Starting his career as a music journalist, it’s no surprise that after trotting the globe as a sought-after DJ, Shampain has brought it back to where it all began. His natural curiosity for the weird, wonderful and often abrasive side of music has earned him a reputation as being one of the most eclectic selectors in the game. In retrospect, his recent stint on Rinse FM may have proven to be a precursor to his foray back into broadcasting, but his new series on TG4 is an altogether different proposition.
Exploring some of the deepest corners of culture on this island, Shampain embarks on an eight episode long journey to discover what he refers to as “the real story” in Ireland. We caught up with him to discuss what led him to Éire Eile and the Ireland he wants more people to see.
So tell us, for people that don’t know, who is Cóilí Collins AKA DJ Shampain? What’s the elevator pitch?
Well, I’d hope you’re going to the 30th floor, because it would be a long description! In plain terms, I’m a music journalist in many ways, even when it comes to DJing. For me, it’s about showing people music I’ve heard along the way, and in a way that’s kind of like journalism. But I suppose now, I’m fully fledged, because I’m on the telly too!
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who’s a DJ describe it like journalism, but it is…
I also think that DJing is now super commodified, and there’s a circuit. I think losing a lot of the “art”…
You had music, DJing, and written journalism. Now Éire Eile. The series came out last week on TG4 and I saw on your Instagram post that it was like a six month production process. How would you describe the series to someone on the street?
It’s actually really like Louis Theroux as Gaeilge. I don’t mean to be as bold as comparing myself to him. I don’t think I’m like him, but I just mean it’s kinda like you can just stick it on and be like, “This is a bit fucking weird”, It’s super underground. When we go to interview sword fighters, we have to find people involved in sword fighting who also speak Irish. So, you have to search the deepest corners and turn over rocks to find people.
I’m no TV professional or anything like that, and there were lots of topics in the series I’m not entirely versed on. But equally I think it would have looked really bad if I showed up and said, “Oh, I’ve done a hundred hours of research on this”. It just wouldn’t have seemed genuine, especially considering who I am and I think that was the point of it.
It’s similar to watching Louis Theroux, where you figure things out with me as you watch. We didn’t just throw it together or leave it disorganised but what you see is what actually happened. It wasn’t staged, and I made sure of that. I just can’t do it that way.
I’m a big fan of Louis, I’ve watched pretty much everything he’s ever put out, and I know what you mean. It’s like a journey of discovery that you go on with him during each episode. Tell me a little bit about identifying the subcultures or communities. Did you have a big list and go through them, or were they presented to you?
My mate Jake Tiernan was the primary writer and researcher for the show. He actually came up with the idea. This isn’t like a nepotism thing but me and Jake went to school together and we used to play basketball together so we were really, really close from when we were younger, but we’ve never really worked together. He was like – you’re actually perfect for this because we want someone with a bit of a platform, who speaks Irish, who’s young and has a general interest in weird shit! So in fairness I don’t think there are many others… Actually, I’d say there are probably no others who could do this role! I can’t remember specifically, but he had a good few of the episodes planned out already. I sat down with him and the producer once we’d got the go ahead for the show.
We didn’t need everything to be as off the wall as sword fighting, or me doing drag. We also wanted to show stuff that’s, in a way, sort of normal. I actually wanted to do one on women’s football but we had already organised the Bohs episode and we didn’t want to do two on football. You wouldn’t necessarily think of that as a subculture, and maybe subculture isn’t the right term either, but I personally wanted to shine a light on stuff that maybe isn’t fully mainstream.
Like I loved doing sword fighting, like I loved it so much. And I thought that brought that real weird Louis Theroux style element to it. Even wheelchair basketball, especially with me getting involved with it in the episode, I think that brings a really nice element to it. The queer punk episode or even the trad one as well. I wanted to kind of shine a light on things that are generally accepted in our society, but they are still guarded and traditional. I think the trad one was really about showing that you don’t have to be super up your own arse about the music to be involved in it, or really old, and I think that really came across in the episode.
The likes of The Mary Wallopers and Lankum are taking that into the mainstream. I’m really taking liberties here, but three or four years ago the idea that young people would be going to folk or trad gigs was unheard of. I think it was important to highlight some aspects of Irish culture that are accepted or know but they are still subcultures in their own way.
In terms of finding the people within the communities who spoke Irish, was that a challenge at all?
It definitely was and I think it comes across in the show. There were a lot of personal ties, someone on the crew had a friend, or a friend of a friend and we got in touch with them, because it was difficult for sure. There were some surprises along the way though, in the Bohs episode I was interviewing Ciara Maher who plays for them and she had perfect Irish and was from Dublin. We didn’t know that before, we were there and we asked ‘does anybody speak Irish?’. I think more people have Irish than we think and I also think that the main problem with people who have Irish is not wanting to speak it on TV… I’m a native speaker from Connemara and people are like ‘fuck no man, my Irish is shitty in comparison to yours’, but with the state the language is in thats like the worst outlook to have on it!
I totally understand people being like that though. My dad is from Finglas originally and he married my mam who’s from Spiddal and the stories of him learning Irish in his 30’s in Connemara actually sound like torture. Being a Dub in Galway is difficult enough, but being a Dub in Connemara with no Irish and trying to learn it… Man, I don’t know how the hell he did it (laughs).
Native Irish speakers can sometimes be super snobby about it. I don’t give a shit! I’m just so glad that people can speak it or make the effort to speak it. I hope the show did break down a bit of that. The way I speak Irish is very like, it’s really Connemara. I chuck a lot of English in there but that’s just the way I grew up speaking it. It’s kinda like patois or something in a way.
Yeah, like a hybrid…
Yeah exactly that’s just the reality of how it is. If I spoke it to the standard of Caighdeán for example, I know people who I grew up with would be like ‘what the fuck are you doing’. So it was important for me through the whole series to be legit, especially in the Irish language aspect because that was the most important thing for me about doing it.
Yeah and I thought it was amazing watching something made in Ireland, by Irish people, with people who speak Irish and also people who speak English. There was a perfect blend of it. I thought it was a great snapshot of what Ireland is. I’ve lived away from here and know a lot of people not from Ireland and I try to explain to people when they ask me about the language, but this series is the exact kind of thing I’d show them.
On that point of Irish speakers, and particularly with the episodes in the North. Do you think there’s almost an additional layer to these communities that they also have Irish? Because it seems like a lot of them, like even the groups you spoke to, that they have Irish together.
I think in Belfast especially it came across. This stuff makes me sick to be honest, but I moved to London recently and you hear people say ‘since I moved to London I feel way more proud to be Irish’. And I’m like, you should hang your head in shame, you’re in the fucking belly of the beast you should be proud to be Irish when you’re in fucking Ireland!
But when I went to Belfast I felt… I felt pride to have a bond with some of the people there. We started the day of filming on the Falls Road and it’s super patriotic. You walk on the Falls Road man and to me, in a weird way, it’s like I was in Ireland heaven. Everything’s green, all the street signs are in Irish and you’re technically in the UK. The street signs are in a language they tried to make illegal and like it keeps the people speaking the language there.
Cliona that I interviewed there had such amazing Irish and spoke with such confidence. Even at the gig we’d go up to random people and ask if they had Irish and they usually did. It’s such an identity thing. Someone said it to me once, ‘if you made Irish illegal everyone would speak it the next day’ and I kind of feel like that may be a small bit of that up North. There’s almost like a bit of a rebellion to it.
It’s almost kind of subversive for them..
Yeah exactly, it made me really happy to have Irish. Like ‘fuck yeah, this is our fucking thing’ and people really tried to get rid of this. That’s why people make me sad when they say it’s a dead language, but I get it. It’s the way it’s taught and the attitudes around it. There’s no real incentive for people to learn Irish. Wales for example has such a strong movement with the Welsh language. They’re even changing their football teams name if they’re playing an international game they’re down as Cymru and that’s so fucking sick. I wish we had that here.
You look at Fontaines DC, for example, they have tracks with Irish, and it’s not a gimmick. ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ is about Margaret Keane, who lived in Coventry for most of her life and wanted to have the phrase (“in our hearts forever”) on her tombstone. She died in 2018, but a court of the Church of England said it could be seen as “political” or “provocative” without an English translation.
This isn’t gimmicky or cringey. The whole song is in English, but the track title and the chorus include that phrase. I think doing stuff like that, as you mentioned, feels natural and normal. It doesn’t have to be entirely in Irish or a strictly literal translation. It shouldn’t be something that nobody would ever actually say. Like of course it’s dead, if you do shit like that, it’s dead.
I know they’re probably all your favourite children, but are there any stand out episodes or moments within the series for you?
The three that I like the most were wheelchair basketball, Belfast queer punk and the drag episode. Because there was like a perfect mix of Irish and English amongst everyone and we didn’t really have to force anything out of anyone or reshoot stuff a whole lot. I’m super into punk myself and it was sick to go up to Belfast for that. Just getting to go to the gig and see the bands play, we were interviewing people at the gig and that was really like my vision of the show before we did it.
Doing the drag one was epic. Ronan (Devon Diva) who did me up in drag is like a good mate. I was kind of worried to do drag, because I didn’t want to seem like I was just co-opting someone’s thing. But Ronan is a someone I’m close with who I know has had hard times at points in his life growing up in a small place like Galway – but he never ever ever gives out about that sort of stuff and is so positive and is always just focusing on himself.
There’s been so many conversations throughout lockdown and even a bit before that about identity and culture and where your roots are. For me it’s been really great for me to show where I come from and what my culture is and I think being Irish we get roped into UK stuff all the time and we get viewed on as an English speaking country. We are, but this was a nice way to show we’re not some dickheads next door neighbour, like we actually have a real story, we’ve got real unique character and even though it might not be playing the bodhrán or performing drag, Ireland is entirely different to the UK or America.
We really are our own country. You bump into all sorts of people in Ireland and this is the culture that I have come up through. I’m a massive fan of punk, rap, basketball, and football. In a way, selfishly, this was a really cool way for me to represent all that I’m interested in so hopefully that comes across.