'She has that wild streak in her – and I love that explosive wildness...' Bressie on his bandmate girlfriend, Generation ...
Rock star, TV presenter, author, podcaster, elite sportsman, mental health activist and scholar, he’s well-known enough in Ireland to be recognisable by his nickname: Bressie.
et when people hear you’re interviewing the Blizzards’ frontman Niall Breslin, there’s one thing that everyone wants to know – is he single?
I get the answer less than one minute after meeting the Mullingar musician at his Camden Recording Studios off Dublin’s Camden Street. In fact I’m barely in the door when, unprompted, he mentions “my partner”.
She is Louize Carroll, his bassist bandmate in the Blizzards, psychologist and composer. The two share many personal and professional passions.
Later, he reveals: “I’ve a partner, Louize is her name, she’s a psychologist. She’s one of the most gifted I’ve ever met. She has a different level of thinking on it. She’s a proper rock star. She’s punk.
"She has that wild streak in her. That wildness… I love that almost explosive wildness some people have. It’s like: ‘What are you doing?! Who cares!’”
Louize is one of the founding members of Jigsaw, a charity that supports mental health in young people, which is how they met.
“We’ve known each other a long time. We’re together a year-and-a-half. I’ve never met anyone who cares so much to help people understand their trauma. It’s so important to have someone who gets the work you do, the space for that. That it’s ok if we don’t want to talk, or we’re flat.
“It’s funny though, when people come around to our house, they go: ‘Are we going to be psychoanalysed here now every time we come over for a cup of tea?’ No! That’s the last thing we want to do!”
With Louize Carroll in 2018
The past two years have been all change for the 40-year-old, who has just bought his first house – in Greystones, Co Wicklow – after a classic Generation Rent struggle to get on the property ladder, involving a year as a pandemic boomerang, moving home with his parents to Mullingar, allowing him to save for a deposit.
He got his Master’s degree in mindfulness-based interventions from UCD’s school of psychology, started his own hit podcast Where is My Mind? and became the voice of Spotify’s ‘Wake Up Wind Down’ daily mindfulness series.
The move to podcasting in 2019 was fortuitous – since the music industry as we know it was wiped out just a few months later by the pandemic, probably its biggest arts casualty.
“I’ll be studying again, doing a cognitive behavioural therapy course, and then I’m a therapist,” he explains, of his academic pursuits. “I want to specialise in how I can use mindfulness in a therapeutic setting.”
He’s also planning on doing a PhD on the neuroscience of the developing brain, as he’s fascinated by the formative years, aged three to 12 “when we’re just sponges to our environment”. His interest in neuroscience, he says, was inspired by his beloved eight-year-old nephew Billy.
Bressie photographed by Steve Humphreys
His work as an activist and co-founder of the youth mental health charity, A Lust for Life, was a driver to do the Master’s.
“I knew I had to educate myself, and learn as much as I could. Now I want to learn more and be as good an activist as I can be. The fact that UCD school of psychology acknowledged that mindfulness-based stress reduction has a powerful impact on psychological wellbeing pushed me towards it.”
The benefits of mindfulness have been scientifically proven beyond doubt, although it can be misunderstood.
“It’s not McMindfulness, it’s far deeper and more layered. It’s about accepting the good, the bad and the ugly. Helping people sit with the things they don’t like sitting with – and then disempowering those thoughts.”
His mentor, clinical psychologist Dr Tony Bates, advised him on activism, saying: “If you’re going to go down this road, Niall, learn everything you can learn. Understand the system – or else you’ll be pulled up on it.”
“I took his advice,” Bressie says. “What happens when you’re sitting in a room with politicians, talking about programmes you want to get into schools, is that they need to know you know what you’re talking about. They’ll say it. They will put that out on the table.”
His drive is also personal, having spoken about the anxiety that plagued him throughout his youth – which is the subject of his book Me and My Mate Jeffrey. Getting a handle on that anxiety means he “will be in therapy for the rest of my life”.
"I’m like a therapy pro. I’ve gone through the process. Acceptance and commitment therapy, schema therapy, CBT.”
He decided to do schema therapy which draws on elements of other therapies such as CBT, psychoanalysis and attachment theory to address a tendency to repeat negative patterns or “life traps”.
“I was doing the same things time and again – sabotaging relationships and not letting anyone get close to me. I wondered why I was doing that, when I didn’t want to. Schema addresses those life traps and goes back to childhood.”
He believes the first question a mental health professional should ask is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what happened to you?’.
So what happened to Niall Breslin?
A physically abusive primary school system, he believes, at a Christian Brothers school in Mullingar.
Bressie and his mother Mandy Breslin in Castleknock, Dublin.
“I have a beautiful family, stable and loving. Home was my sanctuary – but I never felt safe in school. Knowing I had to go in there every day… I remember being hit with a fishing rod across the face. I would have been 11 or 12 – it was in the early 1990s, when it was illegal, but they didn’t care.
“I was walking home from school one day with a cut in the eye from being hit and a shopkeeper asked what happened.
"I said I was eating in class, and he said: ‘You deserved it.’
"I thought: ‘Society backs this shit up.’”
His dad Enda was in the army and “was overseas for most of my childhood” and he developed a “very strong relationship” with my his mother, Mandy. She told him the only time he spoke of his anxiety was when he said: “I feel like my skin crawls all the time.”
He was afraid of himself, so he kept silent. "I didn’t want to say it to anyone. I thought I was possessed by the devil. There’s a psychiatric hospital in Mullingar and the running joke in the town was ‘yer man in St Loman’s.’”
He ended up back in his hometown throughout lockdown, a place he hadn’t lived in since he was in his late teens. He celebrated his 40th birthday last October eating mac and cheese with his mammy in Mullingar, the pair of them laughing over pictures of Kim Kardashian celebrating her 40th on a private island in Tahiti.
In a way, the pandemic pulled him out of the housing crisis – it made sense that he stay at home and look after his cocooning parents, while everyone switched to remote working. But, as he puts it, it was also a case of ‘I’m saving for a gaff, is it cool if I live here?’
The Blizzards on stage
Not paying Dublin rents (“that require you to sell vital organs”) meant he could finally save for the deposit needed. He had been renting for 22 years. “After saving for eight years, I got enough together to go to the bank when I went home for 18 months.
“I have four siblings and my parents put us all through college. They’re not going to hand me a deposit. They wouldn’t have it, and I wouldn’t expect them to.
“A way of doing the same thing effectively is to move home and save. And I got to look after my parents, and I felt I was protecting them, and them protecting me, at a time when we were all terrified.”
Then his mortgage approval was pulled when musicians got walloped financially by the pandemic.
“They said: ‘Right, we’re not doing it.’ That was devastating. Those mortgage ads on the telly make it look like it’s great craic. Bollocks!”
Trying to find somewhere was the next challenge, with demand rising. “At house viewings, cash buyers would come in, saying: ‘We’ll take it.’ I was thinking: ‘What’s happening here?’”
He bought at the end of 2020 and is now busy doing DIY on his new home.
“I had to work my hole off to get it. It needed a shitload of work and it wasn’t suitable for a family, which might have put a lot of buyers off. It was outside of Dublin which meant it was cheaper.
"But I was lucky – it’s gone into orbit in the past three months. The housing crisis is State policy driven. The damage it does to kids is not getting through to politicians.”
Singer, Niall (Bressie) Breslin.
With the return of live music still uncertain, Bressie is looking forward to touring again – to theatres, with an October tour of the Where is My Mind? podcast.
The pandemic restrictions left him apathetic. “Apathy was a big thing. I didn’t want to do anything.”
Along with Keith Barry and Panti Bliss, he has been one of the most effective voices in articulating the loss – both economically and socially – to the events industry. Bressie has been outspoken about the need to find solutions to getting live music back: currently, apart from the odd pilot gig, live music is banned under Covid restrictions. Socially-distanced gigs in Iveagh Gardens are one thing, but if the music industry is to be viable, it has to operate at capacity, he says.
“Some of the decisions didn’t weigh up and there was no independent scrutiny of them. I don’t get how the science is different here than anywhere else. Is there a different paper we got, that no one else in the world got?
He watched in frustration recently as Foo Fighters and The Strokes played packed gigs in New York, with the audience either vaccinated or tested.
“This is our industry, these are our jobs, there is an element of risk to everything. There’s a perception the music world is like Spinal Tap, but we build cities in fields. We can do this – trust us. It felt like they didn’t, the people whose wages haven’t been affected.
“People say: ‘Oh, the Delta variant...’ Yes, we know. I want everyone on this island to be OK. But there is a reality to this for people who have built a life in music, and for the crowds who get so much from it.
“I think the decisions feel stricter because we have a healthcare system that can’t take a surge.”
He found the lockdowns “breathtakingly difficult” and often felt “numb and sick”. Playfulness – he calls it Vitamin P – helped him through. He defines it as “just doing stuff for the craic, like kids and dogs do.
"I needed release,” he says, “to be irreverent, dark, mischievous. Bellyflopping into the lake off diving boards. Writing bold jingles I knew I could never play or my career would be over.
“I’m not going to say ‘I’m a better person for it.’ I wish this never happened. That’s the issue I have with the ‘wellness’ industry. It airbrushes this shit. Inspirational memes ain’t gonna carry you through this one. But it’s lived experience for the next shitshow that comes your way.”
Niall ' Bressie' Breslin at Joint Committee on Health and Children at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Social media is part of the game as a podcaster – he has more than 250,000 followers on Twitter, and nearly 150,000 on Instagram. How does he operate in the era of cancel culture?
“Twitter is where context goes to die. We can’t have multi-layered, nuanced debates there. It’s like ‘pick a side, lads’! And the social media owners are like Roman lords in the Colosseum, watching us rip each other limb from limb, going ‘Sweet.’
“I’ve had moments on Twitter where people just turn on you. You lose all sense of control. You’re thinking: ‘That’s not what I meant’. When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
He thinks we need to separate intent and impact. “Not everyone’s intention is to hurt you. Not everyone’s intention is to offend.”
Songwriting has also suffered greatly in the era of offence, he thinks.
“Modern pop music has become very safe. It’s sad. I don’t need to hear another break-up song. I miss balls-out rawness, which is what music is.”
He mentions Fontaines DC and Olivia Rodrigo as stand-out acts.
He reckons, regarding social media, that “the Pandora’s box is well and truly open. Now all we can do is teach people how to navigate and consume it.
"We all learn at our own pace, even if that sometimes frustrates us,” he says. “There’s a difference between someone being horribly ignorant, and someone maybe being brought up for 60 years in one environment, and now finding it hard to shift.”
It all comes back to education, he ends.
“In the history of humanity, it has always proven to be the most powerful thing.”
‘Where is My Mind?’ live podcast is at the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick on October 1; Olympia Theatre, Dublin, October 2; Town Hall Theatre, Galway, October 3; before going to Glasgow, Manchester and London. For full details and prices, see ticketmaster.ieThree other personalities that switched to psychology
Monica LewinskyLewinsky was globally shamed after her affair as an intern with Bill Clinton was revealed in the Starr report, first published online in 1998. She says the scandal made her one of the world’s first victims of cyber-bullying, calling herself: “the patient zero of online harassment”.
In 2005, she moved to London to study social psychology at the London School of Economics. She graduated with a Master of Science degree, with a thesis on the personal effects of trial publicity. She has since become an anti-bullying advocate – giving TED talks and working on public service campaigns. She has said: “Having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive, too.”
Adam FicekFicek was involved in the music industry as an artist and DJ for more than 20 years, before he trained as an integrative psychotherapist.
The drummer with Pete Doherty’s Babyshambles is now a clinical psychotherapist, working within the music industry. He said: “At the peak of my career, I found myself burnt out, anxious and commoditised within the music business’ framework. I went from high level touring to a sense of shamed insignificance.” It spurred him on to study to help others. His website, musicandmind.co.uk provides support, therapy, consultancy and wellbeing in the music industry.
Pamela StephensonStephenson was a famous actress and comedian for decades before she trained as a psychologist. She left a successful career in showbiz to study psychology, and in 1996, at the age of 47, she gained a PhD in clinical psychology and established her own practice. Her professional speciality is human sexuality.
The New Zealand sexologist has written several books, which include a biography of her husband Billy Connolly, and presented a psychology-based interview show called Shrink Rap on British and Australian television.