Sinéad O’Connor: ‘I’ll Always Be A Bit Crazy, But That’s OK’

Sinéad O’Connor
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After a life marked by abuse, fame, scandal and struggle, the Irish singer-songwriter says she never lost faith

Sinéad O’Connor has been pretty much invisible for the past few years. There’s a good reason, though, she tells me with her usual disregard for social niceties. “I’ve spent most of the time in the nuthouse. I’ve been practically living there for six years.” She pauses, takes an intense drag on her fag, and warns me off being similarly politically incorrect. “We alone get to call it the nuthouse – the patients.”

O’Connor is a music great – her 1990 version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U is one of the most transcendent five minutes in pop history, the solitary tear falling from her eye in the accompanying video one of its most beautiful images. The single topped the charts worldwide, as did the album it was taken from, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Astonishingly, in the 31 years that have passed, she has never had another UK Top 10 hit single and only one Top 10 album. And yet she remains a household name.

Perhaps O’Connor was always destined to be best known for simply being herself: the angelic skinhead who swore like a trooper and shocked the world with allegations of child sex abuse; a woman who played out her own mental health crises in public; who became a Catholic priest and then “reverted” to Islam; who had four children by four different men, when all these things were unheard of or taboo. Her albums have often been cussedly uncommercial – traditional Irish songs on Sean-Nós Nua, roots reggae covers on Throw Down Your Arms. There have been gorgeous, relatively poppy albums, such as Universal Mother, but even that featured a spoken-word polemic on why the Irish famine was not actually a famine, and compared the country to an abused child. O’Connor must be one of pop’s most reluctant stars. When she was told Nothing Compares 2 U was at No 1 she wept – and not out of happiness.

It’s not just her eagerness to stick two fingers up at convention that makes her endlessly fascinating. O’Connor is an enormously empathic figure; hers is a vulnerability we can all relate to. And she is often proved right, long after the event. Last time we met, 11 years ago, O’Connor was a Catholic priest (she had been ordained by a breakaway church in 1999) who had just been vindicated. In 1992, she had torn up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live as a protest at child sex abuse in the Catholic church. At the time many people dismissed her as a loopy self-publicist. Two weeks later she was booed off stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert, and her records were publicly smashed. But in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI issued an apology to the victims of decades of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland, expressing his “shame and remorse” for their “sinful and criminal acts”. (She viewed the apology as wholly inadequate, calling the Vatican “a nest of devils and a haven for criminals”.)

Now, O’Connor is publishing her memoirs. The book, Rememberings, has been a long time in the making. For the first time, she has written about the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother. The book is a series of beautifully observed vignettes rather than a conventional autobiography: she takes us from the abuse to the kleptomania, reform school, pop stardom, pope-baiting, heresy, apostasy, breakups, breakdowns, kids, marriages and celebrity shags that have shaped her life. The writing, particularly when recounting her childhood, is lyrical, funny and anguished, and the revelations come thick and fast.

She’s at home in Wicklow when we speak, decked out in grey – grey jumper, grey hijab (she changed her off-stage name to Shuhada Sadaqat when she became a Muslim in 2018), grey cropped skinhead and grey fag ash. She’s 54 now, her cheeks more rounded but her eyes still bright. For three hours, she talks and talks – eloquent, indiscreet, potty-mouthed, poignant, conspiratorial.

In Rememberings, she captures the way she saw the world when she was young. She describes her fear on the day her father left, and her mother moved her and her siblings into the garden hut and locked them out of the house. She was eight years old. “I knelt on the ground in front of the gable wall and wailed up to the landing window to get her to let us into the house when it got dark. That is when I officially lost my mind and became afraid of the size of the sky.” This particular incident shaped much of her life, she tells me. “That’s why I’m agoraphobic. I find it difficult being outside. I don’t mind when it turns into black night, but once the hours of dusk come, I get very anxious.”

O’Connor grew up in Glenageary, County Dublin, the third of five children born to Marie and John. The family were middle-class, fairly well off, practising Catholics and dysfunctional. When her parents split up, she says, her father (a structural engineer turned barrister) became only the second man in Ireland awarded custody of his children and a campaigner for the right to divorce.

Sinéad O’Connor in the 90s

In the book, she recounts her mother’s physical and sexual abuse, including the times she ordered O’Connor to strip naked, lie on the floor with her arms and legs splayed open, then hit her repeatedly in her private parts. She is convinced her mother wanted to destroy her reproductive organs. “She had a thing about wanting me to be a boy. She didn’t want girls.”

O’Connor closely resembled her mother. Was she aware at the time of how alike they looked? “Yes. I’ve often thought she did all this to me because I was the child who reminded her most of herself.” Did it worry her that she looked like her? “Yeah. I think that’s why I continue to shave my head, because if I have hair I look more like her and I don’t like to see her in the mirror. There’s no picture of her in the book.”

She says it was her mother who forced her into thieving as a little girl. They would collect money in charity boxes, then Marie would steal all the donations – sometimes as much as £200 a night. “My mother was a kleptomaniac. She would visit houses that were for sale just so she could steal shit out of them. She would take money out of the church plate.” But her parents had plenty of money, didn’t they? “Exactly. My father was very well-off. When my mother died, we were living like she had no money, with no heat, no electricity, no hot water. The bitch dies and there’s 250 grand in the bank!”

O’Connor says she never wanted to steal, but then she found she was addicted to it, like her mother. “I became a kleptomaniac as well. My father took me on holiday with the rest of the kids when I was 13 or 14 and I stole a rug out of the hotel room. I’d steal shit for the sake of stealing it.” She would take things from shops to order for her schoolfriends. The young O’Connor was a talented sprinter; she’d put on the clothes she wanted to nick, walk to the exit, then run. At the age of 14, she got caught stealing a pair of gold shoes for a mate and was sent to a reform school run by nuns.

When O’Connor was 18, her mother was killed in a car crash. In the past, she has said she loved her despite everything, and never recovered from her death. Today, she simply says she was relieved that she died. Does she think her mother was ill or just cruel? “I think she was an evil person.” But she doesn’t believe it was her fault. “When I look at photos of the woman she was before she got married, she was a joyful, gleaming, happy young woman, and I feel something possessed her. It was the devil in her.”

O’Connor’s worldview has always been one of gods and devils – perhaps not surprisingly for somebody who was brought up to believe the incontestable truth of the scriptures. Of her 20-odd tattoos, all but one are scriptural. On the back of her hand is printed “The lion of Judah shall break every chain” (“My Rastafari fist”), on the other “Lumen Christi” (light of Christ), and on her chest is a huge Jesus tattoo. On her neck is “All things must pass”, another biblical quote.The exception is a tattoo saying “Vampire slayer” – which is what some friends called her after the Saturday Night Live incident.

She began writing her memoir in January 2015 when she was in a good place. But then she had a prolonged and catastrophic breakdown, brought on partly by one of her children becoming seriously ill; she also had a radical hysterectomy later that year. “Everything went fucking pear-shaped. I went through what you call surgical menopause, which is like menopause multiplied by 10,000. Then I didn’t write anything again for four years. The first half I wrote on a laptop at home, the second half I dictated from the nuthouse.” The difference is obvious – the early part of the book is economic, tonally assured, poetic, writerly; the latter pacy, gossipy and entertaining.

Sinéad O’Connor … at a concert

After the hysterectomy, her mental health took a dive. “Nobody had explained to me or my family that she’s going to be a crazy bitch because we took her ovaries for no reason. So the children were terrified of me.” How was she terrifying? “Angry. Raging. I was furious. I was completely gone. I was suicidal.” She says she scared everybody off. “Nobody could deal with me. I was very isolated and alone. I’d be looking at them, thinking, what the hell are they all frightened of?”

She admitted herself as an inpatient to the psychiatric hospital St Patrick’s in Dublin in 2016. O’Connor assumed the staff wouldn’t be able to cope with her either. She says she was hard work when she arrived on the lockedward. “You test them. You show them your ugly side and you’re like: ‘I bet you throw me out now.’ After about three years I realised they weren’t going anywhere. In fact they loved me very much indeed.”

Rememberings is partly dedicated to St Patrick’s. She calls the hospital her second home. “Thank God I spent a lot of the last six years there, because otherwise I wouldn’t be alive.” Most of the time, she was on an open ward, learning about her mental health. “I’m 10% bipolar, apparently, 40% complex traumatic stress and the rest is borderline personality disorder.” Did she try to kill herself in hospital? “No. Never. I went there all the time because I was suicidal. I would take myself there. In the past I have made several suicide attempts. I would take the pills and say to God: ‘OK it’s up to you, you decide’ and then of course I would wake up three or four days later. Clearly God thinks I’m such a pain in the arse that he doesn’t want me either.” She grins. “I’m a strong little fucker. I wasn’t meant to die.”

It was the times when she signed herself out of their care that the disasters happened. In 2017, she convinced herself everybody in Ireland and Britain had given up on her, so she headed for America to see friends. In fact, she ended up living alone in a motel in not-so-quiet desperation. That was when she put a video on Facebook in tears to tell the world she was in urgent need of help: “My entire life is revolving around not dying, and that’s not living.” It was terrifying – for her and for her fans. She managed to get back to Ireland, and readmitted herself to hospital. Today, she says she wasn’t only mentally ill at the time, she was in physical agony with gallstones. Social media has often brought the worst out of her. “Twitter is really for lonesome people, isn’t it?” she says. “And I was desperately, desperately lonely.”

In one way or another, O’Connor says, she has always had issues with self-esteem. In the book she writes about how her sister Éimear tried to boost her. “She made me look in the mirror when I was 23 or 24 and say, ‘I am loving, I am lovable, I love and accept myself exactly as I am’ and she’d make me give myself a kiss.” And did she believe it? “I probably only started believing in January of this year.” Has she kept on doing it? “Sometimes I still do it. If I’ve managed to achieve something; if I’ve managed to have a shower or I’ve managed to clean the house, I’ll say to myself: ‘You’ve achieved a lot today, that was great.’ But I don’t do it looking in the mirror.” She pauses.“Now and again I’ll give myself a kiss in the mirror or say, you fucking rock!”

Her last stint at St Patrick’s was her longest – eight months. And it was this January that she and the hospital agreed she was fit to leave. “They’d been threading this thing together in me for six years. Both you and your team know when you’re ready.” How did she feel different? “I didn’t feel sad any more, I didn’t feel depressed, I didn’t spend all day terrified, I was able to go out, I was able to have fun, I was able to spend a day not beating the shit out of myself for my flaws.” She is cutting back on her work hours to focus on the essentials – paying bills, keeping the house clean and not being overwhelmed.

She puts out yet another cigarette, prepares to light the next, then stops. “Can I just take a piss?” A minute later she returns. “Wonderful piss,” she says. I ask whether she learned anything about herself from writing the book. “I learned how very, very lucky I was. Coming from where I did, and then to walk around the world having this fantastic adventure. Sometimes I would ring my father, saying something bad had happened to me, and he’d always say that’s part of the adventure, that’s part of life. You know the Harrison Ford movies, he’s always being chased by a boulder or in a pit of snakes, but it’s all part of the adventure? It’s scary, but it’s fun.”

Towards the end of her stay in hospital, she started to appreciate her talent for the first time. When she was planning to tour (before it got cancelled by the pandemic), she worried that she may have forgotten the lyrics to her songs. “So I went on YouTube to remind myself. I had never done that before and I thought, holy shit, that’s me; that’s quite good!” Is she thinking of any particular songs? “A lot was about the live performance, like on Jools Holland I did two songs called Fire On Babylon and Famine. I was a skinny young lady and I thought, where did that voice come from?”

Did she think she was beautiful? “When I look back, I think, yeah, that’s a pretty girl. Not any more.” And at the time? “That was never something in my mind. I’m Irish and I grew up in the 70s when to be a good Catholic you had to think you were shit; you weren’t allowed to boast, you weren’t allowed to be proud of yourself. You would never declare: I am loving and lovable!”

O’Connor says she was terrified of reading Rememberings: she thought she would find the chapters on her childhood triggering. There came a point when she couldn’t avoid it any longer, because she had to read the audio book. Did she find it tough? “No, the only bit that fucked me up was the Prince chapter. When I read it, I was like, holy fuck, that was a really scary night.”

Prince (left) and Sinéad O’Connor

She was in America in 1991, soon after Nothing Compares 2 U had topped the charts. Although Prince had written the song for his side project, the Family, he’d had nothing to do with her recording. One day she got a call saying he’d like to meet her. A chauffeur-driven car arrived to take her to his house. From the off, she says, Prince acted strangely. He told her he didn’t like the language she used on TV and made it clear he was unhappy she was not his protege.Things soon got tense. She says the evening ended up with him locking her in his house, insisting they have a pillow fight, then hitting her with a hard object hidden inside the pillowcase. O’Connor says she managed to get away and he chased her in his car. Eventually she escaped. She has talked about this night before now, but previously she seemed to laugh it off. Not this time.

What does she think would have happened if Prince had caught her? “I think he would have beat the shit out of me.” Even talking about it after all these years, she looks shaken. What was the scariest moment? “When he was sitting on a chair by the front door and he wouldn’t let me out. His irises dissolved and his eyes just went white. It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life.” If he had still been alive, does she think there would have been a #MeToo moment about Prince? There still might be, she says. “I’m interested to see if that does happen because I know one woman he put in hospital for months. And she didn’t make a complaint. I think he was a walking devil. He wasn’t called Prince for nothing.” Did they ever meet after that? “No, I wouldn’t go fucking near him, no way. And he never attempted to meet me. I could have gone to the police and made a report, but I didn’t. I was just so glad to be out of it.”

As well as the traumatic stuff, Rememberings is hilarious at times. Every minute she is falling in love with someone new – invariably a priest or yet another man called John. She describes gleefully how she had never fitted the Catholic template: “Four children by four different men, only one of whom I married, and I married three other men, none of whom are the fathers of my children.” In 2011 she made a call-out on social media for a “sweet sex-starved man”. After a few unsatisfactory responses, Mr Right offered his services, and this resulted in her brief fourth marriage.

She describes the man who took her virginity at 14 as her “deflorist”. She admits she stole the term from her brother, the celebrated novelist Joseph O’Connor. Is she surprised there’s been so much sex in her life? “No, because I was a horndog. I was like every other girl in a band. We all fucked our way around America.”

She stops, and says she has a confession. “To be honest, I exaggerated how slutty I was. I had a couple of affairs on tour with crew members, but I didn’t do my slutty years till I was 49. Then I went on a load of dating sites. I never did any one-night stands before, and then I did the entire slutty college years in six months.” Did she enjoy it? “Oh yeah, I loved it. But it was time for it to stop.”

There are also honourable – or dishonourable – mentions of celebrity boyfriends. She writes that Peter Gabriel, who was divorced from his first wife when they dated in the early 90s, regarded her as his “weekend pussy”. Did that upset her? “Yes, I was really hurt because he had chased me for about a year as if he was madly in love with me. He was the type of dude who you’d be away with and he’d put a note under the door to tell you he’s just about to go out on a date with another girl. And he’d get you down for the weekend and then say, you know this isn’t going to go any further.” She says,“Because of Peter, I’ve always drilled it into my sons that you must never tell a woman you love her to get her into bed.” She says she doesn’t want to give the wrong impression of Gabriel, though. “To be fair, he also has a great tenderness about him.”

Anyway, this is all the past, she insists; the hysterectomy has done for her libido. “I don’t even look at policemen’s arses any more,” she says sorrowfully. “I used to look at them a lot; especially motorcycle cops. I’d completely objectify them.” A little smile plays across her face. “There has been quite a hot electrician around my house for the last while.” See, I say, there’s still hope. “Well, it’s six years since I either had sex or went out with anybody, and now I’ve had six years on my own, I love it. The thought of having to shave your legs, pluck your eyebrows, hold in your stomach, stick out your arse, always stress, stress.”

While we’re on sex, she’s got a joke for me. “I went to the doctor. He told me to stop wanking. I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because I’m trying to examine you.’” She laughs. “I love that joke.”

I ask O’Connor why she thinks she has has had so few hit records. Simple, she says – it’s never been a priority. For her, music has always been a form of therapy. When she did Top Of The Pops, she just regarded it as an opportunity to get “this shit I have to get off my chest”. “The only reason to make an album is because you’ll go crazy if you don’t. If you make it because you want to be famous or impress the fella down the road or to make money, it’s not going to be a good record.”

Having said that, she did earn a fortune from music. “I made 10 million quid on the second album [I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got] . I probably should have made more. I gave away half of it.” Why? “A priest told me: when you grow up and get a job, pay back the money you stole. So as soon as I got the money, I doled it out in various ways to different charities and people.” That’s not in the book, I say. She looks embarrassed. “No. Because you’re not supposed to say when you’ve done a good deed.”

She’s probably still most famous for ripping up the picture of John Paul II. Has that defined her career? “Yes, in a beautiful fucking way. There was no doubt about who this bitch is. There was no more mistaking this woman for a pop star. But it was not derailing; people say, ‘Oh, you fucked up your career’ but they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine. It meant I had to make my living playing live, and I am born for live performance.”

Despite everything that has happened to her – the abuse, the breakdowns, the betrayals and fallouts – she has never lost her faith. Yes, she has been hypercritical of formalised religion, particularly the Catholicism she was born into, but that’s different. Religions are simply platforms for faith, she says, and she decided Catholicism was a lousy platform, so she chose Islam. “I guess I was born with a huge faith and it never left and nothing would shake it,” she says.

Why did she become a Muslim? “What I like about Islam is that it is anti-religious. In the same way that Jesus was a militantly anti-religious figure, Allah is saying that people are not to worship anything but God. The worst thing that happened to God is religion.” She means we’ve spent too long worshipping priests rather than God. “Islam is the most maligned religion on Earth because it has the truths that would make you not worship money, make you not steal, make you be good to your brothers and sisters, make you gentle.”

We’ve been chatting for hours, so we call it a night. But over the following days she calls and texts with corrections and additional information. There are new stories about her mother, some horrific, some funny (“One evening some friends of hers called round – she gave them dog food on toast and told them it was paté”). There are reminders of how much she adores her father, her children and two of her ex-husbands. (“My first husband, John Reynolds [who was also her producer], is still my best friend.”) And, most importantly, there are pleas not to misrepresent her. “Don’t make it all misery,” she commands. “Just remember, my story’s not Angela’s fucking Ashes.”

Last time we met it was a period of relative stability in her life. At the end of that interview I asked if she thought her state of calm could be permanent, and she bridled. “People always say to me, ‘Do you think your happiness is going to last?’ as if I’m teetering on some edge,” she said, before telling me it was “bollocks”.

Now she feels differently. She knows things are going well at the moment – she is happy living alone, she’s got a good relationship with her children – but she knows nothing is permanent. “I think I’m good now. But I’m not stupid enough to think I won’t have relapses. I’m not stupid enough to think I won’t end up in hospital again. I’m a recovering abuse survivor and it’s a life’s work. It’s not like you get reborn or something.” She lifts her hijab slightly, showing more of her cropped hair, and she smiles again. For a moment, she looks just like the angelic skinhead of old. “So yeah, I’m always going to be a bit of a crazy bitch, but that’s OK.”

  • Rememberings, by Sinéad O’Connor, is published by Penguin on 1 June at £20. To support the Guardian, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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