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'I was shocked when I was told I had an alcohol problem. I thought I was normal'

Singer and senator Frances Black talks about why she chose to get into politics and what she hopes to achieve.

I WAS A wine drinker. I would drink a bottle of wine every night. I thought it was normal, but I had a problem.

Frances Black is one of Ireland’s most iconic singers, one part of the famous all-singing Black family which calls the stage home.

But she’s on a new, unfamiliar stage these days. A political one.

Number one on the newly elected senator’s agenda is highlighting the issue of addiction, something the Dublin woman has spoken about very openly in the past.

“I was shocked when I was told that I had an actual alcohol problem. I was shocked, I thought that I was normal,” she told TheJournal.ie.

She said she first realised she had an issue with alcohol when she tried to give it up.

I wanted to stop drinking… tried to and I couldn’t. That sent a message to me – why can’t I stop drinking? Why don’t I have the will power?

Black said she then read an article by a journalist who was writing about her own struggle.

She said she would come home every night after work, have a gin and tonic and then some wine with dinner and then a few more gin and tonics. It seemed normal. She went to the same place I went to and was told she had an alcohol misuse problem. That’s what they told me.

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Black was in her late 20s, a mother and a wife. She believed she only drank to relax.

My misuse of alcohol was drinking a bottle of wine a night, that wasn’t normal. That is when I went for help. It was very hard.

The senator said people have a certain perception of what an alcoholic is. They think of the “alcoholic” as someone that wakes up first thing in the morning and reaches for the bottle of vodka or has the shakes.

That is not what it is. It is when the drink is causing a problem.

If you’re not getting into work on time, if your family are complaining about your alcohol use, if people are saying your behaviour is unacceptable, then alarm bells should be going off.

Her own personal experience with alcohol spurred her to set up The RISE Foundation, a charity which helps families of those affected by addiction to alcohol, gambling, drugs and sex. The Dubliner is also qualified as an addiction counsellor.

Black says Ireland has a real problem with drink and it is a subject matter people don’t want to talk about.

People have it in their minds that addiction is something over there, but there isn’t a family in this country that hasn’t felt the effects of it.

“It could be your aunt, your granny, your uncle or cousin.”

Ireland’s drinking culture 

Changing Ireland’s drinking culture is one of the reasons Black says she ran in the recent Seanad election.

When I started on this journey, I wanted to know how we could change a culture that has such an unhealthy relationship with alcohol… I am talking about our country and our misuse of alcohol. How do we change that?

Black says it is important to start from “the bottom up and top down”.

I think we should get into the homes of those that are impacted by it, where people are dealing with it at the coal face.

This is what I am doing here, working from the top down and providing a service for family members and being a voice for the vulnerable.

30/1/2011. Bloody Sunday Commemorations Protests 1916 commemorations event. Source: /Photocall Ireland

But, what does having a bar in Leinster House say about Ireland’s relationship with drink?

“I honestly don’t see why we have to have a Dáil bar,” she says in answer to TheJournal.ie‘s question.

I can’t understand it. Maybe 50 years ago when everyone had a few pints in there, that’s how they did their business? Maybe they still do, I haven’t been in the Dáil bar.

“It probably won’t go down well in here, but I don’t see the point of having a bar in here. No other organisation or workplace would have one, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

27/11/2010 Trade Unions Protest Source: /Photocall Ireland

Black says she never thought about becoming a politician. She was busy singing and running her charitable organisation.

“I genuinely didn’t know anything about politics,” she said.

However, one by one, close friends and colleagues asked if she would consider taking public office.

“My immediate reaction was, don’t be so ridiculous,” she said.

It wasn’t until her husband and close friend told her to really think seriously about it did she begin to believe she might be able to take it on.

I loved the work we were doing, but I felt there was no support for what we were doing in general, not even from a government’s point of view. I mean no one seemed to understand what it is like to have someone you love have an alcohol, drug or gambling problem and the devastation it causes. I was getting a little bit frustrated about that. I was like, ‘why are people not talking about this?’

She said her foundation is a small organisation, solely funded by donations.

With allegations against Console in the headlines this week, does she feel charities are being damaged by controversies?

I think the charity sector is probably very, very damaged. Even with all the other controversies in the CRC and Rehab – it is very, very sad.

But we are very small charity. We have events. That is the only way we get funding.We have a great team of fundraisers who do all the events, we’re blessed in that way. We keep the team small and wages low, so admin is extremely low. Any money we get goes into service. It works well for us.

With the possibility of contributions dropping for some charities, Black says it is important to think of the service user. She shows me a text that she received during the interview from a service user.

It reads:

I hope you know that what you offer us is nothing short of a lifeline while I am in a sea of despair. I like many others affected by addiction have been struck by the overwhelming wave of sheer helplessness of it all, I can breathe now Frances. Thank you. Keep going in all that you do.

“That’s what we get all the time. And that makes it worth it,” she said.

8/6/2016. Seanad Senators Source: Sam Boal

What does the new senator hope to achieve during her time in the Seanad? 

Following the endless discussions about whether to run or not, she did – and succeeded. In the end, the singer benefited from transfers from Sinn Féin’s Padraig Mac Lochlainn (who topped the poll) and was elected onto the Industrial and Commercial Vocational panel.

After her five years in the Seanad, Black says she hopes she puts Ireland’s issue with alcohol centre stage.

That is what I want to start bringing up on a government level and start to create an awareness of our our unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It is not going to go down too well with the drinks industry, but it is a huge problem.

I have already been involved in the Alcohol Bill and we’re working on pushing that forward. It is going to to the next stage, committee stage, which is fantastic.
So, I came in at the right time.

Read:‘Sectarian headcount’ or ‘democratic imperative’: Is it time for a border poll?>

Read: Pearse Doherty: ‘Despite my passion to be part of Sinn Féin, being a TD is something I may regret’

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