I didn’t have to feel feelings. And then the kids would go and stay with their dad at the weekend, and I’d go on the tear. And that was my pattern of drinking.
[00:14:48] RM: So it was a classic case of self-medication, in a way?
[00:14:51] FB: Absolutely. And I remember sitting, one night, sitting on the couch at home, and I think I had a glass of wine in my hand. And I was looking at it – I was thinking: “I don’t really want this.” And then there was this voice: “Well, don’t have it.” But I couldn’t not have it. I had to have it. So, that was a big eye-opener. “Why did you have that drink, and you didn’t want it, but you still drank it?” It was like with this voice: “It’ll help you sleep. It’ll calm you down.” You know, there was all that little, strange, negative voice going on in my head. So, I remember reading an article that was written, in The Irish Times, by a journalist who talked about her drinking pattern. And it was the same as mine. She was a really successful journalist – but, when she’d come home in the evening, she’d go straight to the gin and tonic. She’d have a gin and tonic, and then she’d have a bottle of wine with her dinner, and then she’d have another gin and tonic before she’d go to bed. And it turned out that she actually had a problem. And she went to Stanhope Street. And I didn’t even have the gin and tonic, if you know what I mean - but I knew there was something not right, that I had to have this bottle of wine. So, I rang up Stanhope Street. And I said: “Look, I don’t really want… I don’t think I have a problem with alcohol, but I do want to find a way of not letting it - how can I say this, but: not giving it my power.” Do you know what I mean? Or not letting it take my power. I couldn’t understand that – I knew there was something not right with that.
So I went, and I got the appointment, and I sat down in front of the therapist and she gave me this sheet of paper. And I answered the questions as honestly as I possibly could. And she said to me at the end of it, when she read it – and you could have knocked me down with a feather – she said: “I’ve no doubt, Frances, you’re an alcoholic.” And I was absolutely shocked – because I didn’t see my drinking any different to anybody else’s. Honest to God. And even when I said it to people: “No, you don’t have a problem with alcohol.” You know what I’m saying? Because people think that somebody that has an alcohol problem, or is an alcoholic, is the wino falling around in the street, or the woman – or the man – reaching out to the bottle of whisky or the bottle of vodka first thing in the morning. And that wasn’t my drinking. I was a very functioning person. I would go to work, I’d pick up the kids from school, and I would get them home, get them their dinner, do their homework and… They were very young, at the time. So, I was able to do all that. But my drinking would have been in the evening time.
[00:17:28] RM: Was there an additional challenge of being a single mother in that? Well, obviously, there was, in the sense of… I’m also curious, around that, in that particular time and age… Thankfully, a lot has changed in Ireland, now. But was there any stigma there, as well as the practical challenges?
[00:17:45] FB: Well, the other thing about that – just before I actually stopped drinking, about a year before that, I had met this wonderful man from Cork. And that was another thing that kind of, I suppose, inspired me to go and see about my drinking. Because he wasn’t a drinker, at all. And I knew that my preoccupation with alcohol was bothering him. And I was worried I would lose him – he was a really good man. And the kids adored him. So, that was another thing that inspired me to go and see if I could find out what was going on with me, and why I had to have this alcohol. So that was one of the things: I was in a relationship when I stopped drinking, for about…it was actually probably about two years I was in a relationship. But what was great was that, when I started the program me in Stanhope Street, which was three nights a week, my mother – who lived next door to me – babysat.
And when I said to her: “Mam, I have an alcohol problem.” She was surprised, as well, because in her head, she was thinking it’s somebody who reaches out for the vodka. She said: “Did you drink vodka? Did you drink whisky?” And all that. And I said: “No, it’s just wine.” But she was brilliant. And they were so, my family were so supportive. It was fantastic. So, I embarked on this journey in Stanhope Street, and I was there for a year - and it was incredible. I learned so much. I learned so much about the impact of alcohol, not only on me, not only on my relationship, but also on my children. And I think that was a big shocker – because my children, who would have been about 8 and 6 at the time, were… I thought I didn’t have an impact on them, because I wouldn’t drink until they were gone to bed. Now, sometimes, maybe of a Saturday, I might bring them into the pub, if I was meeting a friend, do you know? But I was shocked at the way they talked about the impact. And that, really, spurred me on to not drink, as well. So that was a real big eye-opener, for me.
[00:19:45] RM: So, you obviously had a lot of good support from within the family, particularly your mother.
[00:19:51] FB: My mother and my sister. Mary was fantastic, as well. You know, especially with the kids, and stuff like that. And then Brian, my partner. So, I was blessed.
[00:20:01] RM: Can I ask, also: obviously, music has been an early influence on your life. But it also is an occupation…drinking is an occupational hazard in music, more so than it is in most jobs. Although there is a fair bit of it going on here in Leinster House, as well [laughter].
[00:20:18] FB: Certainly, sure [laughter].
[00:20:21] RM: I’m not sure if we’ll get to talk about that, but that’s definitely something that needs attention. So was there a connection between the music and the lifestyle?
[00:20:30] FB: Funnily enough, there wasn’t. So, when I finished… Just as I started the Stanhope Street program me, I was asked to join the band Arcady. Up to that point, I hadn’t really done much singing, apart from I had made an album with my family – my sister and my three brothers. And we had toured that, once or twice. But there was very little happening around that. And I really loved the performance side of things, but it wasn’t something that… But The Black Family were performing in Galway and Johnny McDonagh, who was [inaudible 21:06], he had been working with De Dannon, which was a traditional band back in [inaudible 21:12]. And he had left the band, and he was setting up a new band. And he contacted me and said: “Would you consider joining the band?” Sharon Shannon would have been in the band, and Sean Keane, and Cathal Hayden.
[00:21:21] RM: A bit of a super-group.
[00:21:23] FB: It was a bit of a super-group. So he said he’d wait. I said: “Well, I’m embarking on this program me, so.” And he said he’d wait for me. So that was brilliant. So, the following year – or that year, maybe – we started to rehearse, and stuff like that. But we couldn’t actually go touring. And that was when my music career started. So I joined Arcady and we made an album, and it done really, really well. And as a result, we travelled the length and breadth of America, we went to…all over the world. One of the most interesting places was Iraq, back in 1990, where we performed in a temple in Babylon. And this temple was out in the middle of the desert – I mean, it was just beyond the beyond. It was an amazing, incredible experience. And it was really interesting, because Arcady were performing Irish traditional music – and all the men came in, and they would sit in the pews. And the women all came in after the men had seated, and stood at the back. That was something that was very different, I think, that I had never seen before. So… Or maybe I did, in Kerry or somewhere [laughter].
[00:22:30] RM: Not picking on Kerry.
[00:22:31] FB: So, anyways, it was amazing. And yes, a fantastic time I had, and I made great friends in the band Arcady. And then, when I finished with Arcady - I decided to not work with Arcady because they were touring so much, and I was missing the kids. The kids were still young, so I teamed up with Kieran Goss, then. Myself and Kieran got together, and we released an album. We were doing supporting to my sister Mary in Belfast, and we were spotted by a record company there, and they offered us an album. And we did it, and that did really well. I mean, look – sometimes I think: “Hold on.” You know? Because we were all doing everything for the craic. I look at my daughter, now, and I see how hard she works to try and make it in the industry. And we were just having a laugh.
[00:23:19] RM: Well, can we talk about that for a minute? Because, these days, there’s a lot of emphasis on goal-setting, and having your vision, your mission, your purpose, your goals. And I think a lot of that is great, to be honest - but sometimes you need to let go of all that, and just be in it, whatever it is you’re doing. Whether it be sport or politics or music.
[00:23:38] FB: Yes – go with the flow.
[00:23:40] RM: And the magic can happen anyway.
[00:23:41] FB: It’s amazing. And I never know, to this day, how I ended up in the music industry. I really don’t know how it all happened. And I had no intentions. Because, obviously, Mary – from a very young age – was incredible. She had an amazing voice, and still has an amazing voice. So everything was going to be…Mary was going to go into the music industry, from a very young age she was performing all the time. And I never performed, and I never… I didn’t even think I was a good singer, do you know what I mean? Because you’re comparing yourself to an amazing singer, do you know what I’m saying? And Mary was – and is – incredible. So you wouldn’t…you’d just think: “No, that’s not going to happen.”
But then, all of a sudden, it started to happen. And it was great craic. And it was great fun – and myself and Kieran, on the road, we had the best laugh ever. I swear to God, it was one of the best times of my life. Myself, Kieran, and James Blennerhassett – the three of us on the road. And we travelled the length and breadth doing small folk clubs and laughing – laughing our hearts out. And the kids would come with us, you know, and they’d laugh. We just had great craic. And what happened was, then, when myself and Kieran, we had our album, and then there was a track taken off that, and a track taken off the Arcady album that I had been involved in, and placed on the album that came out that was a phenomenal success, which was A Woman’s Heart. And all of a sudden, then, our lives changed, dramatically. And I don’t know what happened after that.
[00:25:13] RM: That was early or mid-90s, was it?
[00:25:15] FB: That would have been, probably, ’91 or ’92, when A Woman’s Heart came out.
[00:25:20] RM: And that was huge.
[00:25:21] FB: Oh my God, it was absolutely – and it still, seemingly, is – the biggest ever selling album that came out of Ireland. Even beyond U2 – that’s the truth, honest to God. Millions, it sold. So, what that did was, it launched all of our careers. All the women who were involved in that, throughout the 90s.
[00:25:43] RM: This is Eleanor McEvoy, and that?
[00:25:44] FB: It was myself, Mary, Eleanor, Moira O’Connell, Sharon Shannon, and Dolores Keane. Six women. And, as I say, we didn’t go into the studio – except for Mary and Eleanor did, they recorded the song A Woman’s Heart. That was the only song that was recorded for that album – the rest were just taken off all our other albums and placed. Because Paul O’Reilly, who ran Dara Records, he was always making compilations. That’s what he did, he loved it. He loved putting all different people on together.
[00:26:10] RM: So, was this his idea?
[00:26:14] FB: Well, it was him and Joe – Joe, his brother, who’s Mary’s husband. So, the two of them ran Dara Records. And the two of them came up with this idea – and they just put this album out, and before we knew it, all hell broke loose. And it was around the time when Mary – you know, the President Mary Robinson. It was a real women’s…it was a kind of big surge of women starting to come together. I don’t know what it was. It was just a very strong woman’s energy in Ireland, at that time. And we were just part of it. It was a movement. And we were just part of it. We were the kind of artists or performers or whatever, and we were all women. And it was amazing – we went on tour and we had a laugh. Again, it was just all great craic. It was like: “My God.” It was really fun.
And then I got offered my own record deal, which I nearly didn’t take because I didn’t – again, it was a lack of self-belief. They offered me a record deal, my own solo record deal, and I had… Myself and Kieran had gone our separate ways, and I thought I couldn’t do it without Kieran. “How am I going to do it? Who’s going to help me?” And it was actually Mary who said: “Look, make it. What’s the worst that can happen?” And I thought: “Yes, sure.” But look, even if I make it, I’ll be able to show my grandchildren that I once had made an album. That’s exactly what was in my head. There was a time, back in the early… I was imagining to myself, sitting with my grandchildren, telling them about the time I made the album. And so, I released this album, and it went to number one for 10 weeks, in Ireland. And it just – honest to God, it was… I was winning awards left, right, and center, and I didn’t know what hit me.
[00:27:54] RM: You were in your late twenties?
[00:27:56] FB: No, I was in my early thirties. I didn’t know what hit me. I really didn’t know what hit me, I swear to God. To this day, when I think back on it, it was like a dream. It really was like a dream – because… And all the time, there was this little voice in my head saying: “They’re going to find out that you’re not really that good.”
[00:28:14] RM: Yes, imposter syndrome. Again, I’ll refer back to that Bruce Springsteen interview: he was talking about – he gets it! And he’s after playing to 80,000 in Dublin, and he can sell out all over the world. And then he talked about even being suicidal, in the middle of it all. And that’s…sometimes, people are looking in at celebrities, or people doing very well for themselves – and it’s that thing that you never know what’s going on inside.
[00:28:40] FB: You don’t know, and never judge. Never judge people. That’s the one thing that…because we don’t know what it’s like in anybody’s skin. And, for me, people would have looked at my life and said: “Oh my God, she’s riding on the crest of a wave.” And inside, I was just dying. Swear to God. I was dying. That was when…that’s when it peaked. That’s when my depression started, really badly. Because I kept thinking: “How can I sustain this? And people think I’m this, but I’m actually this. I’m actually this, and they think I’m that.”
[00:29:15] RM: I was looking at the term “status anxiety” yesterday, when I was reading something – and it’s that notion that you’re seen to be this, and if you were to reveal the truth, you may lose the perceived status. Which is what people want. But, hopefully, we’re getting to a stage, now, where you can be both: you can still have your status, but your vulnerability as well.
[00:29:35] FB: Exactly. And the reality is – I tell you what I learned. Pure freedom is – and I hope I’m allowed to say a little curse here - but I don’t care, I don’t give a shit what people think of me any more. I really don’t, and I really mean that. Whereas at one time, I would’ve been so stuck in that feeling of: “What are people going to think?” It was just… And I think, now, it’s some kind of toxic shame or something, that we carry, you know? That we feel we have to live up to this kind of expectation of what people, or how people perceive us. Or maybe we can’t live up to our own expectations – I really don’t know. But I’ve learned, now, that really, I am who I am, and this is it. This is just it, and if people like me, they like me, but not everybody’s going to like me. And not everybody’s going to like my music. And not everybody’s going to like what I stand for, or what I believe in. Of course. And they have every right.
[00:30:38] RM: It’s not possible.
[00:30:40] FB: It’s not possible, and they have every right to feel that, and to not agree with me and not agree with what I believe in, or not like my music, or anything like that. Whereas what I used to think is: “Everybody has to like me, or else I’m a failure.” Do you know what I mean? So, I realized, and I learned through many different ways, that that’s what freedom is. It’s not caring what people think of you, and just being you, and just being and accepting yourself for yourself. You know? And since I’ve embarked on that journey, I’ve found unbelievable freedom. And even running here for the Seanad, you know – I never that people were going to go: “Ah, God love her.” [Laughter]. Do you know what I mean? It was this thing of, some people were kind of saying: “Who…like, what is she thinking?”
[00:31:26] RM: But were they saying it, or were you imagining they were saying it?
[00:31:29] FB: Well, no, I do know that people were saying it. And I knew people would say it.
[00:31:34] RM: OK – and these people, now, would they be a particular type of people?
[31:39] FB: They were people who would have been close to me – who I love, and they love me.
[00:31:44] RM: But did they think you were a wee bit… You know: “Your one’s a bit daft, anyway. That’s what she does.”
[00:31:48] FB: “She’s running for the Seanad – what would she know about politics?” You know, and I can understand that. “What does she know about politics?” You know, and in a way, I had that voice, too. But, I kept challenging it, going: “Actually, you don’t need to know about politics to get in there and be passionate about the issues that you are passionate about.” If you know what I mean.
[00:32:08] RM: Well I do, because, ultimately, democracy is rule by the people, for the people. So if you’re not the people, then who’s…
[00:32:15] FB: Exactly. And I’m working in the community. I mean, I had set up the Rise Foundation, I’m working… So I felt I had every right to be in there. And I felt this unbelievable urge to be the voice for people who didn’t have a voice, and who don’t have a voice. And that’s what drives me. And I know what that feels like, you know? I know what that feels like, to not have a voice, and not being able to verbalize what’s going on for me. So, that’s why… And now, I can. Now I can verbalize what’s going on for me, but not only can I do that – I can also verbalize what’s going on for other people. And, for me, that’s why… That’s what has really driven me to run in the Seanad.
[00:32:59] Was there a defining moment? Or was it…
[00:33:02] FB: No, it was a kind of an ongoing…feeling of frustration, I suppose.
[00:33:14] RM: I know it very well [laughter].
[00:33:16] FB: You know, that feeling of frustration, of: “What, in the name of God, is going on? Why are there people homeless, in this day and age? Why are people struggling with depression? Why is there not enough support out there for people who have alcohol, drug, gambling issues? Why? Why is there not enough support out there for their families?” It’s an injustice – and no matter how much I would try and work within the communities, with families, for example, or those who with an addiction or those with mental health needs, and support people. It needs to come from the top, you know? And it needs to come from in here. And we all know it. We all know it. And I just felt I had to get in here, and just start talking about it, and really trying to work towards change around it. And that’s why I decided to run for the Seanad. It’s daunting, because you come into somewhere like here, and it is a different language. And you have to learn the language. You have to learn the understanding of legislation, and motions, and order of business, and things like that. They were all new to me. But I’m good at learning, you know?
[00:34:31] FB: Even the way you go to run for the Seanad isn’t simple, by any means. That’s intimidating, or could be intimidating.
[00:34:38] FB: Yes. But you see, I love a challenge. And I thought… I genuinely thought: “I’m going to run for this, and I probably won’t get in – but I’ll learn. What can I learn from it? And I’ll learn for the next time.” So that’s what I did – and I picked people’s brains, I set up meetings with people who would have a good understanding of it, and they talked me through the process. And I found that very helpful. And that’s what happened, that’s what I did – and I just followed what I was advised to do, you know? And it was a very interesting journey. It was really interesting. And it was just me, and Michael Conlon helped me – he’s the CEO of SICCDA. He tweeted me. He said: “I hear you’re running. I’ll help you.” And I’d only met Michael once. He said: “This is something I’d love to help you with.” So, myself and Michael, and Andrea Smith. Andrea Smith helped me, as well. And, of course, Brian – Brian, my husband – helped, and Emma. So there was like six of us, five of us, I don’t know how many I’m saying now. But there was enough of us sitting around a table and going: “How are we going to do this?” And picking people’s brains, and: “What do we do now? What do we do now?” And ringing up people, and talking to people – from all parties.
[00:36:06] RM: And none of these people you mentioned: to my knowledge, they’re not traditional operators.
[00:36:11] FB: No.
[00:36:12] RM: Michael, as far as I know, is a community person.
[00:36:15] FB: Michael is…he works in the community.
[00:36:17] RM: These aren’t old establishment heads to come in and…
[00:36:19] FB: No experience in politics.
[00:36:21] RM: So you come in to hack the system from the ground.
[00:36:24] FB: Yes, no experience in politics. So just fantastic, fantastic. I mean, it was just a fantastic experience. And I was advised to canvass all of the independents, first. And that’s what I did. I went canvassing all the independent counsellors, and then I went to some of the Fianna Fáil people, and then I went to some of the Fine Gael people, then I went to People Before Profit, and the Triple As, and Sinn Féin.
[00:36:52] RM: What was that experience like?
[00:36:54] FB: Ah, it was great. It was brilliant!
[00:36:55] RM: Were you phoning them or visiting them?
[00:36:57] FB: Phoning and calling, you know. Like, phoning and trying to make… So, if I was doing a gig down in Tipperary, I’d ring all the independent counsellors down there. And you wouldn’t get them all to meet. Some of them would, but… So, there was people like Andy Moloney, who comes from Clare – he’s an independent county counsellor. Andy Moloney is one of these amazing people - and there’s loads of county counsellors like this – who just dedicate their lives to the community. Amazing people, you know? And, so I’d go down. I’d ring, and he’d say: “Yeah, come down, sure! We’re just about to go on a 5k run for the local something, something.” The local nursing home, actually. So I went down, and I met with Andy, and he introduced me to all of the old women in the nursing home, and the people running the nursing home. And, you know, we got photographs taken. So I was meeting people like that, and people from Cobh, Clare, [inaudible 37:51] – and Kieran, who’s an independent county counsellor, as well. And just brilliant people. I mean, really brilliant. I have to tell you, what I was amazed at was: these amazing county counsellors that I met – and city counsellors, Dublin city counsellors, great people – the work that they do is just unbelievable. And I think that was a huge eye-opener for me. And they get very little reward, apart from just fulfilment, you know? So, it was a great experience – I loved every minute of it.
[00:38:25] RM: Did you encounter much opposition, or any opposition?
[00:38:29] FB: No, funnily enough. I mean, of course you meet people who’d say: “I can’t give you my vote, because I have to give it to my party.” Do you know what I mean? So, of course – and I really appreciated their honesty. “Listen, but I might give you third or fourth. Or fifth, maybe. I’ll give you something.” You know? But everybody was lovely.
[00:38:52] RM: And what was it like, then, when you actually won the seat?
[00:38:55] FB: Oh, God. Ruairi, I have to tell you, that was one of the most amazing… It was better… It was the best feeling in the world. I’ve won – and I’m not saying this from an ego place – I’ve won awards for my music and, you know, Ireland’s entertainer of the year, all of these kind of awards. [inaudible 39:21] Award, and loads of different awards. But that day, myself and Michael came in to Leinster House, and it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. And it was really exciting, to be part of this experience. And we were sitting with these politicians that I would have looked at and gone: “Oh, there’s so-and-so – look at him, and look at him.” You know what I mean – people you see on the telly. You’re in awe – it didn’t matter what party, I was in awe of them all. And I was actually so in awe of them that I was nearly afraid to say hello to them. Do you know that, where you’re kind of going: “There’s your man…”? You’re just so in awe of all of these politicians.
So, I had this feeling that – you know, a strong feeling – that I was going to be out of Leinster House, and back in the Rise office and back to normal, by half 3, maybe 4. And I was thinking that would be a good day, because that means I would have gotten a good few votes, do you know what I mean? So, you know. But if I’m out by 12 I’ll be mortified, if you know what I mean. But the day…what happens when you’re getting elected in here, for the Seanad, is: they put your first preference votes in front of you. So they keep coming over. There’s about 12 people who are staff members. So, when you get a first preference vote, they just put that ballot paper in front of you. But they just kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming. And myself and Michael were going… And I was nearly, I was absolutely in shock. And here was Michael, he was digging me, you know. The two of us were sitting there – and we got 75,000 first votes. One ballot paper is a thousand. So, one vote is a thousand – so we got 75, which is unbelievable. For, firstly, a woman independent – I don’t know if that’s ever happened before.
[00:41:19] RM: It’s almost unheard of for a first-time candidate in the Seanad.
[00:41:20] FB: Absolutely. And particularly independent, and a woman – because I only needed 116. So I got 75, and that was really shocking, to be honest with you. And then people were… At that point, even though I needed 116, people were coming up to me, saying: “You’ve done it, you're elected.’ And I was going: “I’ll believe it when I see it,” because I didn't know how many second preferences I got. Now I had gotten loads of…I had asked Sinn Fein to give me their second preference votes, and I had asked them to give me some of their first preference votes – but they gave another, they had somebody else, that they had another candidate that they were giving their first preference votes to as well.
So, I got some first preference votes, but I got some loads of independent votes – they were the ones that got me over the line. And I got loads of People Before Profit votes, as well. And they were very kind, they gave me first preference votes, and I'm deeply grateful to them, as well. So, and then I had some Feanna Fail votes, which probably first preference, but probably I shouldn't be squealing on them, because they're probably shouldn't have been giving me their first preference votes.
But they probably shouldn't – and I might have even got one or two Feanna Gail, but I'm not sure about that. But it was a good, it was good. It was just really exciting. So when I got elected… I didn’t get elected till later on that night. And, I have to tell you: it was the best feeling in the world, because I was not expecting it. And I could not believe it – and all I kept thinking about was my parents. My father, and my mother, and how proud they would have been – and, of course, my family were all… Because they didn’t think I’d do it [laughter]. They didn’t think I’d do it – how would they think I’d do it? Do you know what I mean? So, everybody was texting me, because they were all watching it online. And I was just getting hundreds and hundreds of texts, you know? So, it was the best feeling in the world. And I am so grateful to everybody that voted for me – I really am. I really, when I got in here – well, I’m still in here, now – but I feel I won’t let them down. I will really work hard to…and I intend to make change. And I might be only here for two years – I hope I’m not, I hope I get a bit more time. Because you do need time here, to make change. I’m in a great group, Civil Engagement Group – amazing people who are from civil society: Alice Mary Higgins, an amazing woman, Lynn Ruan, John Dolan, Colette Callagher, Grace O’Sullivan. Grace is in the Green Party. So, there’s six of us that work together – and we all come from social justice, in a way, with that background. And we all want to fight. And, already, Alice Mary was leading on the CETA motion, and she got it passed.
[00:44:24] RM: This is the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement?
[00:44:26] FB: Trade agreement, yes. That was a first, for something like that, to happen in the Seanad.
[00:44:32] RM: And it was actually one of the first votes in Europe – because most parliaments or legislators didn’t get any opportunity.
[00:44:40] FB: Absolutely. But that was a first – for something like that to happen in the Seanad was off the Richter Scale. People were going: “Oh, this group mean business.”
[00:44:51] RM: Yes, I remember seeing that there was a shout-out of joy, afterwards.
[00:44:55] FB: Oh, we were screaming hysterically. It was the best feeling in the world, that we’d won. Because you don’t win those votes unless you’re in government, you know what I mean? Always, the government win. So that was a first, for somebody who are not the government – because the government were voting the other way. So that was really freaky. What happened was, Feanna Fail abstained. But anyway, we’re getting into politics. At the last minute, which was brilliant.
[00:45:24] RM: That sense of justice – how much of that has come from your own personal journey, and how much from your family? Was there a sense, from your mother, or your father, or people you were growing up to – was there somebody that had a real, strong voice of justice?
[00:45:40] FB: Yes, I mean, my father, as I say, came from Rathlin Island. And, I suppose, he would have felt a sense of… And he wouldn’t have spoken about it – but it was just an energy, around the whole civil rights that would have happened, around the 60s and 70s, around the nationalist issue, and how nationalists…there was an injustice there. And I think, even though he wouldn’t have spoken about it, he was a real pacifist, a very strong pacifist.
[00:46:16] RM: So he wasn’t actually part of the civil rights movement, or marches?
[00:46:18] FB: No – but he would have been very… He would have been impacted by the injustice of it. He would have seen the sadness – you would have seen it as you watched it on television, living in Dublin. You know? And I would have picked up on that, I suppose. That was one of the first things, for me, that I would have remembered: going up to Rathlin Island and talking to the people up there. But our eldest brother, Shay, would have had a great sense of injustice, also, and would have been a great… And still is, you know? He would have had a great sense… For myself, and particularly my brother Martin, both of us would have looked up to Shay, and we would have picked up on the fact that he had a great sense of injustice, and he would have been out fighting and marching, and all those kind of things. And we looked at him, nearly, as a fatherly figure. He would have been a lot older than us. So he would have had an influence on us, definitely.
But I don’t know – I mean, for me, from a very young age, I just didn’t like to see injustice. So I was always at the marches, by the time I was 17, 18. I’d be there marching – and the nuclear power, [inaudible 00:47:34] Point. That’s all before your time.
[00:47:37] RM: Well, it is, but let me tell you: I was at the 25th anniversary of [inaudible 00:47:42] Point, down in Wexford. And it was very important for me, because I would have been in my early-to-mid twenties when I went to that anniversary. And I met people from all around the world, and people that had campaigned at the time. And it reminded me that there were people who stood up, at a point in time, namely around ’78 or around there?
[00:48:07] FB: Yes.
[00:48:08] RM: That kind of period. And that they actually stopped nuclear power coming to Ireland.
[00:48:13] FB: They did, they did.
[00:48:14] RM: Now, we still import it, and there’s other issues there – but we are one of the only nuclear-free countries in Europe, which is huge.
[00:48:21] FB: Yes – that was amazing. And I was down there at that festival. But that was probably one of the first things I would have been involved in. And it was just loads of other things, all the way up. And I still get that sense of frustration around injustice – and it drives me mad. I can’t handle it, sometimes.
[00:48:41] RM: And so, there are real limitations as to what the Seanad can achieve, and as to what a senator can achieve. So, do you feel even more frustrated, now that you’re in here?
[00:48:51] FB: No – because I do feel, at least I feel I’m working on the issues. You know, I’m really working hard on the alcohol bill, and the alcohol issue in this country. And when I started to… When I was in my own recovery, and all of a sudden I realised… When you’re in your own recovery from alcohol, and you’re looking around you, this amazing country that we have – this beautiful, great, fantastic country with the most amazing people – and everywhere you look, people are getting [inaudible 00:49:27].
And when you’re in that kind of place, of almost being awake, or something, or you’re wakening up out of a dark place, and you’re looking around you… If you want to go out, for a night out, it’s always alcohol-related. If you want to hang out with people, it’s always alcohol-related. If you want to…if you’re going to a wedding, it’s alcohol-related. If you’re going to a funeral, it’s alcohol-related. If you go to a child’s Holy Communion, it’s alcohol-related. I mean… And then I started to work as a therapist in the Rutland Treatment Centre. I went back to college after my mother passed away, and I studied to be a therapist. I worked – this is in the early 2000s – I worked in the Rutland Treatment Centre, and I loved working there. And I was working with young people who were trying to give up alcohol, and their biggest fear was walking out the gates into an alcohol-fuelled society, where they were going to be completely isolated and alone. Because that’s what their mates do every weekend, is go on the piss. So, what’s wrong? There’s something wrong with that picture. You know, you go to America, and you go for a meal with people, or you go to somebody’s house for dinner, and there’s one bottle of wine brought out for the whole night. And that was a shock, to me, when I saw that. And I wasn’t a drinker. I was expecting the bottles to come out – because that’s what happens here. Bottles of wine. That’s what I’m familiar with, in Ireland. Over there, they have one bottle of wine, and then they all sit around and drink tea. And chat – and have a really lovely night.
[00:51:07] RM: And why is there so much alcohol in Ireland, do you think?
[00:51:12] FB: It’s… It’s the thousand-dollar question, really, isn’t it? I mean, there’s so many different reasons. There’s a great man called Gareth O’Connor, Professor Gareth O’Connor, who was the president of the Betty Ford Institute. And he wrote a great piece called – I think it’s called: Malignant Shame and Ireland’s Alcohol Culture. Or something to that kind of… And he talks about how we carry malignant shame down through the generations, from way, way, way back. And how it’s almost in our soul, where this shame drives us. And then it’s fuelled by alcohol.
[00:52:04] RM: Shame that we’re not good enough?
[00:52:06] FB: Shame that we’re not good enough. Shame that we’re… And you can go back down many, many generations.
[00:52:12] RM: To some extent, not that you want to have a singular focus on this, but if you look at post-colonial cultures around the world, I have noticed alcohol issues amongst Maori people in New Zealand, amongst Aboriginal people in Australia, amongst First Nations people in Canada. And are we, essentially, a tribe of people that…it’s got in on us, over hundreds of years?
[00:52:41] FB: I think it plays a role. I definitely think… I believe – it’s only my own, personal opinion – I do think it plays a role. And it’s in our souls, almost, this unhealthy relationship with alcohol that we, as a nation, have. And we carry it. And it passes on, down through the generations. That is the reality. And until we do something to change that, or break that cycle… And we have to take that responsibility, we all individually have to take on that responsibility to break that cycle. But it also needs to come from the top, from the governing bodies. And that’s what’s really important – and I really, genuinely believe that the only way to do that is through the Alcohol Bill. That’s why I’m here, is to get this… It’s a start. It’s not the whole answer to everything.
[00:53:41] RM: And this is the bill that’s facing huge opposition. Can you talk to me about some of the opposition you’ve encountered?
[00:53:47] FB: Well, the reality is that the Alcohol Bill, I think, could – and will, I’m not saying could, it will – work towards changing our culture, and our unhealthy relationship with alcohol. And I think it’s vital that we get it through, and passed, and not watered down. But the problem is that the alcohol industry are extremely powerful, extremely powerful. And I would not have known how powerful until I’ve come in here, and I’ve seen the amount of lobbying that they’ve done, how they can really work their magic, or something – I don’t know what it is, but I suppose money is power, power is money. And they have it, and they can do it. And they have people in here lobbying, all of the time. And the reality is that the Public Health Alcohol Bill – and bearing in mind that the first two words are “Public Health” – this is about changing lives. This is about saving lives. Three people a day, in this country, die – of our wonderful people, three people are dying – from an alcohol-related issue, whether it be through accident, whether it be through liver failure, whether it be through alcohol-related cancer, or heart disease. That’s shocking numbers. That’s like a thousand a year. It’s shocking to think that a thousand of our wonderful people are dying from an alcohol-related issue. And then we have 1,500 people, in this country, a day, are taking up hospital beds with alcohol harm.
[00:55:24] RM: And part of the driving force around this seems to be advertising and marketing, which I think…
[00:55:27] FB: Yes – the Alcohol Bill is around alcohol minimum unit pricing, labelling, and it’s really, obviously, product separation, in the shops.
[00:55:39] RM: It’s still… It kind of seems to me that it’s even a modest bill, because it still doesn’t even tackle sponsorship in sports. So, for instance, I’ve been watching a lot of rugby – and rugby is saturated with alcohol advertising, now. So, you’ve got… It feels to me that they’re grooming young people, and sports fans. Even, I noticed on Twitter after Ireland beat the All Blacks, that one of the major drinks companies, they were “in on the game.” And we can look at that tweet as just a bit of craic – but it’s clear that they want to associate their product with our culture. And those sportsmen weren’t necessarily going out on the beer the night before the match.
[00:56:18] FB: No, The Heroes. The Heroes are not drinkers.
[00:56:20] RM: Then again, I did see a photo of one of the sports guys holding up a pint, fairly quickly after the match. And, maybe, there’s a responsibility there for them to understand their role as role models. However, maybe then we could be seen as too pious – and sure, what’s wrong with a pint?
[00:56:37] FB: And I think, exactly – and obviously we have to be careful around all of that. But in saying that, careful? Three people a day, you know? If that was road crashes… And remember that suicide – over 50% of people who die by suicide, alcohol is related. So we’re talking about a public health issue, here. We’re talking about people’s lives. And I understand that the drinks industry are coming from a place of business, jobs, profit, all of that kind of stuff. But we want to save lives. And I just can’t bear to think that… I suppose, for me, I can’t get my head around that injustice of: how can they not see it? How can they not see that this is impacting people’s lives? So, that’s what’s shocking to me. Where is their humanity? Where is their humanity? Why are they not worried about three people a day dying from an alcohol-related issue? Where is their conscience? That’s what I can’t get my head around. So there, we’re back to the injustice piece.
[00:57:48] RM: Well, when the god is money…
[00:57:51] FB: Which is just disgraceful. And I worry, sometimes, about this lovely country of ours. In the sense that I worry about them putting profits before our people. And that’s very worrying.
[00:58:04] RM: How do you stay grounded, in all of this? Because it’s a lot to take on. Because you have your work with the Rise Foundation – so you’re still at the coal face. You presumably have people phoning you at different hours of the day, looking for personal support, different things. And then you’re fighting the big fights – so where is you in all of this? How do you stay happy, healthy, grounded?
[00:58:27] FB: Well, don’t get me wrong – I do feel a little bit tired, at times. But I do have a strong – I suppose this might sound really strange – but I have a good, strong sense of spirituality. And that doesn’t mean that I’m religious. I have a very strong sense of – and this would have come from my own recovery – I do believe that my addiction, or my depression, was a soul sickness, and is a soul sickness. And that until I was able to start looking after my spirit, and doing things for my spirit, it was only going to be stronger again. And that’s really what I’m very conscious of. My body gets tired – but once my spirit is strong, I think I’m going to be alright. But I do have to mind it, I have to make sure that I still have a good, strong sense of connection with my spirit. I hope that makes sense. A strong sense of – for me, I have a higher power in my life. I have to work on that on a daily basis. When I’m walking into work, or at some point during the day, I just say: “Look, give me a little hand, here – give me a bit of strength.” And I’m able to tap into that. I very much keep everything in the moment. I really, really work hard on keeping things in the now. And I don’t think about anything, I don’t get into anxiety. Sometimes I do, but I suppose I get anxious about not being able to live up to delivering what I want to deliver, around injustice. But I do bring it back to keeping it in the moment. So, I suppose there are things I do: I like walking, I like listening to music, I like spending time with my family, my dog, my dogs, my husband, obviously, my lovely husband. And there are things I like to do. But I do love working. I love being able to give back – and that’s why I’m here. I want to give back, and I want to… When I’m on my deathbed, I want to say I did my best. That’s all I want to do: “I did my best.”
[01:00:43] RM: It’s been a pleasure, Frances. Thanks very much.
[01:00:46] FB: Thank you very much, Ruairi, good talk.
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The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.