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Sinéad O'Connor interview: A Faithful Dissenter

Sinéad's breakthrough album

“The reason I believe in the Holy Spirit and fell in love with it so much is because of having been raised Catholic as a child. I think there is a lot about Catholicism which is absolutely beautiful. I think the essence of Catholicism is beautiful.” So speaks Sinéad O’Connor, often imagined to be hostile to Catholicism. In fact, she holds a deep affection for the faith.

The stark, ethereal beauty of her voice first enchanted the world in the late 1980s. Yet she became a hate-figure for many Catholics in 1992 when she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live television in the US. She was widely vilified at the time: her albums were ceremonially crushed by bulldozers, and she was booed off the stage in Madison Square Garden.

What at the time seemed like outrageous claims of a Church cover-up of child abuse have now been borne out as fact by a litany of reports from around the world. A contrite Facebook group, “apologise to Sinéad O’Connor” has even been set up by some who once dismissed her.

Sinéad has been a world-famous singer since her early 20s, but the 43 -year-old Dubliner has now become a prominent and increasingly respected voice on the child abuse issue. She has recently appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, CNN’s Larry King Live and last month wrote an article in The Washington Post, where she said that the Pope’s recent pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland was “an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our faith and to our country.” She has called on ordinary Irish Catholics to boycott Mass until the Vatican confesses to the cover-up of child abuse.

Sinéad O’Connor’s father was a barrister. That little-known fact seems somehow significant when you speak to her about the abuse crisis. She must have inherited some of his lawyerly genes: she has studied multiple reports on the issue in forensic detail, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of them:

“The fact is that there are five reports, done all over the world: Boston, Philadelphia, Ryan, Ferns and Murphy; and each of those reports independently of each other have come to the same conclusion: that there was a cover-up. And when you look at how exactly they went about covering up, each diocese behaved in exactly the same way. Now if it hadn’t been ordered by ‘central command,’ there would be differences in how each arch-diocese had handled things. “

Speaking to The Tablet from her home near Dublin, she breaks off occasionally to comfort her kids, to arrange their lifts to swimming practise; taking care of a million small things, like any busy mother-of-four. She remains very active as a musician, but says her primary occupation is not singer, songwriter or campaigner, but mother. In recent years she has seemed more comfortable in her own skin than ever before. After becoming suicidal in hear early thirties, she was belatedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The treatments worked, and she recovered her happiness and her creativity.

She sees great beauty in the Catholic faith, but says, “Unfortunately the people who are now running the business of Catholicism don’t seem to actually appreciate true Catholicism. The love and curiosity I have about religion, and the passionate love I have for the Holy Spirit, come from Catholicism. I am very interested in the idea of the Saints; everything about it; I mean, it’s beautiful.”

She says her two favourite Saints are Bernadette of Lourdes and Joan of Arc: “how you get to be a saint is you speak out against the church, they murder you, and then a century later they make you a saint.”

She knows Ireland’s Catholic institutions from the inside: as a troubled 15-year-old girl she was committed to the Grianán Training Centre for shoplifting and truancy. This was one of the now infamous Magdalene Laundries. She recalls:

“I wasn’t treated badly in there…[but] I grew up in a very abusive household, where I was abused very severely by my mother. So the whole idea of child abuse is something that I would identify strongly with.”

She says that the only really horrific thing that she experienced in the laundry was when, “a friend of mine had a baby; she was 17 or so. We all looked after her during the pregnancy, we were all really excited, and the baby was born, a beautiful boy. I always remember him, so white, with black, black hair, a really lovely baby. When she came back with the baby, she was thrilled. She had the cubicle next to mine, and she would poke her head over the top in the morning and would talk about all the plans she had for herself and her son. And then one morning we woke up to hear her screaming.

What had happened was, without any warning, the nuns had come to take her baby. They literally tore the baby out of her arms. She was screaming and begging, all the rest of us were screaming and begging, I’ll never forget the screams of the woman. And they literally pulled the child out of her arms, and that was that. She never heard anything more about where the child went, what happened, nothing.”

Yet she also recalls that one of the nuns in the Grianán centre donated Sinéad O’Connor her first guitar. When she was growing up in the 1970s, she says, “Ireland was a very religious place; it was a theocracy in fact. I was a lucky person in that I never sponged up anything but the good of Catholicism.”

Speaking of the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove, she says “I was very struck by that as a small child… It used to disturb me when my father would bring me to Mass when I was small, as I used to see these priests … and how miserable they were. They weren’t taking any joy in the Mass or any joy in their belief in God. And then they would unlock the tabernacle and take out ‘the bird’, it would be dished out and then they would lock it back up again in the tabernacle. As a small kid, I used to actually feel that I couldn’t breathe, because they were locking up the Holy Spirit.”

She says, “I never had any bad experiences with the clergy… My feeling about ordinary priests and nuns is that they’re great. I’ve never met anything but loving priests and nuns. I’ve been communicating with quite a lot of them lately, and they themselves are very upset about how they have been brought in to disrepute by the behaviour of the hierarchy. The poor priests are afraid to walk down the road with a child. It’s appalling.”

In 1999, Sinéad O’Connor was ordained Mother Mary Bernadette by the Latin Tridentine Church, a breakaway Catholic church. She says, “It’s something I regret ever talking about ….To me [becoming a priest] was a Holy Spirit request, and that’s all I would say about it. I’d be far more wary about disobeying the Holy Spirit than I would be about disobeying the Vatican.” She feels that she is fulfilling her call to ministry through her music: her 2007 album “Theology” was inspired by the Psalms and other scripture.

She says, “To me, God and religion are two different things. What is the difference? Religion loves conditionally and God loves unconditionally… To me, the Holy Spirit, it’s supposed to be a bird, it’s supposed to be free to fly and land wherever it chooses, so who has the right to say, ‘well, it can’t land on you’?. To me, it seems that an awful lot of religions are actually holding God hostage. So, we are in a situation nowhere we actually need to rescue the Holy Spirit from religion.

I do think that, to an extent, if women had been more involved in the organisation, [the abuse scandal] might not have happened. Do you remember when John Paul II was close to death and he had just had a tracheotomy? I always remember seeing him on TV…in the window of St Peter’s one day doing his blessings, and he had this tube in his throat. Apparently he was having a problem with the tube and he started to fiddle with it. And instead of a person coming to help him, what actually happened is just unbelievable, and it says an awful lot about the organisation: a long stick was poked toward him and the stick poked the tube back in to place. Now if women had been there, a woman would have put her arm around him and said ‘are you all right?’

We are all human, I am a human being and if I see an old man suffering I feel bad about that. Cardinal Brady had a heart attack the other day and I feel sorry for him, even though I don’t like what he did... “

“Jesus to me was an anti-religious character. He came to say to people that God lives inside you. When he said the kingdom of God is at hand, it’s in your hands, it’s inside you, it’s all around you, [he was saying that] you don’t need religion to get God.

We are coming to a time in the early 21stcentury when it is going to become very obvious to people that God and religion are two very different things.

It’s not that you get rid of religion, because we all like to have somewhere to go to light a candle, and we all like our rituals, but we need to understand that God and religion are two very separate things. I think that religion has been acting as if it is God.

She acknowledges that the New Atheists can be “quite rabid” but says: “I always actually get atheists to pray for me; because I figure God must prick up his ears and listen to them! God’s sick of listening to everybody else.”

She is fascinated by near death experiences, noting that many people return with a new impression of God: “most were aware of what they can only describe as a superior being, or an intellect. It wasn’t a man or a woman. It was an energy or an intellect that was pure love.”

As to whether she practises meditation, she says: “No, I don’t feel I need to. I feel I’m in constant communication…I don’t feel that God requires me to perform any particular rituals or to say prayers that were composed by anyone else. I don’t think God minds if I talk to God while I’m sitting on the toilet. I reckon old God has a special individual relationship with everyone.”

As to her views on the Eucharist, she says: “I’m not sure I believe the thing about it literally becoming the body or Christ, because it seems strange to me that Christ would require you to think of things in that kind of grotesque manner.” She agrees that she gets good feeling from the Eucharist, but says that it’s “not something I would feel I have to do. I get a great feeling when I see something happen in my life or the world that I think is a sign of God’s presence. For me, being pregnant or having children: that to me is the greatest time when you feel connected to God. It’s when your child is in your womb, and somehow you made it, and God is forming it.

The essence of Catholicism is beautiful, but I don’t think all the dogma and the rules and regulations represent Catholicism. I think the attitude to homosexuality is anti-Christian, and you could argue blasphemous, since God made gay people.

About 10 years ago I went to confession. Because I grew up in abusive circumstances, I had absolutely no self-esteem, so I spent about 10 minutes telling the priest what a terrible, awful person I was, and he stopped me in mid flow: ‘stop it!’ he said, ‘this is blasphemy: God has made you exactly the way you are and it’s a blasphemy for you to criticise yourself and to say that you are a bad person’… I thought that was a very powerful thing to say.”

“I think that unfortunately [the people running the Vatican] have made it so that when people hear the word “Catholic” now, they shudder…they think of sexual abuse.

What they’ve done in fact is driven people away from the idea of God, there are more people now who don’t think there is a God at all, who otherwise would have, because people have run [the Church] so badly. “

As to our time, a time of perpetual crisis and uncertainty, and whether she feels in her bones that goodness or is darkness is rising, she says: “Well, it’s a bit like a boil being lanced. I think that there has been a lot of darkness going on behind the scenes, and its now all spilling out. The boil is being lanced, and after that the pus will leave, there will be a healing then, there may be a scar for some time. But over the years, that will fade away.

I think that what’s happening spiritually is that the Holy Spirit is doing some serious housekeeping. And that means throwing out a lot of stuff, and that’s painful for all of us; probably especially for those who are being revealed as criminals. But that is necessary work. So I think that it’s a healing thing and a great thing that is happening, even if it’s very painful.”

She would like to see “a regime change, so that we get to have a say in who becomes pope… and we want more transparency, like any other 21stcentury organisation. The attitude shouldn’t be ‘we work for them;’ it should be ‘they work for us.’

If that doesn’t happen, then people are going to leave and go to other churches. What I would and love to see, is for Catholicism to survive this, and to redefine what it actually means to be Catholic…, so that the essence of what true Catholicism is can shine…..we are all talking to the same Spirit, we are all brothers and sisters”

The Church, she says, “is not a 21st century organisation. The rest of us are in the 21st century, and they are in the 1500s. Perhaps they need some help to cross the bridge and come with us in to the 21st century, but I don’t think you can help someone who won’t admit that they have a problem.

I would say to them: go back to Isaiah, which says, ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow.’ But not until you tell the truth and you wish to be healed.”

Sinead O'Connor was interviewed by Rory Fitzgerald in 2010.


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