Susan Boyle works in two seemingly diverse areas; the alcohol industry and the drama circuit, her passion for both are infectious and probably the reason why she’s managed to find common ground between them.
A Wine Goose Chase, her unique wine show traces Ireland’s long history with wine has received rave reviews (The Sunday Times hailed it as a ‘near 5-star experience’) and has sprouted a retail space in Dublin Airport’s, Terminal 1. She is a playwright and a performer, a drinks consultant and an art teacher, a brewer and an author.
How did it all start for you Susan, the interest in the alcohol industry, it’s not something you necessarily put down on your CAO..
My family are 5th generation publicans; the pub that my Dad owns was my Grandfather’s but we can trace back two or three more generations to pubs in Galway. When I went to college to study drama in Dublin. At home my Dad would get invitations to wine tastings in Dublin and since I was studying there, I took advantage of that and went in his place. I’d head to the Merrion or the Shelbourne and taste wines and talk to people. I just fell in love with the stories behind the wine. I remember meeting a woman whose grandfather had planted vines on the day that she was born, and she was presenting the wine that came from those vines, it was incredible. The connection to the soil resonated with me.
When did the idea for A Wine Goose Chase the play, come to you?
I’d been doing my studies for the WSET, (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) exams and an email arrived into my inbox from a television company looking for someone who could talk about wine as Gaeilge. I thought, why wouldn’t I go for it. It was for a tv show called Cé a chónaí i mo theachsa? Focusing on the Rice’s, a well regarded merchant family who made of all their money through importing wine into Dingle, and as a result had connections throughout all of Europe. When Marie Antoinette got into trouble, one of her brothers contacted a member of the Rice family and asked was there anything they could do to help. They hatched a plan to smuggle Marie Antoinette to Rice’s House, in Dingle, in the hull of a wine ship. They still have the original records for the gilding they had done to mirrors, for the special bed they had made.That story changed my whole way of thinking of Ireland, because I am from Kildare, a land-locked county, I had no coastal understanding, or understanding of the historical importance of these 16 ports, dotted all the way around the country, where you could import wine without paying any taxes.
The connection between Ireland and wine seem tenuous, because we obviously can’t produce our own…
It’s not, that’s what’s so surprising about it. We have such a long history as a country but we also have such a recent past in relation to being an independent, economic sovereign nation that there are parts of our history that don’t quite fit into the ‘Irish’ story. We’ve always had a reputation for being convivial, for being good at making connections, so it makes sense that we would be good merchants. The more I found out about it, the most it astounded me.
The reviews you’ve been received have been really positive but is reviewing something you’re ever apprehensive about?
At this stage, I don’t think there’s a reviewer out there who could be harder on me than I am on myself. I am my own worst critic. I need to work on that, because I am still surprised that people like the play. It doesn’t seem real, I need to realise that I have something good and I need to use it to its full potential.
I can understand that, as a writer, I am uncomfortable with pushing myself and my work forward.
It’s called the imposter syndrome, apparently. We think we are not as good as we are. I find the ‘need to be known’ thing, which has crept up via online media really weird. I would like to be known for the things that I do, not for the fact that I am good at publicising myself. It’s about having your own voice, like what you said about starting As an Nua.
How did the retail space in the airport come about? I imagine that the leap from drama into retail doesn’t happen very often!
That’s down to Dublin Airport taking a risk. Ross Mc Mahon in ARI (Aer Rianta International) was working on the new retail strategy for terminal 1 in Dublin Airport and he had come across the Wine Geese concept and liked it and he thought the airport could work with someone who could tell the story to actually sell and contextualise wine in Dublin airport. In an airport retail context, you need to be able to tell the story quickly, and it needs to resonate with people, that’s what I do every time I preform my play so it was a really good fit.
Talking about your job, how does it work, how do you work?
There are lots of different things that I am continually working on. I make beer with my sister, Judith. Together as Two Sisters Brewing we make a beer called Brigid’s Ale, we gypsy brew into Trouble Brewing, and sell it in our pub. I am also wine consultant with Dublin Airport, working on the Wine Goose Chase Shop, and I am a performer and a playwright, I’ve been working on a new play about beer with my sister called Tales of Ales which we will be touring this year. I’m also writing a book about whiskey. It seems diverse, but in my head it’s all connected.
For the outsider, it’s hard to fit those all together cohesively…
The best way I can contextualise it was that the Greek God for wine and theatre was Dionysus, so if he could do two jobs so can I (laughs). For me, it’s ultimately all about stories.
That’s quite innately Irish, I think…
Yes, theatre is the immediate rapport with an audience who are active in the performance. You have that energy connection. The same thing happens with wine, but it’s even better because you’re imbibing it, you’re taking something into you, it’s actually becoming a part of you.
A major reason for starting As an Nua was about creating a positive space for female voices, how is the gender balance in the alcohol industry?
When I started going wine-tasting, I met an amazing woman called Jean Smullen who is one of the leading women in wine in Ireland. I was at a tasting event when she pulled me aside and said ‘Susan, take a look around’ So I’m looking around this gorgeous room in the Shelbourne ‘She asked me how many people are in this room, Susan?’ and I said ‘maybe 600, 700 people’ and then she asked me how many women I could count them on one hand. I thought to myself, maybe I need to be someone who becomes a voice.
Susan has achieved what she set out to and has become a powerful, engaging voice within wine-tasting, brewing, drama and performance.
Big, big thanks to Susan for being As an Nua’s first interviewee, and giving her time so generously.