An emotional soul

Sinéad O’Connor talks to Arts Editor Marc O’Sullivan about overcoming mental illness

SINEAD O’Connor lives in a terraced house in Bray, Co Wicklow. A handwritten sign on her front door warns that the gardaí will be called on any “hacks or photographers” who arrive uninvited. O’Connor’s relationship with the media has often been fractious. Still, she is all smiles when she answers the door at 10.30am. She makes tea and lights the first of several cigarettes as she settles down in her music room to talk, for a good hour and more, about her mental illness, God and organised religion, and the subject on which she has been particularly vocal: child abuse.

O’Connor is to perform at Triskel Christchurch in Cork tonight in a fundraiser for Mad Pride, the charity founded by the late mental health campaigner, John McCarthy, and now carried on by his son David. Her involvement came about through her social media habit: David McCarthy asked her to perform via Twitter.

“I’m passionate about overcoming the stigma attached to mental illness, and that’s what Mad Pride stands for,” she says.

O’Connor is forthright about her own mental health. “I’m bipolar. There’s type 1 and 2, and I’m type 2,” she says. “With type 1, you get highs and lows, with type 2 you just get the lows.”

She believes she has had the condition for some years, but was only diagnosed two years ago. “I remember the moment it happened. I experienced a trauma, about five months after the birth of my third child. There was a crisis. I remember the moment because I got a migraine, and I’d never actually had a migraine before — it felt like something had physically snapped in my brain. I had been diagnosed with depression when I was 28, but I knew that this was different. I started thinking too much, and I couldn’t sleep.” She likens the experience to “moving through treacle”.

Initially, she says, she got the wrong diagnosis, and was put on the wrong medication. She put on weight, a lot of it. “The doctor then took me off meds, with no supervision. I got very sick. It really took from August of last year until July of this year to find a doctor who could give me a proper diagnosis and the proper meds.”

At her lowest point, in January this year, O’Connor attempted suicide. It was not her first attempt. On one occasion when she was 33, she also “took a load of anti-depressants, because of a personal situation. I did it in a mate’s flat, which was a dreadful thing to do, and I woke up in hospital a day and a half later. At a time like that, you’re not thinking straight. The people who really love you, you’re inclined to try and protect them, you don’t tell them what’s going on. And that becomes a trap, which is no reflection on the people who love you.”

O’Connor admits to being well-off and to having a comfortable home and her family around her. But mental illness does not respect wealth or social status: “it’s no different if you’re materially successful or famous or whatever.”

Being on the right meds for her condition is “brilliant,” she says. “They take away the symptoms and complications — whether they’re physical, emotional or mental — of the condition that might put you in danger.”

The singer has spoken often of being verbally and physically abused by her mother Marie, with whom she lived after her parents separated. Her mother, who died in a car crash when O’Connor was 19, was clearly a disturbed individual. But O’Connor is very forgiving of her.

“My mother wasn’t well,” she says. “She was a victim of the times. She had to give up work when she got married: she married young and had five children. But she was a very talented woman: she was a cordon bleu chef; she did incredible dress-making; she was a great orator; and she loved poetry. Both my parents did, they loved words.

“My mother was a very creative woman, and to have that stifled, to have that cut off, must have been terrible. My parents were from the Liberties [in Dublin’s inner city] originally, but there was this whole thing of getting out of poverty, and they moved out to Glenageary. So my mother was very isolated from the extended family as well: she didn’t have that support. My father was quite well-off: he could afford for her to get help, and would have loved her to get help, but she wouldn’t, she had this fear of the stigma attached to it.”


Was O’Connor abused outside the home? “Certainly not at school,” she says. “I spent some time at Hyde Park, an industrial school. I did not personally get abused there, but others did, and I witnessed that.” One girl, she recalls, had a baby at 17. After a few days, three nuns arrived and took the baby from her. O’Connor and her friends tried to stop them, “but we had no hope against the nuns”. The girl never saw her child again.

Hyde Park had been a Magdalene laundry. The older women, who had worked in the laundries, were kept in a separate building, “so we wouldn’t talk to them”. O’Connor and her peers washed their own clothes in the laundries in the basement, which had closed by then. Other girls claimed to see the ghost of an old woman in the garden, but O’Connor never quite believed them until she read in the Murphy Report of children being buried there. “I couldn’t sleep without the light on for two years after I read that,” she says.

O’Connor had one great champion at Hyde Park. “Sr Margaret got quite fond of me, I don’t know why. She used to call me Nadie.” Once, O’Connor persuaded Sr Margaret to bring her to the new wave clothes shop No Romance. “And she bought me a red parka,” she laughs.

It was at Hyde Park that O’Connor first discovered her abilities as a musician. “The nuns got me a guitar and brought in someone to give me guitar lessons.” O’Connor learned just one song — Bob Dylan’s To Ramona — but she was soon discovered by the Dublin band In Tua Nua, who invited her to contribute lyrics and sing on their first single, Take My Hand. Soon, she started a band of her own, Ton Ton Macoute, before heading to London to pursue the solo career that would see her release her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, in 1987.

Few debuts have been so auspicious. Even the cover was startling, featuring as it did the singer, with her skinhead haircut, screaming. There were words scrawled in biro on her hand. “Everyone thought it was something meaningful,” she says. “But it just read ‘purse’ and ‘A-Z’. I still write on the back of my hand to remind myself of things…” The blue scrawl there today is to remind her to call the plumber.

Nothing Compares 2 U

If her first album was a cult success, her second propelled her to international stardom. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got spawned her world-conquering cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. She estimates she made £10 million from the album, half of which she gave away. The reasons for her altruism were pretty straightforward, she says. In her childhood, her mother used to bring her and her sister out collecting money for various charities. “We’d get hundreds of pounds, collecting round the pubs, and she’d keep it.”

When she was 11 or 12, O’Connor confessed what they had done to a priest. “And he told me that, when I got older, if I made some money, I should give half of it to charity. So when I had that £10m, I very consciously split it down the middle.” The biggest beneficiary was the Red Cross, to whom she gave £2m, with the rest going to a number of smaller charities.

Around the same time, O’Connor was involved in the most notorious incident of her career when she tore up a picture of the Pope on US television show Saturday Night Live (see panel).

These days, O’Connor says she is “still trying to rescue God from religion. Faith, to me, suggests belief in something you don’t know, whereas in my experience it’s knowledge. From the time I was a child, I had knowledge of God. To me, God and religion are two very different things. I don’t even like the God word, which is why I refer to the Holy Spirit so often.

“There is something out there which is concerned with the condition of human beings, and I believe it’s made of the same substance as we are. God suffers when we suffer, but it seems to have stupidly made itself so it can’t help us unless we ask it to.”

O’Connor says of the Ryan and Murphy reports on child abuse: “I didn’t believe in evil until I read them. Now I do. I believe now there are people in the Vatican who practise evil.”

There was a coda to the SNL incident. A few weeks later, she was scheduled to perform at a tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in New York. When she came out to sing, she was cheered by a portion of the audience, but they were drowned out by jeers from the rest. As she stood facing the crowd, Kris Kristofferson ran out and put his arm around her, saying “Don’t let the bastards put you down”. “I’m not down,” she retorted.

“Yeah, he didn’t come on to rescue me or be a big daddy or anything,” O’Connor says now. “He was actually sent out to get me off.”

The jeering lasted several minutes. Was it terrifying? “No, I was going through a whole debate in my head, and I understood for the first time why the Rastas call God ‘Dread’, it’s because God is in the shit we dread. I was standing there feeling dread, hearing this noise, half-cheering and half-booing. The question in my mind was, ‘can I stand here and be myself?’ I Believe In You, it’s very whispery, and I would have been drowned out if I’d tried to sing it. I couldn’t let myself be defeated like that. The only way I could do it was to sing War.”

O’Connor’s defiant performance, a capella, of the Marley track she had sung on SNL was the perfect riposte to her detractors. When she was finished, O’Connor walked off stage, and was more or less ignored by the other performers. “I think they were all frightened,” she says. “Freaked. Except for Willie Nelson. I was supposed to record a duet with Willie the next day, and he came up and said, ‘Will you still be coming in the studio tomorrow?’ and I said, ‘Sure’.”

What did they record? “Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up.”

In 1999, O’Connor caused more uproar when she announced she had been ordained a priest by the Tridentine bishop, Michael Cox.

O’Connor personal life has been eventful. She has been married four times and has four children by different fathers. Her last marriage, just last year, was to drugs counsellor Barry Herridge. They have now split up, but remain good friends. “I’m still legally married, and I’m staying legally married, so I won’t marry again,” she says.

O’Connor’s ninth studio album, How About I Be Me And I Be You? was released earlier this year, and was very well-received.

What will she perform at Triskel Christchurch? “I want to keep it nice and gentle,” she says. “I’m going to do a lot of stuff off Theology, which is my favourite of my albums. I’m delighted to be playing in a church…” She laughs again. “I usually get turned away when it comes to performing in churches.”

Sinead and the Pope

On Oct 3, 1992, Sinéad O’Connor was to perform a Bob Marley cover, War, on Saturday Night Live on NBC-TV in America. At rehearsals, she held up an image of a refugee child as she sang.

Later, live on air, shorn of head and dressed in a beautiful white dress that had once belonged to pop star Sade, O’Connor delivered the track as promised, then held up a picture of Pope John Paul II — one that had hung in her family home in Glenageary — and said, “fight the real enemy!”, as she tore it to shreds.

SNL’s producers were appalled, and the studio audience were stunned into silence.

There were thousands of complaints, and the New York Daily News denounced her on its cover as a “Holy Terror”.

Twenty years on, O’Connor remains unrepentant. She believes Pope John Paul I was a good man who was murdered by forces within the Vatican, just as he was about to expose corruption in the Church.

But, she insists, his successor, John Paul II colluded in the cover-up of child abuse by the clergy. John Paul II “absolutely knew” about child abuse in the Church and had “absolute control over the bishops” who concealed it, she says.

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