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An angry voice and a tear

21 August 2014

Sinéad O'Connor headlines at the Greenbelt Festival this Sunday, despite her very public history of animosity against the Roman Catholic Church. Is she a troublemaker, a publicity-seeker, or a prophet? Cole Moreton makes an evaluation


Provocateur: Sinéad O'Connor at a Dublin film première

Provocateur: Sinéad O'Connor at a Dublin film première

WHAT on earth is Sinéad O'Connor doing at the Greenbelt Festival? I keep getting asked that question by people who know that I have met and interviewed her many times, but who think she must be crazy because of the things she does.

Tattooing her face, for example; posting wildly personal comments online, advertising for a man in the Irish press, getting married (for the fourth time) in Las Vegas . . . and splitting up a week later; being ordained in an independent Catholic denomination; ripping up a picture of the Pope live on American prime-time television - she makes headlines as easily as breathing.

Having attacked the Church many times, she now has a single out, "Take Me To Church". What's that about? And what has it got to do with the younger singer Miley Cyrus? O'Connor wrote an open letter to her last year, warning that the music industry treats women as prostitutes, and it is not "cool to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos".

Cyrus responded by mocking her struggles with mental illness, which provoked a fierce response. Yet here is O'Connor in the publicity shots for her new recording, airbrushed up to the eyebrows and apparently playing the music-industry game in a latex catsuit and a black wig, vamping it up with a phallic electric guitar. What's going on?

The wig hides the shaved head that has been her trademark since the beginning. It is nearly 25 years since the song "Nothing Compares 2 U" was number one in the UK, Ireland, the United States, and 12 other countries. She was mesmerising in the video, fragile and fierce. "Bambi in bovver boots", as the tabloids called her.

They are still fascinated with her appearance, even now, as she approaches 50 years of age, and keep up a running commentary. It is not sophisticated: "She's lost her looks. No, hang, on, she's got them back. Now she looks awful again. Wait . . . wow, have you seen this? Sinéad rocks the skintight look!"

The new look is a stab in the eye for all of them - a moment of sheer glamour, and also patently an illusion.

THE title for the album, I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss, was inspired by a recent US campaign for teenage girls. "I know the campaign was directed at young girls, but it actually caused me, as a female boss, to take my power," she said. "I was able, for the first time in my life, to make executive, proper decisions, and have around me the kind of people who actually will treat me like I am the boss."

So the new songs are exactly what she wants us to hear. Her voice remains a marvel. The banshee wail of a warrior woman can give way to a sound that is breathy, intimate, and vulnerable, but she is always in control.

Singing live, her voice seems to fill the space in a supernatural way, setting the spine tingling. The recordings have not always done her justice, although the critics say that she is back on form with this new one. They always say that, because they want it to be true.

Still, people are entitled to ask what she is doing at Greenbelt, a festival with its roots in the Church, concerned with faith, justice, and the arts. My response is that it is where she belongs.

O'Connor is feisty and unpredictable; she has a wicked sense of humour, and loves a filthy joke. But she also hungers after truth, justice, and the presence of God as much as anyone I have ever met.

These are the themes of her art, along with love, sex, and the joy of life. I would also argue that she has been a significant voice in our culture - far more than people realise, not just as an artist, but as a prophet of our times.

The defining act of her pop career was to rip up that picture of Pope John Paul II on the prime-time American show Saturday Night Live in October 1992. It was not just a cheap stunt.

She was at the height of her fame, a superstar challenging Madonna in the charts. But she chose to sing "War", by Bob Marley, instead of her latest single, changing the words to mention child abuse. "We have confidence in the victory of good over evil," she sang - and, on the last word, held up an old photograph of Pope John Paul II from her mother's house. Ripping it up, she shouted: "Fight the real enemy"

The studio audience was stunned into silence, but the backlash against her afterwards was fierce. Protesters in New York crushed her records under a steamroller. The actor Joe Pesci said that he would have given her "such a smack" if he had been there.

She dropped out of the US charts, having sacrificed her career there - as well as untold millions in future earnings - to speak out in this way against the sufferings of children at the hands of abusers in the Roman Catholic Church. Not many people understood what she was doing. Nobody was listening to the survivors in those days.

It took several more years for the truth to emerge; but then report after sickening report began to detail physical and sexual abuse by priests, Brothers, and nuns in schools and residential homes.

"Abuse was not a failure of the system," The Irish Times said. "It was the system." Finally, Pope Benedict issued an apology to those who had suffered in Ireland: "Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated."

O'Connor named what was happening before most people wanted to know. She was vilified and ridiculed, but she was also proved right.

As for the other choices she makes, she would be the first to say that we are not her judge. We have not lived her life. But a look at that life can help us begin to understand.

O'Connor was born 47 years ago in Glenageary, a suburb south of Dublin. Her parents separated when she was eight, and three of the five children were brought up by her mother.

"I grew up in a severely dysfunctional and abusive household," she once told me, talking of cuts, bruises, and mental scars. The extent of the abuse has been disputed by other members of the family, but clearly had an impact on her. "That's what I was writing songs about at 17. Without realising it, I was involved, with other people, in tearing down the walls of silence."

She was caught shoplifting, and sent to an institution that had formerly been one of the Magdalene Laundries. Rescued by her father, she signed her first record deal, and moved to London.

"I stepped out of hell, given how I had grown up, and stepped into the music business. Then I got carried along on this whole roller-coaster of becoming 'Sinéad O'Connor'," she told me, signalling the inverted commas with her fingers.

"I never took time to recover from what had gone on when I was growing up, and to establish a sense of self. The big problem, if you are a child abused, is that you don't really have a strong sense of your own identity. Then, suddenly, you're this famous person, and everybody is on your back."

Male record-company executives thought that she was fair game. They told her to grow her hair long, and wear miniskirts. "I went straight round to the barber and shaved the rest of my hair off."

She produced her debut album herself, and was close to winning a Grammy for The Lion and The Cobra. The second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, was just as well received, and contained "Nothing Compares 2 U". She made the Prince song her own, and a single tear ran down her cheek in the video. It was real. She was thinking about her mother.

The first of her own four children, Jake, had already been born. From the beginning, O'Connor wrote heartfelt songs about life as a woman, a lover, and a mother.

There was more. She was also angry, and willing to shout about the abuses in Ireland, which at the time was unwilling to comprehend the suffering in its midst. There is a tradition of people called "keeners", who go from wake to wake to sing out the suffering. She was keening for her country. But, even after she ripped up that picture of the Pope, she could not let go of her native faith.

"All I regretted was that people assumed I didn't believe in God," she said much later. "That's not the case at all. I'm [Roman] Catholic by birth and culture, and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation."

This is a woman who believes she has a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. Such a claim has got many people into trouble over the centuries, but is hardly outside the mainstream of Christian beliefs. But there was not much chance of reconciliation with the Vatican after she chose to join the rebel Latin Tridentine Church, whose Bishop, Michael Cox, ordained her as Mother Bernadette Mary in Lourdes in 1999.

"Being a priest was just civil disobedience," she told The Observer recently, "although I deserve to be a priest, frankly, better than any of them, in terms of the actual faith and respect [I have] for the Holy Spirit."

These controversies overshadowed her achievements as a singer and songwriter in the 1990s and early 2000s. First, there was a surprising collection of standards and torch songs, Am I Not Your Girl? Then came the albums Universal Mother and Faith and Courage, which contain treasures such as "Thank You For Hearing Me" and "No Man's Woman".

When they failed to restore her superstar status, she was free to make the traditional Sean-Nós Nua, in which even "Molly Malone" was miraculously made new. It was a reminder of her roots in Irish traditional singing, with its unsettling use of the nota fada, the note held longer than the listener expects.

Then she stopped. She was adamant. She was going to study theology at college in Dublin, learn Latin chants from the monks at Glenstal Abbey, and sing only in church. She did these things, but then fell pregnant again, and her studies became impossible.

After a brief but necessary break, she began to write songs again, moving further away from mainstream pop into the reggae of the albums Throw Down Your Arms and Theology. The spirituality and practices of Rastafarianism resonate with her, and her own writing is influenced by its songs of resistance and hope.

O'Connor seemed to find some personal peace at last, but then came the album How About I Be Me (And You Be You). The tour to support it in 2012 was cancelled, and she posted a statement saying she had suffered "a very serious breakdown".

Two years on, it is a relief to hear her sound so self-assured and ready for positive change on the new album. "I don't wanna be that girl no more," she sings in "Take Me To Church". "I don't wanna cry no more. I don't wanna die no more."

This time, church is a place of recovery and redemption, even if she is wary. "Oh, take me to church. I've done so many bad things it hurts. Yeah, get me to church, But not the ones that hurt. 'Cause that ain't the truth, And that's not what it's for."

So she should be at Greenbelt. She is a fellow traveller, and an inspiration to many at the festival, a seeker after truth, a survivor, and a prophet - with one of the great voices of our age.

The Greenbelt Festival, sponsored by the Church Times, takes place this weekend at Boughton House, Kettering. For more information, visit www.greenbelt.org.uk.

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