Halfway through the first lockdown, I started listening to more podcasts as a way of feeling more connected to a world beyond my parent’s house. Rebel Matters is the one that I have returned to again and again in the last few months. Host Ainle Ó Cairealláin presents a mix of voices coming from all walks of life and creates a sense that it’s less of an interview and more of a chat between friends. Together, he and producer Vicky Langan have created a community around the podcast which has listeners from all over the world, from here in Ireland to places as far flung as Zimbabwe and Costa Rica.
Ainle started the podcast in 2017, out of a love for “chatting to people, getting to know them and hearing their stories.”. But it was last year, in the middle of the pandemic, when things really took off. Ainle was in America touring with Kneecap when the world was shut down by Covid-19. He found himself flying back to Ireland and to a house where he spent several months on his own. In those months of isolation, the podcast was a way of staying connected with the outside world, having conversations with guests through the more unfamiliar platform of Zoom. “I was still able to meet new people and chat to them. I chatted to people during the first lockdown that I would consider myself to be friends with now.”. And the podcast hasn’t only benefited Ainle. Since the first lockdown, “so many people have gotten in contact with us over social media to say that the podcast really helped them to get through that time and that it was kind of like a form of company for them, which is really nice to hear.”
Within the next year, Rebel Matters will hit the 100-episode mark. Over the last three years, guests have ranged from musicians like Gemma Dunleavy, TPM, Radie Peat and Stevie G to Virginia O’Gara, Father Des Wilson and Maragretta D’Arcy. Each guest brings a fascinating narrative with them, a narrative that may not have previously received a platform like the podcast. What seems to link all of the guests on the podcast is their own passion and desire to make a difference in whatever they are doing, be that music or sport or activism or community development (or even all of them at once). “It’s gotten to the stage now where we’re talking to people that we feel are doing something really worthwhile that we would like other people to hear about as well.”
“When you speak to somebody in person, it blows away whatever propaganda or false information that existed because now you’re hearing it directly from people who were involved at the time. That’s been another consistent thing about the podcast, just telling those stories. It’s not academic, it’s personal stories. You can choose to believe it or choose not to believe it but at a minimum it gets people curious to find out more and that’s quite valuable.”
Indeed, when it comes to hosting the podcast, rather than try and gauge what anyone else wants to hear it’s “more about giving the guest the opportunity to spread their wings and tell their story. My approach is to help facilitate that in as best a way as possible. It’s not necessarily about what I want to hear or about what other people want to hear. It’s more about giving that other person the opportunity to share their story with people.”. According to Ainle, the desire to create a platform for those stories stems from growing up in West Belfast, “in this really resilient community that was not being heard and that was very much villainized by the authorities and discriminated against by the government of the time.”.
“The generations ahead of mine did so many things independently and did them because they believed in them and they knew they weren’t going to get the help from outside, from the government, so they had to do it themselves. That got passed along to my generation and even the people who are younger than me now.”
Another step in building up the podcast came about in the last year, after arriving at “a junction with the podcast where it was starting to build momentum and was taking more time. I love doing the podcast but then I also have other projects on the go taking up time, so I started the Patreon because I really wanted to keep the podcast going but it got to the stage where we needed to get a producer on board, so now Vicky (Langan) is there.”. The Patreon is organised into a tiered system of donations, with each tier bringing additional perks and supporters can choose how much to donate to the podcast. “We’ve got a bit of momentum behind our Patreon following at the minute and that has allowed us to have more software subscriptions and get a producer. We’re using the Patreon to expand on the things that we’re doing. I think that’s why people have backed us, they’re kinda rooting for us in a way. They want us to keep pushing further and see what we can do. It’s a really nice endorsement.”.
The belief in our interconnectedness doesn’t begin and end with the podcast, but is part of the foundations of many of the projects Ainle has been involved in. In 2013, he founded ACLAÍ, a personal training facility here in Cork, with the intention of creating a space built on community. “The coaches work really hard at developing their craft and we work really hard to make the experience of coming to ACLAÍ a positive one, from the moment you walk in the door and the imagery that’s on the walls and the music and the layout of the gym. I just believe so much in peoples’ connection to each other and peoples’ connection to themselves and how that relates to our health.”.
In February 2020, Ainle and a group of volunteers including Vicky went to the Aida refugee camp in Palestine to help set up ACLAÍ Palestine, but the seeds of the project had been sowed long before. For Ainle, his own interest in Palestine “stems from the fact that we have a lot of similarities in terms of our colonial past in Ireland with what’s happening in Palestine at the minute”. While visiting the Aida camp in March 2018, Ainle went to the Lajee Center, a center that works with young people at the camp. “I could sense that a lot of the energy that was being used to help nurture the kids and grow this love of culture, that’s a lot of the same energy and type of work that we benefited from when we were kids, from the older generation. So, I just had this really strong connection from the very beginning.” Returning to the center in August of that year, and after speaking with the director of the center, Salah Ajarma, about the problems of hypertension and diabetes in the camp, Ainle drew out a rough plan for a gym and a rough cost.
“The next day I was like ‘What do you think of this?’ and that was the start of it.”
Back in Ireland, fundraising began to build ACLAÍ Palestine. One event in particular, a Gym Jam that was organised by Ainle and Alex Sampson, was a gig that highlighted the strength that lies in people coming together. “We never had to ask anybody for anything twice. About three or four hundred people came to the Gym Jam. Places were giving us drink to sell and equipment. Artists played for free. Some of the best young performers in the country came down, like Moxie, Clare Sands, Elaine Malone, Kneecap!”. Hearing about an event that brought so many people together evokes a level of nostalgia, whilst also igniting a spark of hope that it can be done again.
Coming away from the interview, it feels nice having spent so much time talking about the importance of community and learning from each other. A few days afterwards, I was speaking with a friend who insisted on the necessity of optimism in the conception of and belief in a radical future, a better one. This notion of being radically optimistic and to use that to conceive of a future and alternatives that we have not seen before is something that is intensely powerful, and it brought my mind back to Ainle and Vicky. I thought about Rebel Matters, ACLAÍ Palestine and all of the amazing things that have blossomed from a group of people simply wanting to give something back and to create something that would benefit others. It might be overused, but it is in its simpleness and its truth that such a phrase has survived, and I think it perfectly encapsulates the sense of interconnectedness at the heart of all of these projects: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.