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.
Twenty-four hours spent in Glenstal, with and without Noirin, shows me that here, too, not everything is as I might have expected. At dinner, which is conducted in silence except for one monk who reads aloud throughout the meal, the story is that of Heloise and Abelard, a tragic tale of great passion, seduction and betrayal that ends with Abelard's castration. Not what I'd expected.
There are other clues too, like the spiritual garden within the grounds, begun by a Spanish monk now departed, continued by Noirin, which has statues of Ganesh, Easter Island heads, wind chimes, even a porcelain duck, alongside the Madonna. Something, indeed, is happening here.
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."
It is, of course, the kind of thing that happens to many small children and is usually simply forgotten about, but in a sensitive child, already finding the reality of the world difficult to deal with, maybe it could create the kind of rupture and scarring Noirin talks of. A small, crucial loss of faith in humanity; to be later replaced by a greater one in God.
But maybe there's a better explanation elsewhere, in the first song that Noirin was taught by her singing teacher, Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
"It's the story of my life," she says now. "If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can't I?" It's the kind of yearning that cannot be dissected or rationalised.
Happily, the introversion wasn't to last. Noirin now seems a far cry from that lonely little girl, warm and positive, seeing friends rather than strangers in those who approach her. The transformation happened when she went to UCC to study music under the legendary composer, Sean O Riada. It was here that she finally met people with the same passions as she had, made friends and fell in love -- not so much at first sight as at first sound, "his voice rang a bell not of prior memory but of future soul connection" -- with Micheal O Suilleabhain.
Since then she has produced many albums, made friends across the world, sung for the Dalai Lama, worked with John Cage, John O'Donoghue, Mary Coughlan and Sinead O'Connor, of whom she says "she is gifted, gifted, gifted".
Sinead, of course, has called Noirin her "biggest influence and heroine in music" and even "the Courtney Love" of her scene. The pair sang together several times -- their duet on Regina Caeli is one of the great spiritual and musical experiences of all time; find it on YouTube.
Noirin now tells me a joke of Sinead's, a joke that's actually funny. "This nun goes up to heaven, St Peter lets her in, and she says 'I love Jesus and the saints of course, but I've always really wanted to meet Mary.' So Peter brings her over to Mary, and the nun says, 'Mary, there's one question I've always wanted to ask you. Why, in statues and pictures, are you so sad looking?' And Mary answers, 'It's because I was always hoping it would be a girl!'"
When her marriage to Micheal broke down, Noirin, then 42, left the lovely Georgian manor house they lived in, leaving her chickens, ducks, lambs, even her sons, who stayed in the family home, and eventually she ended up here, in Glenstal Abbey, where, as well as singing with the monks, she runs chant workshops "for everybody and anybody," singers and listeners, Christians and non-Christians.
"It wasn't a decision," she says now, "it just happened this way." And it may not be forever.
"I don't know what's ahead," she says. "I don't see myself here for evermore. Sometimes I get paranoid, because I have nothing. I have no rights here, I don't have a home, I don't have a pension, I don't have anything. I used to feel panic, but I don't anymore. I'm going to be held," is her conclusion. "I managed to get up off all fours, somehow. Maybe I'm still on my knees, and still have to stand up, but I feel as grounded as I ever was."
As for the possibility of future relationships, for now, the answer is "a tentative no".
"I do not see myself entering into another deep relationship. It takes a great leap of faith to do so. But then, who knows? But really, I feel that my lovely relationship -- for a long time -- with Mick was preparing me, as the poet Rilke would say, for the 'divine relationship' and any other deep connection that I might make now would fall very much short of that first love.
"And d'you know," she goes on, "I don't feel lonely on that level. Sure, 'tis lovely to have your own bathroom to yourself, to know that you can talk out loud to yourself, to swim freely at night in your own double bed, to dance around the room naked to Joni Mitchell and know that no one, only God, is looking on. And although you do become more eccentric living on your own, as Nancy in Oliver would sing it, 'Not for me a happy home, happy husband, happy wife, though it sometimes touches me, for the likes of such as me, it's a fine, fine life!'"
And yet she wouldn't think of going the whole hog and joining an order. "I love male energy, I'd miss the auld men. It's something very safe, male energy. Also, I think -- and I could be open to a lot of criticism here -- I think men maybe live better together than women do as a group."
Of course, as the mother of sons -- Eoin and Micheal (Moley) -- it's an energy she's used to. These days she sings with the boys in a group called AMEN, while they have their own group, size2shoes, a rock-folk combo.
In a life that has been deep and full, what's left to do?
"I'd love to sing with Julie Andrews," she responds. But really, she seems content not to plan, well aware that, "we plan and God smiles!" Instead, it's all about acceptance, of where she is and what's to come. "I don't want to be young anymore, I wouldn't go back to that at all. I'd welcome death actually, I wouldn't fear it, because I don't want that much more pain. I feel I'd be ready to go, when I have to. I would see it as a release. This is only a preparation for the divine, and a painful one. We're all forgetting our lines and falling over the props, we're falling off the stage. But we won't in real life -- that's how I think of it. And I can't wait to meet the one up there who gave me all this!"
Listen With The Ear of The Heart by Noirin Ni Riain (Veritas, €17.95).
For information about Noirin's chant workshops, www.theosony.com and www.glenstal.org