Interview: Noirin Ni Riain - a serene path in valley of tears
She has sung with Sinead O'Connor and for the Dalai Lama, and also suffered heartbreak, but Noirin Ni Riain tells Emily Hourican her monastic existence has revealed there is a force much bigger than us
'One of the big lessons I've learned in life really, is that you go with the flow. I don't actually worry." Spiritual singer and theologian Noirin Ni Riain laughs, making a gracious gesture with her hands. "I feel, for some reason, that I'll be minded. I've been minded up 'til now, so I feel, don't put your energies into worry about what might be."
It is the feast day of St Therese of Lisieux, and we're talking about the future – the power it has to terrify, especially if you have reached the years that used to be called middle-aged, without laying down deep financial roots. Because despite the fact the little house, up a farm track in the beautiful grounds of Glenstal Abbey is perfect for Noirin – bright, charming, neat as a pin, somehow delicate – it isn't hers, except to live in for "now".
It's the kind of thing that could make someone edgy, and yet, Noirin has no intention of wasting energy on such matters. "Crisis means opportunity in the old Chinese. If and when I have to move out of here, it won't be traumatic," she says with a dazzling smile of resignation. Although she has a faintly country 'n' western aesthetic – feather-cut blonde hair, jaunty glamour, a great line in jangly jewellery – mostly she makes me think of the early Christian hermits, who lived devout lives in relative isolation, content that to do so was for God's glory. And for Noirin, whatever she gives is nothing compared to what she has gained.
"I have been held, quite miraculous things have happened. When you come to my age, you can see patterns in life, the way you couldn't as a young woman. You look back and you say 'that was meant to happen', whereas when you're going through it, you think 'I'll never get through this, why me'?"
The most difficult thing that "was meant" to happen, was undoubtedly divorce, from Micheal O Suilleabhain, composer and professor of music at UL. She hates the word, yet can say: "I have great empathy with people who have gone through the same. Had I not gone through separation and divorce, I don't think I could understand what it's like for other people."
It was following this heartbreak that Noirin eventually ended up in Glenstal Abbey, where she still lives an almost monastic life. "I usually begin the day at 6.30 with matins. The whole round of the day – mass at 12, vespers in the evening, night prayers – gives a lovely rhythm. For somebody living on their own too, there is that danger that you do become very introverted," she smiles, "by being there, you'll always meet somebody, you might just cast a little smile, somebody will wave at you. It brings you into that social space."
Does she never feel lonely? "You do, of course, but nothing that's insurmountable, or nothing that would make me want to change my lifestyle or live with anybody again. We had very happy times as a family. I couldn't think of recreating that, or having better."
More fundamentally, "there are the times that I am lonesome, but I feel this really is a fact of life. I don't think it is something any of us can get away from, because ultimately we are on our own. We're born on our own, we die on our own, and we have to live with that inside us, talk to that".
In a way, it has been a sort of homecoming, because Glenstal was part of Noirin's life long before a husband or children. "Glenstal is a wonderful place to live out that expression of the divine. I'd been coming here way before I met any of the monks. I grew up nearby and used to cycle over here when I was seven. I was a troubled child."
She has told me this before, but none of the obvious explanations – she went to boarding school in Dundalk, so had no friends close to home, was the youngest of busy parents and often on her own – quite seem to add up to proper reasons. "I was a very unfriendly child, my parents would say. I didn't like people," she says now. "I was very shy. I think something must have happened to create that, but I don't know what." Whatever the reasons, the results were that, for many years, she says, she suffered terribly with stage fright. "I was ridden with nervousness. I couldn't sing for anybody, until quite recently. I still get nervous, but not to the extent where I won't sing."
It seems extraordinary that someone who has a voice that seems a divine gift, who has sung for the Dalai Lama, with Sinead O'Connor and John Cage, should be subjected to such fear, but she insists, sadly: "I couldn't overcome it at all. I went through agonies. I've let so many people down, because I wouldn't turn up on the day. I remember even a live television programme, and being just stuck to the seat. Not being able to get up and sing my song. I was a nightmare."
Happily, that is "was" not "is". "Now, I'm nearly the opposite really," she says. "I can't sing for enough people. Nervousness is narcissistic. It's all about yourself. It's when you get in the way. Now I know that it is only the voice coming through me, I'm only a tiny vehicle, of something else."
So what changed? "A lot of different little incidents. I went back to do a doctorate in theology; I was around 49 when I finished my doctorate. Until then, I had been wandering around, I had never found the answer. Then I found the answer – it's not you. It's not my will be done, it's thy will. There is a force – call it whatever you will – much bigger than us."
As an example, she tells me about doing the Camino de Santiago recently, with a niece; "walking 30km a day. You just go into a space, beyond yourself. I find that's the same for singing. I just go into a different space, so I don't worry about any of the things I used to worry about – 'will I break down? Will I forget the words? Will anyone like me?' That all goes. I am just the outlet for that sound to communicate".
Clearly, despite being now 62, Noirin has no plans for a quieter life. Quite the opposite. "I've never been as busy in my whole life as I am now, but it's a lovely busy-ness," she says. As well as teaching two days a week in Limerick, she runs regular chant workshops in Glenstal, and most recently has begun leading groups to sacred sites around the world.
"We're starting in Ireland, then going to Iona, then Jerusalem," she said.
"You have to push yourself; you have to do something different."
What does she think is the secret to her extraordinary vitality, a kind of self-contained dynamism that hums within? "I do think about my age all right," she says, "but I think meditation, alone-ness which is different to loneliness, it enhances your being. I don't know when the last time was I got cross or annoyed with somebody, I live at a very equal pace."
She recently recorded a new album also, Hearth Sounds, with her two sons, Owen and Moley, both singers and composers, who have worked with Russell Crowe, The Chieftains, Bobby McFerrin, and poet David Whyte. That was clearly an experience well beyond the simply professional.
"There is a sound we make as a mother and two sons; something happens organically for people when they listen to us. We're aware of it ourselves too. Somehow, they're in the same moment as I am when we sing these songs. I taught them to them, sang to them an awful lot when they were in the womb."
The tracks include Abide With Me, Regina Caeli and a Kyrie Eleison. One, An Caoineadh, is sung by Noirin alone. "It's a very ancient lament from Donegal, pre-Christian, a lament by a mother for her child. She's asking 'where did you go? Why are you walking away from me?' I can rarely get to the end of it." She breaks off, then admits, "every day I get up and I actually think, for one fleeting moment, how would I cope with the death of one of the lads? I try to be ahead of that kind of huge catastrophe." It's not a superstitious thing, she insists, more that she is "admitting the possibility of it – if that has to happen, I'll be prepared to take the blow, for now, I wonder, just for a moment, what would make you resilient in the face of that?"
Despite the monastic existence, Noirin is so much a mother, a woman, even a feminist – "God herself," she sometimes says – so how does she reconcile that with a Church where women are not fully welcome? "It is weird," she says. "By its silence, the Church is perpetuating the idea that women are inferior. And I don't think that is going to change. Certainly not in my lifetime. That's what draws me to Glenstal – you don't have that misogyny." Does she really not feel that here? There is a long pause. Then, "No ... " another hesitation, "There is something here that has great respect for women. Of course it's very clear that I can't be a member of a community, because of my earthly genitalia. And that's the only reason. But here, in Glenstal Abbey, it's about a new time, new beginnings."
So what does she think of Pope Francis? "He's trying, certainly. The jury was out for a while, but I think he's a good auld fella. But still, on so many issues, the Roman Catholic Church has missed the boat. I find myself questioning – do we really need a pope to worship? I sometimes wonder if we could have our own church in Ireland?" It is very typical of Noirin to wonder something so consequential, so gently. There is a robustness to her that is very admirable. A refusal to see crooked or to absorb the sloppy modern doctrine that says we are all unique and wonderful, worthy of the very best. "I believe our lives are not our own, we are being led, through the pain and through the joy," she adds. "I think this really is a valley of tears – those lines from Hail Holy Queen, 'to thee we send up our sighs, moaning and weeping in this valley of tears'.
"People don't like that any more, but I think it's right," she says, then adds, knowing well how at odds she is with the modern world in saying it, "None of us is totally unique – it's like that old Irish saying, 'my story, everybody's story'. These loves that we think are paramount, these lives, they have been lived before." For many of us, the idea is unbearable, but Noirin clearly finds strength in it, even though she adds, with a flash of mischief, "thank God we don't know what's ahead of us or we'd never get out of the bed".
For further details of Noirin Ni Riain's pilgrimages, workshops and Hearth Sounds, go to www.theosony.com