Colette Sheridan: When one Irish icon showed his feet of clay with another icon...

Sinead O'Connor has been through the wars, but seems to be in a much better place, writes Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: When one Irish icon showed his feet of clay with another icon...

Sinead O'Connor speaking to Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in 1999. Picture: Leon Farrell/ Photocall Ireland

FOR someone who grew to hate the power of the institution of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals, it’s kind of ironic that it was a Catholic nun who gave Sinead O’Connor a purpose.

The singer, about whom we seem to know everything now that her memoir has been published, was given her first guitar at school by a sympathetic and far-seeing nun.

“It was either jail or music. I got lucky,” Sinead has said.

The wise nun could see that Sinead had no interest in school work — apart from reading Yeats and doing music.

The nun employed a guitar teacher to teach her charge the instrument.

It was to be Sinead’s liberation. The girl with the voice of an angel blossomed, producing the striking album, The Lion And The Cobra, when she was still very young.

We don’t have to go into what followed in any great detail. Suffice to say that Sinead was ‘troubled’, to use that shorthand for everything from feeling blue to suicidal.

There was a time when I used to wish she’d shut up and just use her vocal chords to sing. But that was before she started making sense — about the church, about the treatment of women in the music industry, and about the terrible abuse she suffered at the hands of her late mother.

Sinead, who has been diagnosed with bipolar depression, has been through the wars. But thankfully, judging from her book and from the interviews she has been giving to publicise Rememberings, she seems to be in a much better place. She is strong and outspoken, and humorous too.

I don’t know if she’d qualify as a feminist, given her embrace of Islam, which is not known for enlightened views on women. But I’m sure she’d hold her own on that front, defending Muslims.

She is not easily cowed. She drives some people crazy but deep down, I think the nation sees her, if not as a national treasure, then as an iconoclast.

She is out on her own. It can’t all be for publicity — the ‘ordination’ and the rest of it. This woman walks the walk.

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that another Irish icon, Gay Byrne, was so smitten with Sinead. Presumably, it takes an icon to recognise another one.

Who can forget the image of Sinead resting her head on Gaybo’s shoulder, kitted out in priest’s garb? It was her most unusual incarnation. But in last week’s TV documentary on the chat show host, the talking heads didn’t go into it. Perhaps because it was wrong-footed.

In a career that was quite remarkable, Gaybo rarely put a foot wrong, as he teased out the dark stories from the underbelly of Irish society — particularly on his radio show.

He let himself down though when he interviewed Annie Murphy, the former lover of Bishop Eamon Casey and mother of his child. Gaybo was misogynistic, accusing the American woman of being the instigator of the affair with her coquettishness. Annie Murphy walked off the set of The Late Late Show in the middle of the interview in disgust. Proper order too.

And when Gaybo interviewed Sinead in 1999 in her dog collar, claiming she was a priest, it was far from his finest hour. (I see no reason why women can’t be priests, but it’s still not allowed in the Catholic Church, so there’s no point in calling a woman a Catholic priest.)

Sinead’s ordination was through the breakaway Tridentine branch of the church. Whatever. My feeling is that she shoud not have been on the show that night.

As columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times: “It should be obvious... that putting a woman in the throes of such pain on live television is an appalling act of exploitation. It might be argued, of course, that the print media had already wrung whatever they could from the story. That may well be so, but print gives an abstract account of a person’s words and actions. Live television uses the person herself. It creates a direct, raw and merciless display. It leaves, and Gay Byrne knows this better than anyone, no hiding place.”

Gaybo, who in some ways was like a father figure to Sinead, used to be always so solicitous of her, concerned for her wellbeing and clearly very fond of her.

But that night just left me and many viewers uncomfortable.

Today, Sinead wouldn’t stand for it. She is nobody’s fool.

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