How Blindboy accidentally became modern Ireland’s biggest cultural export
Politics, surrealism, psychotherapy and laughs delivered by a man with a plastic bag on his head – welcome to 2020.
Back in February, when the idea that a microbe might bring the world to its knees still sounded improbable enough to be the plot of one of his more dystopian short stories, the Irish podcaster and author known as Blindboy was performing in Auckland when a question from the audience caught him off guard.
“There was this bunch of PhD students studying literature, and I could tell they were doing a deep, deep analysis of my books,” he recalls. “They were contrasting them with James Joyce, and asking things like: ‘Is this line a direct reference to page 43 of Ulysses?’”
Blindboy, who never performs in public without his signature shopping bag balaclava, still sounds slightly surprised when I speak to him three months later. “I was going: ‘Oh fuck, these guys take me seriously,’” he says. “Because in Ireland there are people in the literary community who view me as a chancer with a plastic bag on his head.”
Despite the old axiom about books and covers, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are literary critics who can’t see past Blindboy’s appearance. Plenty of authors hide behind pseudonyms, or refuse to reveal their real identity, but there can’t be many who use actual refuse – that is, rubbish – to do it. The writer’s background, as one half of masked musical comedy duo The Rubberbandits, is another cause of snobbishness towards him. Yet although it’s not every day that he finds his work compared to that of Ireland’s greatest novelist, increasingly, being taken seriously is something Blindboy is having to get used to.
His collections of short stories, the second of which, Boulevard Wren and Other Stories he was promoting in New Zealand, have both been bestsellers. His CV now includes not just music, live comedy and a recent foray into Twitch streaming, but also sketch shows and documentaries for RTÉ (Ireland’s national broadcaster) and the BBC.
Perhaps more remarkably his podcast, launched initially as a way of promoting his first book, now attracts “between one and 1.5 million monthly listeners,” putting him in the same ballpark as Ireland’s largest radio stations. What’s more, “60 to 70 per cent” of this audience now comes from outside the country, meaning he’s not only Ireland’s most popular podcaster, but also one of its most successful recent cultural exports. Not bad given that Blindboy failed his leaving cert (“that’d be the equivalent of your A‑Levels,” he explains), and invented the character as a teenage prank.
When I reach Blindboy at his home studio in Limerick, via Skype, we keep the video off. In interviews he prefers not to use his real name or give out his exact age, and one advantage of the pandemic preventing face-to-face meetings is that he doesn’t have to wear the bag for the duration.
Listening to his disembodied voice feels a little like being treated to a personalised episode of the podcast. He talks rapidly, segueing between subjects as if he’s following a weird and winding wiki-trail: from how Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism was funded by the CIA (“that’s not a conspiracy theory, they’ve since admitted it”), to the benefits of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to Sinn Féin’s strong showing in the recent Irish elections.
He’s most audibly animated when talking about his latest creative outlet, a Twitch stream where he narrates surreal stories while playing Red Dead Redemption, and composes spontaneous songs based on audience suggestions “as an act of participatory art”. The pandemic might have cut short his live touring schedule, but it’s done nothing to curtail Blindboy’s restless creativity.
“What I love about live streaming is it’s so fucking cyberpunk,” he says excitedly. “I’d grown up with the promise of Blade Runner in 2020, and my setup right here looks like a Voight-Kampff machine – all these weird pulleys, hostile monitors and mechanical arms. I can just imagine something being written in the 1960s about this: ‘The year is 2020 and a global pandemic means that people can’t leave the house – but a covert, guerilla broadcaster is using all this mad equipment and lights to get his message out.’”
It’s a message that appears to be hitting home. His Twitch account has rapidly racked up 10,000 followers, to add to his 750,000 existing fans on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Given the size of his public profile today, it’s easy to see why Blindboy might choose to conceal his identity.
“I’m in a position with my podcast that I can earn a living from that, but I still want to go to the same supermarket as everyone else,” he says. When he and Mr. Chrome, the other half of The Rubberbandits, first decided to remain anonymous, however, there was a more straightforward reason: they simply didn’t want to get caught.
Their act grew out of a series of surreal prank phone calls which they began circulating on home-burned CDs while they were still at school. “It became kind of stoner humour in Limerick. Lads who were selling hash would give CDs away.” Before they knew it, people they’d never met were quoting their catchphrases back at them. Then, having grown up listening to Dr. Dre, Blindboy started making beats, using a cracked copy of Fruity Loops. “Irish hip-hop at the time was quite cringy,” he explains, so they made Irish hip-hop which took the piss out of the whole idea of Irish hip-hop.
In the Limewire-driven internet ecosystem of the mid-2000s, their irony-laden songs struck a chord. “We had a Bebo page with about 7000 people, which was pretty big for 2006,” he notes. But it was when they were asked to film a music video for a TV sketch show called Republic of Telly that things really blew up.
Released in 2010, Horse Outside is a bouncy, three-minute-30 slice of pure pop that could almost have been produced by Pharrell, were it not for the lyrics, which are all about riding a horse (and trying to “ride” a bridesmaid) at a rural Irish wedding. The bizarre video racked up millions of views, transforming The Rubberbandits’ from cult MySpace concern to contenders for the 2010 Christmas Number One (they were sadly beaten by Matt Cardle) and catapulting Mr. Chrome and Blindboy to hitherto unimaginable levels of fame.
Despite their success, and Blindboy’s obvious musicianship (he plays guitar, drums and piano, as well as producing), many people still saw The Rubberbandits as a laddish novelty act, an Irish version of Goldie Lookin’ Chain. “I realise sometimes it’s like I’m dressing up as a clown, and then complaining when people call me a clown,” he acknowledges. But being written off as a joke by people who didn’t get the joke was galling.
Their faux-gangster swagger, put on at a time when newspapers had labelled Limerick the official murder capital of Europe, was inspired as much by the Irish satirist Flann O’Brien as it was by NWA. “People thought, ‘In Limerick, they’re all gangsters.’ So I thought: what if you try to do a Flann O’Brien sort of surrealist take on Limerick, but it’s to gangster rap?” Their controversial hit Up Da RA, meanwhile, had more to do with the philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation than the Irish Republican Army.
“As teenagers, people would write IRA on the wall, and then right next to it, they’d write 2Pac,” Blindboy explains. For his generation, who’d come of age after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, ‘IRA’ had essentially become a meme — entirely shorn of its original meaning. Yet not even lyrics like “Kofi Anann! He’s in the RA!” could stop certain corners of the internet from exploding in indignation about the duo’s supposedly “terrorist’ sympathies.
Even their own fans – especially those who jumped on the Bandits’ bandwagon after Horse Outside – frequently got the wrong end of the stick. “We weren’t trying to parody what Limerick actually is,” Blindboy insists, “we were trying to parody the hyperreal version of Limerick that’s in the media”. But as their audience grew, those nuances often got lost. “A lot of people just wanted to get drunk and shout.”
Luckily there were those who did get the joke. James Cotter, the comedy producer/director who works with Blindboy on his TV output to this day, kept commissioning The Bandits for RTÉ. “The fact that they were just two 24-year-old lads who came out of nowhere made it really exciting,” he says. They became some of Republic of Telly’s standout stars, contributing increasingly irreverent comedy sketches – often accompanied by Spitting Image-style puppet work – to the seven series between 2010 and 2015.
Even as Blindboy’s star was rising, however, the world around him was beginning to fall apart. The seismic upheavals of the 2008 financial crash hit Ireland hard, and as the subsequent tsunami spilled over into the real economy, Limerick, already home to some of the country’s most deprived areas, bore the brunt of it. Austerity measures, introduced by Ireland’s right-leaning government during the desperate years of the eurozone crisis, began to squeeze the life out of Blindboy’s hometown.
“In Limerick we had the highest rate of suicide in Ireland. By 2015, I think it was 10 people a week – and that’s in a city of 100,000.”
For the first time Blindboy, who’d suffered from crippling panic attacks as a teenager, began talking publicly about his own mental health. “I just thought: you know, there’s stuff I’ve learnt from psychotherapy that’s changed my life. We’ve got a Facebook page with around 300,000 people, so why not post something and see if that helps?”
The reaction was overwhelming, and the bag, always intended as a joke, suddenly came into its own, allowing him to talk candidly while still maintaining some privacy. But this was still a huge step for someone whose first instinct had always been to play the fool. Looking back, he thinks his decision to open up marked a turning point in the way fans saw him. “People got used to the idea that yes, he’s got a bag on his head and he looks like a clown – but he’s also able to talk in a rational, sensible fashion”.
Conor Nagle, the editor who worked on both of Blindboy’s short story collections, counts himself among those fans. He’d grown up with The Rubberbandits (“in college everybody went to their gigs”). But as Ireland’s economic and social crisis bit, he watched with interest as Blindboy stepped away from the safety of comedy, and from his partnership with Mr. Chrome, and started making solo appearances on more serious TV panel shows.
The optics were bizarre, he says. “You had this masked figure appearing on mainstream television, with newsreaders and economists and so on, and he was often the most sensible voice – the voice of reason.” But if Blindboy’s appearance left older viewers feeling confused, for the millenials watching, his irreverent persona gave him legitimacy that the establishment “experts” around him lacked.
“People of my generation – and Blindboy would be one of them – were often hit hardest by the financial crash,” observes Nagle, “but we were also the people who had had the least say in any of the disastrous policies that led to it.”
Did that mean Blindboy became something of a millennial spokesperson?
“Oh, he’d hate that!” Nagle laughs. But if Blindboy didn’t speak for his generation, he certainly spoke to them.
For his audience, mostly men in their mid-twenties, trying to launch careers in a country with no jobs, the prospects looked particularly bleak. The suicide epidemic was accompanied by mass emigration – a phenomenon given extra poignancy in Ireland by folk memories of the 19th century famine, and the genocidal policies of the British (who ruled Ireland at the time) which exacerbated it.
“I don’t want to say brain drain, but people called it that,” Blindboy says. “All the young people in Ireland were leaving for Australia and Canada and emigrating”.
As the country limped towards the centenary of another pivotal moment in Irish history – the 1916 Easter Rising – Blindboy poured all of these influences into his work. The Rubberbandits Guide to 1916, an hour-long special, which aired on RTÉ at 11pm on New Year’s Eve 2015, didn’t so much slaughter sacred cows as roast them to a crisp. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde appear in it as drunken puppets; Éamon de Valera, the giant of 20th century Irish politics, is mixed up in Baudrillardian fashion with Alan Rickman (who played him in the Hollywood film Michael Collins), and the Rising itself is re-enacted as a Warhammer game, with a 100-foot-tall “six-titted lizard witch” playing the part of Brigadier-General William Lowe, commander of the British forces in Dublin at the time.
It wasn’t just about poking fun at the past, or pointing out the brutality of the British, either. The Bandits took aim squarely at the present, skewering the short-sightedness of the 21st century politicians who’d lead Ireland to this point. “We’ve had this two-party system in Ireland for a long time, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They give the illusion of being opposed, but they’re both very much neoliberal – essentially two cheeks of the same arse,” says Blindboy. (Shortly after we speak, in the wake of the 2020 general election, the two parties go into government together as a formal coalition.)
If the crash and its aftermath transformed Ireland, the pace of change has hardly slowed since. The 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage and the success of 2018’s “Repeal the 8th” referendum (which rolled back Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws) marked huge shifts for a once staunchly Catholic country. At the same time, the ludicrously low rates of corporation tax have led to all of tech’s big four establishing an outsized presence in Ireland, catapulting it to the forefront of debates about the accountability of supra-national corporations and the morality of their data-based business models.
With the move into short story writing, and his 2019 BBC Three series Blindboy Undestroys The World, Blindboy has continued to tackle these issues head on. Boulevard Wren, the title story of last October’s second anthology, is set in a dystopian future where a global tech giant has exacerbated Ireland’s housing crisis to the point that everyone is forced to live in their cars – and uploading dreams to social media has become the only way to scrape a living.
If Blindboy’s writing touches on big societal concerns however, it’s also always rooted in personal experience.
“I’ve been using social media since Bebo, and I’ve encountered every single troll you can imagine,” he says, and having spent more than a decade in the internet spotlight, he’s uniquely qualified to comment on what it does to people’s wellbeing. “Sometimes I don’t even view Twitter as social media, I view it as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. It’s a bit like World of Warcraft: a hostile combative environment around ideas, [one where] being a prick is actually rewarded.”
Meanwhile, the relentless data harvesting of tech’s biggest players makes him happier than ever to be hiding his identity. “I’m telling you, in 15 years’ time, when facial recognition cameras become as widespread as they are in China, people are going to take a look at my bag and go: ‘You know what? He had the right idea.’”
There are times when listening to Blindboy speak, like listening to his podcast, feels like the aural equivalent of binge-watching Black Mirror. But there’s a levity to his Limerick-accented delivery that can stop even the most dystopian ideas from being depressing. As a writer, he’s provocative and inventive and often gratuitously graphic, but he’s nothing if not funny.
The short story Arse Children, a Dada-esque experiment with form that would make Flann O’Brien proud, is perhaps the perfect example. Its plot is a savagely dark musing on what might happen if a social media pile-on was taken to its illogical conclusion, drawing on the long Irish tradition of gross-out satire that stretches back to Jonathan Swift. Like Up Da RA or the Guide to 1916, it mocks the secular saints of the country’s independence struggle – only this time Blindboy takes it several steps further.
“I was particularly nervous about Arse Children,” Conor Nagle says, remembering the run-up to the book’s publication. “It’s insane, and obscene, and profane, and it’s a really inflammatory piece of work”. But it’s also hilarious, and far from undermining it, the ridiculousness only serves to make the story’s serious critique more cutting.
When he was first approached about writing a book, Blindboy was asked to put together a collection of non-fiction essays. But as soon as they started talking about it, Nagle realised why this wouldn’t work. If you were to take away the absurdity, curb the crazy creativity, or take off the bag, Blindboy wouldn’t be the same. Like the king’s fool in a medieval court, it’s his ability to take the piss that gives him his power. As Nagle puts it: “What makes him so effective as a public figure is that everything is approached with that sense of irony.”
There will probably always be people who judge Blindboy at face value (or at SuperValu-bag value), and critics who refuse to take him seriously. But in a global situation that seems to make less sense with each passing day, a growing number are realising that maybe a modern-day jester, a self-described clown, is exactly what the world needs right now.
Cometh the hour, cometh a man who “grew up being famous for having a plastic bag on my head”.