Monday 22 May 2017

Singer Laura Sheeran opens up about her mother's witchcraft and why she is drawn to darkness

Laura Sheeran tells Barry Egan the tragic tale of Bridget Cleary, about the death of her own mother Keeva, why she is drawn to the darkness, and how her husband Marc is her rock

Laura Sheeran says she has always been drawn to the darkness. Photo: David Conachy.
Laura Sheeran says she has always been drawn to the darkness. Photo: David Conachy.

Keeva Sheeran was once considered a purveyor of sorcery and witchcraft. This was because she practised the diabolical dark arts of alternative medicine in rural Ireland in the late 20th century.

"My mother was called a witch," says acclaimed singer, director, composer and artist Laura Sheeran of her beloved mum Keeva.

Laura contextualised all this by explaining that, "as ridiculous as it sounds", in 1998 when she and her mum moved from Galway city, where Laura was born, to live just outside of Tuam - "the locals in the area were like: 'She's a witch'."

"You know," says Laura, "because my mother was practising homoeopathy, and she was alternative. All sorts of rumours spread around the village saying she was putting curses on people and casting spells."

Laura adds that rather than entrapping the locals in a web of enfeebling spells, her mother was merely "interested in learning about alternative options and ideas. There was nothing sinister or dark about it. It was just different to what people accepted as 'normal'. That was only 20 years ago".

"So when I was in school all my classmates were like: 'My mammy was saying that your mammy was a witch.' It is still sort of there, this lingering kind of feeling. . ."

Laura explores this lingering feeling in profound depth in Changeling - one of the highlights of the imminent Clonmel Junction Festival - "a dark, immersive piece", which she says explores "themes of the supernatural, the feminine and the occult using music, visuals, dance and spoken word".

Directed by Laura, with original score by Linda Buckley and choreography and performance by Stephanie Dufresne, Changeling will fascinate many of us, not least as it was "prompted" by a deeply tragic story in Ireland's history.

Bridget Cleary was burnt and tortured to death over three days by her husband Michael Cleary and family members in March, 1895, in Tipperary, because they thought she was a witch or a changeling. In 1995, RTE Radio 1 broadcast a documentary about the case called The Burning Of Bridget Cleary.

"To me," says Laura, "Bridget was quite a unique person. She made her own clothes. She made hats. She looked very stylish. She was financially independent of her husband, which in those days wasn't conventional. Saying someone was a witch or a changeling was a way of holding someone down, to keep them in their place; it was a way of not actually allowing that person to thrive.

"People don't get away with that any more but the systems are still in place, particularly in rural Ireland. Just this attitude that is still there, a lot of, like 'Oh, you think you're great, don't you?' or 'Would you look at your one?' These kinds of cultural things."

Laura says that she experienced that when growing up. "It was - 'Look at her.' You know, bullying and stuff," she-says, adding that, "it is interesting tapping into all that with Changeling. Bridget's story is so messed up - that that was allowed to happen.

"The husband murdered her, tortured her with a group of people over a couple of days. Hot pokers. Force-feeding her, restraining her. Bridget's father was involved as well. The husband eventually killed her. He buried her in a shallow grave, but believed fully that she was actually going to come back. He went to a fairy ring for three nights, expecting her to come riding back on a white horse. He slept for three days waiting. He lost his mind, but it was justified in his head based on the stories, and the hysteria over these beliefs."

Laura Sheeran - who, you sense, listens more acutely, feels more passionately, and imagines more vividly than most of us - says that Bridget Cleary seemed like the kind of woman that either "myself, or many of my friends, could have been had we lived during that time in history. Creative, alternative, 'different'.

"I really feel with Bridget that it's easy to hear her story and think of it as just that, a story. But she was a real woman, with a real life who really experienced those horrific acts of violence and torture. She was just 26 years old, the same age as Stephanie who is performing the piece."

Junction Festival director Mary Hickson, says Laura, who knew about the story of Bridget Cleary, randomly saw a music video that Laura directed a couple of years ago for David Geraghty's song Should Not Roam.

It featured Stephanie dancing on the beach in Spiddal in Galway.

"That is Bridget Cleary," Mary said, immediately making the connection.

"Then she contacted me. I told her that Linda Buckley was the perfect person for the music. She had literally just bumped into her on the street. It was this perfect synchronicity.

"The three of us are all on the same page and we're all kind of Gothic looking and dark and we're conjuring up the same atmosphere - creating this mad piece of work."

Ever since she started singing with Fovea Hex (they are playing a concert in Berlin next month) at the age of 15, Laura Sheeran has been creating her own body of madly creative work. Her 2011 solo EP Murderous Love stands out as a homage to the shadows of the heart.

Laura, who also performs solo and as part of Nanu Nanu with her musician husband Marc Aubele, says that she has "always been drawn to the dark".

"I really don't know why. It is just naturally what I am drawn to. I think it is interesting how people are always trying to be happy and positive all the time. I think everyone experiences darkness. I think it is good to be in touch with that side of things.

"I am really able to go to those dark places and I think that's why Mary saw the potential in this project, Changeling."

The 29-year-old has a certain fascination with the eventide or the gloaming of the mind.

It is not quite as Edgar Allan Poe put it, 'peering deep into that darkness, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,' but it is still there, buried within her, for reasons maybe only she knows.

Asked why, Laura says she believes that a "thing about my childhood that definitely had a lasting effect on me was that I was exposed to lots of suicide from a young age, which is bizarre, because it doesn't often happen."

Laura first learned about suicide when Kurt Cobain died in 1994. She saw it on the front cover of a magazine. Prior to that all Laura knew about Nirvana's music was the song Smells Like Teen Spirit.

"I was still six," says Laura, who born on April 19, 1987. Kurt took his life on April 8, 1994. "My birthday hadn't happened yet. I remember seeing the picture and asking my mum what happened to him and she said, 'He committed suicide'."

Keeva explained to Laura what suicide was. She was surprised that it was "even a possibility that people could do that".

"That had never entered my head before. It totally shocked me, obviously, because it is a horrible thing to try and understand. It had a big impact on me because it kind of made me think about things a little differently: that people can experience immense sadness. Because when you are a kid everything is fun. You're innocent. You think everything is great.

"So I remember that very clearly. And then there was just a lot of different suicides. A woman my mum knew well committed suicide with her children at that time. It was very traumatic," she says.

"And then there was another young woman who used to babysit me - she also committed suicide around that time. And in school, one of my schoolmates' brothers committed suicide.

"There were a lot of suicides going on. I think, still to this day, suicide is the most common way that I have lost friends. That is extremely disturbing and upsetting and really, really hard to get your head around. You just have no answers."

Laura doubtless struggled for answers on every level when her mother died of cancer in 2011. She was only 47.

Perhaps to help with answers, Laura wrote Death Of A Star later that year. The lyric goes: 'My mother said, live a life that's true to you. Fly like a bird.'

At the risk of frightening her former schoolmates who bullied Laura, this isn't songwriting. It is magic. In reference to the above-quoted lyrics, she says: "I feel that was one of the main lessons she wanted to teach us growing up. And it is something I keep with me at all times."

Death Of A Star is one of Laura's most overwhelmingly emotive and powerful vocal performances. She is literally singing her pain, her truth. Laura has only ever played the song live once, in 2012.

"She had three years of cancer. She first got sick when she was 44. I spent a lot of time with her in Galway around that period."

Laura's mother left a lasting legacy. What did you learn about life from your mother? "I learned to love, to be kind, to live and let live and to make the most of the time you have on this planet. My mum was an artist, a gardener and a loving mother with a rebel spirit."

The trauma of that time obviously changed her outlook on life, and how she sees herself - something that isn't always easy to define. What kind of woman is Laura Sheeran?

"I am still working that out. I am strong at least, I know that much. I can handle a lot. I'm not sure how to elaborate on this. It's just something I know about myself. Everybody goes through challenges in life and you can let them break you or strengthen you. I feel stronger now than I've ever been."

Laura can recall the last conversations she had with her mother before she died. "We had two. One was where she was alert, and then there was one where she wasn't any more, where we were saying goodbye, where we knew she was about to go. That was more like talking at her."

I ask Laura what she said to her dying mother.

"I said to her that everything is okay and it is all going to be okay; and that she did a great job. I think that is pretty much the gist of it. She was beautiful. She was a real creative woman. She used to paint. She was an artist."

Keeva had Laura and all her younger siblings - Bobby, Amy, and Harry - paint in the kitchen. "My mother was an amazing woman. She always thought outside the box and wasn't afraid to be different. "

Keeva's mother, and Laura's granny, Eileen, had precisely the same lack of fear to be herself. "She was a seamstress, as was Bridget, and used to have a Singer sewing machine. She taught me to sew on it when I was young, really young, like five-years-of-age. . ."

Laura can vividly remember Eileen telling her that she should be who she wanted to be and not to bend to what other people think is right for you - "only you know that".

"She told me she once worked for a man who expected all the women to have long hair. She took a scissors one day, went to the bathroom in work and chopped off all her hair as a protest to the stupid rule. She was a legend."

Not quite a legend yet, but certainly on the road on her own journey, Laura Sheeran is a woman with bona fide integrity. Her cousin is a fella by the name of Ed Sheeran but - admirably - she doesn't attempt to trade on that association. She lives outside Gorey with her husband Marc in a country house with a garden. "I love gardening. My mother used to love gardening, too."

Laura and Marc, who got engaged in 2010, were married in 2014.

"My mother passed in 2011. It didn't feel like the right time to have a wedding for a few years after that. Marc is a wonderful man, talented, generous, kind hearted. He's my rock. I'm very lucky to have him in my life."

'Changeling', directed by Laura Sheeran, opens at Clonmel Junction Festival on July 7 to July 9. Visit www.junctionfestival.com

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