Everyone has an opinion on Sinéad O’Connor. Some would have preferred her to be like a Victorian child: seen and not heard. Certainly not speaking up so bravely about child abuse, the Church and Mother Ireland.
Others, like me, think she deserves to be in the pantheon of independent women who shaped Ireland, like Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Tearing up a picture Pope John Paul II in 1992, on American prime-time TV, was a revolutionary act against a patriarchal empire in Rome.
In her autobiography, Rememberings, she says there are two voices: the first one leads up to the shredding of that picture; the second one is everything thereafter. “I see the first voice as a ghost’s,” she writes, “and the next as a living woman.”
At the beginning of the book, she says as a writer she is no Bob Dylan, Shakespeare or even her big brother, author Joe. No, but she writes evocatively in a way that is not dissimilar to Enda O’Brien in The Country Girls or even Pat McCabe in Breakfast on Pluto. The old piano against the wall in her paternal grandmother’s house as a child has “echoes in the notes, a strange sound like the ghost bells of a sunken ship”.
Sinéad’s lyricism was within her from an early age. When she was 14, the first song she wrote was ‘Take My Hand’, about an angel singing to a dying man. At 15, she wrote ‘Jackie’ about a woman walking on the beach waiting for the return of a dead man.
Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977 impacted her. “I need a new father now that Elvis is gone,” she writes. “My father isn’t dead, I just ain’t seen him for a very long time, because my mother doesn’t like him.”
In 1975, Sinéad’s real-life father John “sensibly” left his wife Marie. He was given custody of Sinéad and her siblings. They went to live with him and his new partner, Viola. After six months, nine-year-old Sinéad and her little brother John moved back to their mother Marie because they missed her. When she was 13, she went to live with her father again.
What happened in the years that Sinéad lived with her mother is a harrowing but important part of Rememberings. It provides an understanding of the artist that Sinéad became, and an understanding of why faith in Christ entered her life and saved her.
Her mother would lock her under the stairs, beat her with the carpet-sweeper pole. She would make her repeat the words: “I’m nothing.” She would order her to beg for mercy.
“She says she wants to burst my womb,” she writes.
In kindergarten she won the prize for the best in the class at curling up into the smallest ball. “But my teacher never knew why I could do it so well.”
Sinéad would write down her fears on tiny pieces of paper. She would then eat them in case her mother found them.
One night her mother hit her so hard she had to go to hospital because of the pain in her stomach. There was dried blood on her face.
Another night, as her mother was beating her on the kitchen floor, Jesus appeared in her head, “on a little stony hill, on His cross”. Jesus told Sinéad that he would “give her back any blood that her mother took from her.”
When she returned to live with her father, she was “unable to adjust after what had gone on in her mother’s house”.
She experienced sexual intimacy for the first time in a flat in Smithfield with a waiter from Pizzaland. She told him she was 18. She was 14. She was excited, though nervous, that her “deflorist was to be an American”. On the bus home, she pondered the great imponderable: whether she looked “different” because she was no longer a virgin.
At 15, she went to a rehabilitation centre for girls with behavioural problems in Waterford. The statue of a pale-skinned Jesus looked like “he came from Kerry instead of Bethlehem”.
In the centre, she fell in love with a trainee priest called John. “I always fall in love with people called John,” she writes.
“I can honestly say that the father of my first child and the father of my last child are my best friends in the world,” she writes, referring to John Reynolds, father of Jake and Frank Bonadio, father of Yeshua.
“However, with the fathers of the two children in the middle, we would indeed cross the road if we saw each other,” she writes, referring to John Waters (father of Roisin) and Donal Lunny (father of Shane).
When Sinéad was 18, her mother was killed one Sunday as the car she was driving en route to mass skidded on black ice in Shankill and hit a bus. That same year, Sinéad signed a record contract with Ensign and moved to London.
Rememberings is a book so good you will want to read it twice. I did. It is that good. In it, Sinéad goes from spiritual revelations (the reason she became a singer was that she couldn’t become a priest) to dark humour that will have the reader laughing out loud at the sheer craziness of some situations. (During her time working as a stripogram, she dressed as a French maid, driving in a car with giant lips on the roof and accompanied by a man dressed as a gorilla, looking for her mother’s grave in Deansgrange cemetery.)
In one school exam, she answered, “Nobody is f**king laughing now,” to a question about what Yeats was saying with the poem Easter, 1916. The poet made Sinéad want to write songs, “but she wasn’t ready yet”. And when she was ready, the girl from Glenageary made an impact on the world with songs like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Three Babies’, ‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’ and ‘Troy’. The last is about her mother. As is, in its own way, Rememberings.