Sunday 21 December 2014

Noirin sings through the pain

Since her marriage ended, spiritualist Noirin Ni Riain finds consolation in the daily routines of life at Glenstal Abbey. But, despite sharing the monks' religious devotion, Emily Hourican finds there's plenty of the subversive in this singer who loves sharing a joke with Sinead O'Connor

Joni Mitchell is playing in the car as we rattle along the country roads between Tipperary and Limerick. Noirin Ni Riain, spiritual singer and theologian, wearing a stylishly cropped black jacket with padded shoulders and a pair of dangly neon-pink earrings, is taking me to Glenstal Abbey. This is where she now lives, a little apart from the monks, in an old hermitage, but sharing the cycle of Abbey life -- bounded by matins at 6.30 every morning and night prayers at 8.30pm. It's a routine, she says, that has kept her sane when the storms of life threatened to overwhelm her.

Proudly, she says she's nearly 60, but doesn't look anything like it. So I ask what's her secret, because it seems to be one worth having. I don't know what I'm expecting -- lots of water maybe, or never eating sugar -- but instead Noirin responds "pain". Through pain, she explains, you come to know yourself and the world. "When you're crawling on all fours, you're closer to the earth," is how she puts it. It's knowledge she wouldn't give up, no matter how awful the acquiring of it, and much of which she now shares through her latest book -- Listen With The Ear Of The Heart: An Autobiography.

For many years, since her first album in 1978, Noirin has been easing the pain and confusion of others through the exquisite sound of her singing -- songs of praise, of love, of wonder -- and now, by sharing some, not all, of her story, she is offering a window on a life lived without shirking, even from the rough times.

Although she shares the life of the monastery, although she clearly has a great and shining vocation, there is plenty of the subversive to Noirin. "If you can't pee like Jesus," she says, quoting a friend, "you can't be like Jesus".

Noirin is upfront about the pain of being a woman within the Catholic church. She mentions the time, when assisting at the funeral of a friend, a former nun turned theologian, Noirin helped to arrange her coffin so that her head was positioned towards the altar, something reserved strictly for ordained priests.

Even more fundamental is the way she believes the Church should have a sacrament for couples parting, a blessing on the separation of a union just as is given when it is being formed. It's something she herself could have done with when her marriage, to composer and professor of music at UL, Micheal O Suilleabhain, came apart.

"We were seven years trying to fix it," she says now. "I think there were faults on both sides, when you look back on it. It was a very sad crumbling of a relationship; it was the first relationship we both had -- the first man I kissed, I married -- which I think is very special. We grew up together, we were two little babies going into the world together. We had two wonderful boys together, and that man will always be in my heart. But then, it had to happen, and what you can't avoid, welcome, as the Chinese say; knowing that the God that brought you together is setting you apart."

It sounds like there is acceptance, what they call "closure" even, but Noirin still hates the word divorce -- "I hate the sound of it, there must be a nicer word" -- and feels strongly the lack of support for couples in this predicament.

This is something that goes back further than her own marriage -- "when I look at my parents, who for years wouldn't have been speaking to one another, but didn't have that option ... it's a sad old world," she concludes.

For someone so involved with the Church -- not famous for its tolerance of dissension or questioning -- these views are radical, so much so that I ask if she has ever been rapped over the knuckles.

"No, no," she laughs off the question, then adds, "never here."

Because change is coming, she feels, and Glenstal will be instrumental to that.

"I think there is no other place that would have taken me in so amicably. And I see things moving here, sometimes I am included on the altar, where we become genderless and it's all about prayer."

And maybe she's right. Even the Soviet Union looked solid until it crumbled away; the capitalist banking system seemed unquestionable until very recently. Change can happen, and when it does, Noirin believes, we will move backwards, to a time when Christianity was simply about prayer and the message of Christ.

Listen ... is an autobiography, but it's not the full story of course. There are bits left out, bits to be read between the lines.

For example, although Noirin says her childhood was "very troubled, very lonesome," I don't quite see why. Yes, she was the youngest, and her brother and sister were away at school. Yes, her mother, a schoolteacher, taught in the next parish and took Noirin there to school so that none of her friends lived close. Yes, she was sent far away to boarding school -- to Dundalk from Limerick, to a convent school where her aunt was a nun, and where Noirin suffered from the perception of favouritism (she bagged all the best roles in the school musical productions, so jealousy was probably also a factor in her lack of popularity). But none of this automatically adds up to loneliness or isolation.

When I ask, she reflects, "I was always very wary of people and never trusted people. Anytime anyone would approach me, I would recognise them as a stranger rather than a friend. That probably had to go back to the very early childhood, at some stage maybe there was some time that I cried ... I remember being in my little playpen and there was something I wanted, my teddy bear or my doll was outside, and I remember not having the words to say it, and I remember crying and crying and crying that somebody might give it to me, but they didn't."

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