'Milestones is a new song about how dogs have more rights than women' - Sinead O'Connor
Barry Egan finds Sinead O'Connor in superlative voice as her tour begins
In an industry long marked by casual misogyny and the oppression and domination of women, a young singer from Glenageary in Co Dublin broke the music world's glass ceiling and became a superstar in 1988.
Sinead O'Connor did it all very much her own way, too. Her journey was sometimes on a hard road, but she is on the right path now. I journeyed down to see her last Wednesday night in Roisin Dubh in Galway. It was the opening night of her sold-out Irish tour.
The high priestess of singing from the heart was in the form of her life. I've seen Sinead in concert many times. This was something else. Wearing dramatic nails, a black hijab and black shiny boots and backed by her band (Jackie Rainey on guitar and vocals, Phil Edgar on guitar, John McCullough on keyboards, Eamon Ferris on drums, Darren Campbell on bass), Sinead was almost shamanic. She danced to the beat on 4th and Vine and The Wolf Is Getting Married - both from her 2012 classic How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? - having opened the show with a cover of John Grant's 2010 song Queen of Denmark ("You tell me that my life is based upon a lie/I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee." Sinead makes these words zing poetically like Yeats wrote them).
Sinead told the audience with a smile that was ever-present throughout this mesmerising and emotional concert: "Sing along if you know the words."
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During Nothing Compares 2 U everyone sung along. She sang I Am Stretched On Your Grave a capella, it was quite simply stunning. No one can sing a line like "I am stretched on your grave/And will lie there forever" like Sinead O'Connor. She can make the words haunt you long after the concert is over.
You could have heard the proverbial pin drop when she sang The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance ("I know you don't love me any more/You used to hold my hand when the plane took off") and Jealous ("I would have stayed if you'd want it would have been willing/But you said I treat you so badly/I can't be forgiven"). These deeply personal songs made us feel we were witnessing Sinead reading pages from an old diary, as if channelling Kate Bush and Sylvia Plath, Joni Mitchell and Virginia Woolf.
After The Emperor's New Clothes, during which she danced to the beat with a beaming smile, Sinead told the crowd: "I want to jump up and down but I can't because I f****d up my back." After Hold Back The Night, she danced off-stage to resounding applause that could be heard, I'd wager, all across the west of Ireland. She returned minutes later to encore with Never Get Old, from her debut album, 1997's The Lion & the Cobra, and then new song, Milestones, where she sings: "I slept outside in the dog shed/because you wouldn't let me keep my iPad."
It was an astonishing 90-minute performance that proved Sinead remains one of the great Irish singers. Later, she told me: "By the way, regarding Milestones, I never slept in a dog shed. It is just a song. Everyone wants to imagine all manner of things. It is a mistake to assume every song is autobiographical. And Milestones is not a song about mental illness. It is a song about dogs having more rights than women."
As for the spellbinding show, Sinead said: "Thanks be to God, everything came together really, really well which is down to my managers, [brothers] Kenny and Carl Papenfus, the unbelievable band and crew they put together. I'm delighted to be working with each and every one of these extraordinary people, and I'm looking forward to all the fun we are going to have on the road." (She is playing Cork Opera House on October 26, then Vicar Street in Dublin on the 27th and 28th, Live at The Big Top in Limerick on November 1 and The Hub At Cillin Hill in Kilkenny on November 2, before a giant tour of Canada and America, which starts in February 1 in Vancouver and finishes in New York on April 16.)
I went for a few pints in Taylor's pub next door with Yvonne Tiernan, who sings with The Grey Willows and The Raines, and with The Chieftains for 15 years (she has also been married to a comedic god named Tommy for 10 years), and the nation's most-feted accordionist, Sharon Shannon. Here we convened a Sinead Summit.
"When Sinead sings," Sharon said, "it's plain to see that she is in another world entirely, and for many of us in the audience, it felt like we right there with her for the whole duration of the show. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to see this world class act in such an intimate venue. I have to say it was one of the most amazing gigs I've ever seen and I will never forget it. I was very moved."
"There is a powerful shift in energy in a room when Sinead closes her eyes and sings," said Yvonne. "Nobody can accurately describe it afterwards but we are somehow changed, deepened, more connected to our Irish-ness."