An outsider takes on Ireland, from inside a plastic bag

The podcaster behind the popular 'Blindboy Podcast,' who earlier gained fame as part of the Rubberbandits hip-hop duo, says that covering his face lets him say things he couldn’t otherwise

By Rachel Connolly

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Podcaster David Chambers in Limerick city, Ireland on April 15, 2023. Although they don’t know what he looks like underneath the mask, most people in Ireland know Chambers by the pseudonym “Blindboy.”(Karen Cox/The New York Times)
Podcaster David Chambers in Limerick city, Ireland on April 15, 2023. Although they don’t know what he looks like underneath the mask, most people in Ireland know Chambers by the pseudonym “Blindboy.”(Karen Cox/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 23 Apr 2023, 3:36 PM

Last updated: Sun 23 Apr 2023, 3:37 PM

Irish podcaster David Chambers spends his days in an exceptionally drab office. A room so drab it is striking. In a recent interview via Zoom, he was dressed to match, in a white T-shirt and plain black hoodie. The only noteworthy thing on screen was an orange and white plastic bag that Chambers wore over his head. His green eyes, thick eyebrows and beard could be seen through the bag’s holes, but the rest of his face was obscured.

Although they don’t know what he looks like underneath the mask, most people in Ireland know Chambers, 37, by his pseudonym “Blindboy Boatclub,” or, more often, just “Blindboy.” He is best known as the host of “The Blindboy Podcast,” a weekly show in which he discusses eclectic topics, like the unlikely benefits of lion urine or the link between heavy metal and futurism, and tells personal anecdotes that unspool like short stories. He addresses topics like mental health that Irish news media outlets rarely touch, and brings a millennial sensibility to political discussions. His register is earnest and intellectual, but also funny and down-to-earth.

“The Blindboy Podcast,” which Chambers started in 2017, regularly attracts 700,000 to 1 million monthly listeners, according to Acast, the company that produces it. Six years on, it is something of a cultural phenomenon in Ireland, and increasingly overseas. Chambers has appeared on some of Ireland’s most popular television chat shows, and President Michael D. Higgins was a guest on a recent podcast episode. Acast says that more than half of the podcast’s listeners are outside Ireland, and Chambers has toured live shows in Canada, Thailand, Spain and Belgium.

Before the podcast, Chambers’ career took several surprising turns. He first used the alias “Blindboy” while making prank calls to radio call-in shows, which earned him some notoriety in Ireland and a cult following there. With a friend and fellow prank caller, Chambers formed a comedy hip-hop duo called the Rubberbandits that had a viral hit in 2010. That track, “Horse Outside,” reached No. 2 in the Irish charts, and Chambers maneuvered that success into hosting comedy shows on MTV and the British station Channel 4.

The plastic bag on Chambers’ head, which dates back to the beginning, was “part of a performance to challenge solemnity in whatever I do,” he said. But it also guarantees anonymity: He is grateful to be spared some of the trappings of fame, particularly in a small country, he said.

“Being an Irish celebrity in itself is a bit cringe — unless you’re Paul Mescal, like, a proper celebrity,” he said. “I don’t want that level of cringe. Being Blindboy in real life would be a very, very cringe existence.”

Anonymity also affords Chambers the freedom to talk candidly on the podcast about his personal struggles with mental health. He tells funny, relatable anecdotes about his experiences with, and efforts to manage, depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. One such episode is titled “Why I’m Going Back to Therapy.”

This openness resonates with his mostly millennial and Generation Z audience. Leah Moloney, a 27-year-old Irish fan who started listening regularly during the pandemic, said in an interview that she found the mental health content “really helpful at that time, because he was speaking really openly, and I certainly felt less alone.”

She added that when Chambers told listeners last April, in an episode called “Intrapersonally Speaking,” that he had been diagnosed with autism, that had helped her adapt to an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis she had recently received. “I’ve been inspired by him to be open,” she said, adding that she now posts regularly about her experience of ADHD on TikTok.

Issues like these are still relatively under-discussed in the Irish news media and society, and Chambers’ fans seem to welcome his candour. He gets “thousands and thousands” of social media messages about mental health, he said, but he could never deal with interactions like those in person. “If I didn’t have the bag,” Chambers said, “I’d stop talking about mental health.”

On other episodes, Chambers talks frankly about an economic climate that he says has infantilized his generation. Ireland is in the grips of a rental crisis caused by a severe housing shortage; Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said last month that the country of 5 million people had 250,000 too few homes. And it is Ireland’s millennials who are worst affected, Chambers said. “The media will call a 40-year-old a young person. I’m in my late 30s and I refuse: I’m middle-aged,” he added. “If you call it ‘middle-aged people can’t get housing,’ it’s obvious there is a problem.”

Chambers said he saw a generational divide, too, in the way that the news media in the Republic of Ireland talks about Northern Irish politics. On the podcast, Chambers addresses millennial perspectives that he says news outlets in the South fail to reflect.

Sinn Fein, a political party that fields candidates on both sides of the border, has had a recent resurgence of popularity in the South, where it was once unpopular because it was associated with the Irish Republican Army. Chambers said the Irish news media continued to draw links between the party and terrorism. But for people born after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brokered peace in the North, he said, Sinn Fein lawmakers were “the ones who are doing something different.” (He added that he did not endorse any political parties.)

Several popular Instagram accounts attest to this growing interest in Northern Irish politics among young people in the Republic. One of these, called Tanistry, posts plainly illustrated slides explaining historical events such as the Good Friday Agreement, or the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, and relating them to contemporary politics. Andrew Clarke, a 27-year-old college student from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who runs the account, said that there had been a culture of “mystification” around Northern Irish politics and that he was “trying to make it digestible,” adding that more than half of the account’s followers were aged 24 to 35, with the highest concentrations in Dublin and Belfast.

The most interesting thing about the success of “The Blindboy Podcast,” though, is the esoteric and seemingly random nature of many episodes. Where it is common for popular millennial podcasts to attract interest via culture war topics — deliberately courting controversy, or talking mostly about trending social justice issues — Chambers has garnered a huge audience mostly by talking about things that nobody is really supposed to care about.

One episode traces the history of offices back to monks; many others address arcane elements of Irish mythology. “Topographia Hibernica,” a short story collection by Chambers that will be published in Ireland and Britain in November, explores these themes further, looking at the links between mythology and colonialism.

Talking to him can feel like skittering around a galaxy of Wikipedia wormholes (in a good way). There is an infectious quality to his enthusiasm for a seemingly endless, and frequently bizarre, catalog of interests and passions.

Chambers said he put the success of “The Blindboy Podcast” down to the fact he only ever talks about his genuine interests, something he thinks the audience can sense. “I’ll never speak about something just to get listens,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times


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