'As a composer, it’s not something you want to admit' - Playwright breaks through sound barrier of impairment

Ailís Ní Rian hasn’t let a hearing impairment stop her from composing music and writing plays, one of which will be performed at Dublin Fringe Fest, writes Colette Sheridan.

Cork-born composer and playwright Ailís Ní Ríain.

Despite having a hearing impairment, Cork-born Ailís Ní Ríain is a successful contemporary classical composer and is also a playwright. Reared in St Lukes, Ní Ríain, 42, has a site-specific show that will be performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival — in a hotel bedroom.

The intense one-woman show, starring Alvean Jones is a mixture of movement, sign language, text and music. It was performed in the Maldron Hotel at the Cork Midsummer Festival last year.

Ní Ríain’s impairment is the result of having contracted encephalitis when she was five years of age.

“It’s the nasty big brother of meningitis. The brain swells so it’s quite serious.

"The mortality rate is quite high. If you don’t die from it, you end up with some sort of brain damage.”

In Ní Ríain’s case, there was brain swelling against her skull which damaged her hearing canal. She had to relearn everything, including how to speak. “You’re basically a rag doll. I was sick from age five to seven. My mother fought for me to continue at school. She told the teachers she wanted me to keep going to normal school. I repeated a year or two to catch up.”

While attending St Angela’s secondary school, Ní Ríain knew she wanted to study music at third level and also became interested in theatre. She attended Cork Arts

Theatre’s productions of new writing and avidly read plays at Cork City Library. Ní Ríain did a degree in music at UCC, studied piano at the Cork School of Music and attended York University for a master’s degree.

“It had a very high reputation at that time. I really struggled at York to make the grade. I was surrounded by people who had been in the system studying composition for quite a number of years.

"I didn’t want to admit to my hearing impairment while working with instrumentalists so I sort of bluffed it as best I could.”

Such is Ní Ríain’s hearing issue that after a certain frequency, she can’t hear anything at all. “It terms of being a composer, it means that at the upper range of certain instruments, I just don’t hear and have to rely on other people or some sort of physical representation.

“It’s very difficult and embarrassing and it also means I’m not fully in charge. The other thing I have is hyper acousis. It’s essentially a hyper sensitivity to certain everyday sounds that can actually cause me pain. I wear ear plugs a lot in company to block out sounds (other than those of the voices she is listening to). I wear hearing aids as well.”

It’s only in the last ten years that Ní RÍain decided to become more public about her disability. “As a composer, it’s not something you want to admit to.”

Have perceptions around disability changed?

“It’s a tricky one. We’re living in a very noisy world. My impairment has got worse over a period of years to a point where I found it very difficult socially, and I still do. So if I meet someone, it has to be in a quiet place and it has to be one to one.”

West Yorkshire-based Ní Ríain’s play, The Tallest Man in the World, was produced by Corcadorca for the Cork Midsummer Festival in 2013.

It got two readings in the US and was shortlisted for the Eugene O’Neill Playwright Award. As a result, it is going to be staged at the Tank Theatre in New York in March 2019. In all, Ní Ríain has written six plays.

Ní Ríain says she couldn’t afford to live in Ireland. She is happy to be based in her modest miller’s cottage in the north of England.

From there, she travels the world, challenged but undaunted by her hearing problems.

I used to Feel, supported by Arts & Disability Ireland, will be performed at the Marker Hotel in Grand Canal Square in Dublin from September 21-23.

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