My guest on Five Star Insights is Roisin Wood OBE. Roisin was the Chief Executive Officer for Kick It Out, which was set up to kick racism out of football following a national campaign that started in 1993. During her ten years at the helm of the organisation she worked with the football, education and community sectors to drive forward the equality agenda and encourage inclusive practices to make football more welcoming for everyone. She also sits as a lay magistrate in County Down in Northern Ireland dealing with family and youth courts.
Her career highlights include speaking at the Bundestag about anti-Semitism and football and working with ex-political prisoners as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Her biggest challenges were around securing funding and dealing with politics in policing and football. Throughout it all she has learnt humility is a strength, curiosity is very important and resilience and humour can get you through a lot.
We start with location as Roisin grew up in County Down, a province in Ulster in Northern Ireland but now lives in London and I want to know which one is home. Roisin says “London is great as it’s where I have encountered the greatest diversity of people and it is an exciting place to live. But I love that I am from County Down which I think is so beautiful and will always be home.” I ask her to describe what County Down is like, “It is in the middle of Northern Ireland and it is so scenic, it’s got beautiful mountains, great for climbing and rivers and the sea and it is a very peaceful part of the country. Also, all my family still live there and I eventually want to go back there.” Roisin grew up during the troubles so I wonder how it has shaped her career and life. She says “It was difficult growing up as we were Catholics and a minority in our time. There was quite a lot of verbal and physical violence towards us, so it was definitely a challenge. But it also made me have a love for community and inclusion and made me want to look at different sides and understand differences. I think it pushed me to fight for fairness and inclusion.” Roisin worked for the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland which helped ex-prisoners rebuild their lives. “It was one of the best things I ever did. It was challenging sitting opposite people who have targeted your community but it taught me about resilience and empathy and putting yourself in other people’s shoes… It made me look at how we can challenge our bias or unconscious bias…it made me who I am today.” I ask her what motivates her and Roisin replies “I have a real passion for sports and young people especially because I was so shy… I admire the way they stand up for what they believe in.” And when was the last time Roisin went back to County Down? “Prior to Covid-19, I went back every month as I am a sitting magistrate in the family and youth courts there and also to visit my family…I think it will be my home when I retire.”
We move on to music and I ask Roisin about the important punk band from N. Ireland she grew up listening to “…Stiff Little Fingers or SLF wrote about the Troubles and they were the first band that I heard that would speak about what was happening in N.Ireland. They were full of energy and…[she laughs] I knew their lyrics off by heart.” Whilst at school, she also had the opportunity to perform Handel’s Messiah in two cathedrals, both named Saint Patrick in Armagh. “My sister and I sang in the choir and my brother was a violinist in the orchestra and it was just an amazing piece of music to sing in that space.” A memory she still clearly cherishes. Roisin comes from a very musical family, with members either singing or playing instruments “I trained a little in the cello, my brothers and sisters play the violin, my father sang country and western songs and is an Irish folk singer, my mother has a great voice too…so we love to sing at family events. Music is such a part of our tradition.” She thinks that also helped her taste in music develop “…it is very eclectic. I love Motown, blues, jazz, punk and classical… My favourite artists would be Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.” Roisin says she is lucky she can keep up with new sounds all the time because “my sister introduces me to new artists all the time.” I totally understand where she is coming from because my younger sister does the same for me!
Our third section brings us to literature and Roisin’s taste here is varied too.
“I am a ferocious reader and my mum was a librarian so I’ve always read two or three books at a time depending upon my mood.” What is she reading at the moment? Roisin says “The Artist Way” by Julia Cameron which is about discovering your creativity and to wake up that creativity; The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters, which I have just discovered but I’m sure many people know, which is really looking at how we behave. And I’m also reading a book called Underland by Robert McFarlane. It is an unusual book, about what is beneath us and how we came about but it is so beautifully written and thought provoking.” What I find intriguing is how Roisin can read two or three books at the same time. She laughs as she says “I know people look at me as if I am strange. I don’t know why but I just read books very quickly. There are times when I want to read things that make me think, times when I want to read things that are just beautiful and times when I want to read things that I like or are funny, so it just depends on my mood. I always have a book in my bag.” Does she have a favourite author? “No, I don’t because every time I think this is my favourite one, I discover somebody new!” Nothing wrong with that, I add as we move on to the penultimate section.
Seeing that Roisin is exploring creativity at the moment, I ask her what type of art she likes. “I like different sorts of art. One of my favourite places is the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the impressionists but I love modern art as well. I like portraits and works by Francis Bacon and David Nolan because I think capturing somebody’s face and spirit is amazing and not just what they look like but who they are…it’s an amazing talent.” I ask Roisin how she would feel if the Irish portrait artist, David Nolan wanted to paint her. “Oh, wow…that would be amazing. It must be such a fantastic opportunity to see somebody be creative in front of you.” I know Roisin also likes artists like Jackson Pollock and Rothko, and given their work is quite abstract and uses block colours, I’m curious to know what attracts her to their work. Roisin says, “To me, it’s like being quiet and letting yourself sit for a long time in front of that sort of painting and letting it begin to mean something to you…I feel a calmness.” She also likes sculptures by Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. I mention that early in my career I interviewed Anish Kapoor, when I did a preview piece about the Tate Modern and remember him being reflective and thinking things through before commenting quietly. I remark his work is very conceptual. Roisin says “I would love to do that. To speak to artists and see what their thinking is and why they do things the way they do…everybody gets something different from art and that is why I think it is so important we maintain our culture and our arts because it is a reflection of who we are as people.”
Our final section brings us to cuisine and Roisin says “I love any sort of cuisine and I’m very lucky because my family like to cook as well and they’ve taught me many things – we are a bit of a foodie people” I ask her about her favourite dishes. “Anything to do with fish or shellfish. My husband’s a great pie man, so I make lots of pies and Irish specialities. We love anything with potatoes, and we get such great products from Ireland, especially when you’re going around the coast like fresh scallops and prawns, we export so much of our own. I think we serve some of the best fish too” Given that I love potatoes, what Irish dish would she recommend to me “It has to be an Irish champ made with fresh fluffy potatoes, scallions and then plenty of butter and some cream and there is nothing better. A plate of that is the best you are going to get!” I move on to ask Roisin about her most memorable meal. “Well, I was part of an expedition travelling in the Amazon…and you’re not eating much or having the best food, just what you packed and we had a few very choppy days as the Amazon can be difficult to canoe down but on the very last day we got up and it was the most beautiful day. The Amazon looked flat and we could see the yellow and pinks and blues and purples and our guide gave me an egg sandwich and I’m telling you it was the best egg sandwich I have ever had in my entire life.” What else does one eat on an expedition like that? Roisin says “lots of dried soya products, rice, whatever you can keep dry, and you do stop off at villages where people are so hospitable as long as they are still there on the map and haven’t moved on! You do need to improvise…” Bringing it back to the present, I ask her if she improvises when she cooks at home. “…I do when I’m cooking which is fine, even if I am following a recipe but not so good when you are baking…I’ve made some bad bread!”
Well, I would be happy to break bread together with Roisin any day and on that note, I thank Roisin for sharing her Five Star Insights with us and bringing the interview to a close. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Five Star Insights podcast.