Róisín Ní Haicéid walks into KC Peaches, walking stick in hand, a beaming smile upon her face. We greet, hug, and order oat milk coffee and lemon cake before diving into everything from music and her band Banríon, to activism and disability awareness.
Ní Haicéid is a 21-year-old Trinity student from Dublin in her second year of Sociology and Social Policy studies. She admits that her college career has been an interesting one. “I should be in fourth year but I took a year out… I’m doing a split year for second year, so I did the first half of second year last year and I’m doing the second half of it this year.” The reason for her year out and split year originates from the diagnosis of her idiopathic scoliosis at the age of 12. She was then placed on a waiting list for a spinal fusion for two years. “The thing is with scoliosis patients”, she says, “is it’s really a race against time.” Despite the curvature in her spine having grown more and more severe within the intervening time, she eventually had a successful surgery at 14: “I was pretty lucky; I didn’t have any pain. I got off very lightly.” As Leaving Cert year approached, she was due another spinal fusion as one of the rods had broken. Unfortunately, a blood clot during the surgery led to her leg being partially paralysed, a condition known as Cauda Equina Syndrome. She managed to move from a wheelchair, then to a mobility scooter, and finally to a walking stick in order to get around, but then a rod broke in her spine once again in her first year at Trinity. Ní Haicéid therefore took a year out, and during this time she discovered her love for music and her drive to get into the music scene.
“Ní Haicéid realised that ‘maybe it’s something I should pursue a little bit.’ It became a recovery mantra: ‘I’m gonna get better and I’m gonna start making music.’”
“I stay happy by staying busy”, she tells me. For the year out, she was housebound and “very bored”, though got herself out of the house in order to watch a guy she was seeing perform in his band at gigs. “Whenever I’d be in his house, all of his friends would be playing tunes and jamming with each other.” Having not played guitar since initially learning at 14, she found a love for music again. She remembered thinking “I want to do this, I want to get better, and I want to be in a band.” At the beginning, she recalls writing “little jokey tunes”, nothing intentionally comedic but “not serious at all”. She showed her ex what she made, who also showed his friends, and they all agreed that there was potential. Ní Haicéid realised that “maybe it’s something I should pursue a little bit”. It became a recovery mantra: “I’m gonna get better and I’m gonna start making music.”
The music video to the Banríon song Bins, directed, filmed, and edited by Niamh Barry, matches the happy indie beat and features Ní Haicéid dancing, laughing, and singing into the mirror; yet the lyrics are quite personal and melancholic. She sings in a melodious voice: “I miss my bike / I miss my legs / I miss the future being in my head.” I ask if the juxtaposition was a conscious choice to which she confirms: “I’m always really aware of making things too sappy, and it’s so easy to fall into writing really sappy music when you’re writing about tough things.” She wrote it at a tough time during her year out from college: “It’s weird writing about disability stuff and my health. I find a way to talk about it in most songs as it’s a huge, defining part of my life.” She is always cautious about adding to her personal narrative that disabled people have such a pitiable life: “It’s very hard to write about things being tough without perpetuating that.” When I ask about the connection between writing songs about her personal experiences and her activist beliefs, she responds, “maybe writing about disability is kind of activism in itself because it’s representation”.
About a year ago, Ní Haicéid found her other band members and began releasing music on Soundcloud under the name Banríon, which is Irish for ‘queen’. Her Gaeilge is not what it used to be but she still loves it all the same. She thinks the indie rock genre tends to use Americanisms and most artists she admires, like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and HAIM, come from the States, so it’s nice to have an Irish spin on her artist name. After Banríon’s Soundcloud received more attention, she was asked to play at Sleepover Club in Workman’s back in September. She realised she didn’t want to perform by herself and would need a band. She got in contact with drummer Michael Nagle, who she had met the April before at a gig in Wigwam. Nagle found Ivan Rahkmanin, who plays the guitar, and Banríon had their first gig together as a trio. It’s her favourite gig so far: “It was just really exciting, and because I was so nervous that when we actually did it and it went so well… it felt great.”
“ ‘…You need all of the encouragement in the entire world.’ Not least because ‘it’s such a boys club in Dublin. I always kind of knew it was a bit of a boy’s club.’ ”
Today, Banríon consists of Ní Haicéid, Nagle, Rahkmanin, and new addition John Harding on bass. Their songwriting process involves Ní Haicéid bringing the other members “the bones of a song, just the chords and the vibe and direction I want it to take, and the lyrics obviously.” Nagle, Rahkmanin, and Harding all write their own parts, “so we all kind of write together,” she says. Their latest gig took place in Whelans as they supported Big Sleep, and their vivid passion and talent had the audience hooked. Big Sleep’s Rónán Connolly, who Ní Haicéid met through Niamh Barry, came to the first Banríon gig and took the new band under his wing. She has greatly valued his advice ever since and says that “you need all of the encouragement in the entire world”. Not least because “it’s such a boys club in Dublin. I always kind of knew it was a bit of a boy’s club.”
Despite the domination of the local indie rock music scene by male artists, Ní Haicéid is still making her mark. She finds inspiration in her other musical friends, like Greg Tisdall and Robbie Sticklands, but especially in the female artists friends she has made, like CMAT, Ellie O’Neill, and Maija Sofia. “There’s so many really good girls in the scene as well; they’re just not getting as many bookings.” She also sources inspiration in the Charli XCX Nasty Cherry documentary which follows a girl band Charli XCX put together. They channel the “big dick energy” Ní Haicéid also wants to channel. “They’re so confident about it. They are just really good performers. I need to be more like that.”
Ní Haicéid does, however, channel some “big dick energy” into her activism, as is evidenced by the number of causes she is passionate about. She began taking an interest in the housing crisis from the time she worked in a soup kitchen during her Transition Year. With Trinity VDP, she has run soup runs, partnerships between VDP and Depaul hostels, and has been an active member of Dublin Central Housing Action. As a Sociology and Social Policy student, there’s no distinction between her actions within the realm of activism and what she studies: “I think it’s kind of impossible to do my course and… not go into activism.” She has also dipped her toes into Ending Direct Provision action, starting the Facebook page Students Against Direct Provision (SADP) with Lile Donohue and Míde Power after a successful VDP social justice campaign. SADP is “a group that funnels all of the Student DP activism into one kind of news feed, more or less. We can use the page to promote different events and groups”, or it can be used as a way to aid asylum seekers in finding useful resources. Ní Haicéid has since taken a small step back from managing the group: “I had my finger [in] too many pies. I had to reel it all back in. I kind of [burned out] a little bit so I’ve taken a step back to work on music for a little while and recharge my batteries and hopefully head back into it, guns ablazing.”
“ ‘[The housing crisis] is so interlinked with disability stuff and direct provision stuff. When you learn about one kind of area, [you realise] the whole thing is connected.’ ”
Ní Haicéid’s activism doesn’t end there. She is also a member of Disabled Women Ireland, is on the TCDSU Disability Committee and is the Accessibility Officer of Trinity VDP. She believes that there is great intersectionality across all of the issues she is passionate about: “[The housing crisis] is so interlinked with disability stuff and direct provision stuff. When you learn about one kind of area, [you realise] the whole thing is connected.” When Ní Haicéid found Disabled Women Ireland, they had just formed a group of pro-choice disabled women at the time of the Repeal vote. The main goal of the group originates in its founding story: “That’s kind of what the function of Disabled Women Ireland is: to make sure the intersection of disability and, say, women and housing is being taken into account.”
It did, however, take time for Ní Haicéid to accept the label “disabled”. She progressed from having the invisible condition of scoliosis to having, on top of that, the quite visible disability that is leg paralysis; she tells me that she learned a lot from the experience. “It was such a life lesson in how different bodies are treated in the world.” Her perception of disabilities has altered drastically. She finds that she never stuck out before she was disabled, so going from that to being in a wheelchair was “a real eye-opener”. She notices over the years how “bizarre” people can act around her. “I even look back on the stuff I used to say, like ‘spastic’ or whatever, like Dublin slang, without actually thinking about it. I remember thinking back on that and being like, ‘I was an idiot.’” She tries to be patient with people today if they use the wrong words because she was just like them. “For the most part, it’s out of not having an understanding of disability or [not having] ever experienced it before.”
“We need to create a structurally accessible society where the world is built for all these different types of bodies…and there’s no way to be 100% accessible, but we can try.”
As a disabled musician, I was curious if Ní Haicéid had ever experienced major issues with accessibility in venues where she’s performed. She herself has not had any major issues with a venue. As it stands, her biggest obstacle is traveling with her equipment which she admitted is made easier by the fact that she journeys with company: “[The other band members] do all of that for me — they’re my mules.” However, she does think that the accessibility of music venues in Dublin is pretty poor — the most accessible location being Workman’s, though that is through the lens of audience members. In relation to her role on the SU Disability Committee, she aims to encourage societies to have accessible events as she believes these are stepping stones to having an “accessible future” in Ireland: “We need to create a structurally accessible society where the world is built for all these different types of bodies… and there’s no way to be 100% accessible, but we can try.” She believes that the disabled community would not be “as segregated as they are right now, and people’s attitudes would change from that.” Ní Haicéid also confides that, through knowing her, “[her friends are] way more understanding of different bodies and disabilities, and not just that, but anyone who’s outside the ‘normal’ box”. And while structural accessibility would change a lot, change would have to start with the healthcare system. “[It’s] completely to do with the solidarity with nurses and midwives campaign — to have functioning working hours for them, sufficient pay, and from that the entire health system will get better. I believe in the abolition of the private healthcare system, even though I’m a private patient: that’s out of necessity. In my utopia, it would all be public and it would all be free, or heavily subsidised.”
“She emphasises how important it is to read party and candidate manifestos and to ask oneself: ‘Is this what I want Ireland to look like in five or ten years, even next year?’ ”
When it comes to making change in issues like disability care, the housing crisis, and direct provision, taking action is essential. “The anger is there. It’s bubbling away.” Ní Haicéid encourages students to “start at ground level” to get into activism by finding groups to get involved with. A key factor in change, she admits, is voting. “This is why housing is so exhausting to be an activist for because you can shout from the rooftops” and still, nothing will change unless the right people are in power. She emphasises how important it is to read party and candidate manifestos and to ask oneself: “Is this what I want Ireland to look like in five or ten years, [or] even next year?”
I ask Ní Haicéid if she has considered what kind of career path she’ll pursue. “I think something definitely to do with housing policy, or working in a hostel. If music takes off, I’m not going to say no. The more I do it, the more I realise I really, really love doing it. But I think [a career in music and one in politics] can function at the same time.” Banríon is planning on releasing an EP in the summer; all the songs are written and ready to be put to music and recorded. There’s also a music video concept in the works. Ní Haicéid tells me: “since I watched that [Nasty Cherry] documentary, I’ve been Kris-Jennering the band”. Make sure to watch out for Banríon as they take over the Dublin music scene, and for Roisin Ní Haicéid as she takes on the world one step at a time.