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