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By Richard Price
Updated: 07:31 GMT, 11 July 2011
Overweight and dressed in a drab, shapeless trouser suit, the woman performing on stage is a million miles away from the sort of primped and preened pop princesses we have become used to.
The brown hair, with its suspiciously home-cut looking fringe, gives away no clues as to her identity.
When she opens her mouth to sing, however, the years melt away. Dipping and soaring in effortless grace, here is the incredible voice that launched Sinead O’Connor to global stardom 20 years ago.
To the 350 people assembled at Manchester’s Pavilion Theatre last week, it made for an eerie experience. Closing their eyes, they were transported back to the shaven-headed, elfin beauty in the iconic video for her huge hit, Nothing Compares 2 U.
Standing there in the flesh, however, was an entirely different person. Not so much a pop star as a weary, 44-year-old mother of four; one who has endured more than her share of traumas in a difficult life.
Yet after a long period in the wilderness — characterised by mental illness, suicide attempts and dysfunctional relationships (her children all have different fathers, none of whom are with her now) — Sinead is attempting a comeback.
Her new album, Home, has created a genuine buzz in the music industry. And with her original manager — and former lover — Fachtna O’Ceallaigh back on board, hopes are high that she can rekindle some of the success that saw her selling ten million records in three years.
That she has the talent is unquestionable. The worry, for those who know Sinead, is whether she is mentally fit enough to cope with being back in the spotlight. One associate told the Mail that Sinead has been battling ‘a ten-year nervous breakdown’.
Before Nothing Compares 2 U, she was a moderately successful, relatively ‘niche’ artist, though well-respected in the industry. That single changed everything, and brought her A-list status overnight — something that never sat comfortably with her.
Those closest to Sinead say her slow descent started in 1992 after an ill-advised stunt on the American TV show Saturday Night Live when she ripped up a photograph of the Pope.
It was intended as a protest against child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. A laudable cause, but the timing was wrong. This was years before these problems were fully exposed to the world. People didn’t believe her. Sinead was decried as a fanatic and her career imploded.
Two weeks later she was booed off stage at a tribute concert for her idol, Bob Dylan, her records were publicly smashed and her years of plenty were over.
‘Everyone knows who Sinead is, but they know her as she was presented post Saturday Night Live: as a fruitcake, basically,’ Fachtna O’Ceallaigh told me.
What a shame that someone with such obvious talent seemed to exit the industry under a dark cloud.
In the intervening years, Sinead has kept herself busy; she has had three husbands, four children and a string of lovers.
Her first marriage, to musician John Reynolds, fell apart when her eldest son, Jake, now 23, was a toddler.
A second marriage to journalist Nick Sommerlad was similarly short-lived, after which she had a daughter, Roisine, 15, with news-paper columnist John Waters and a long on-off relationship with diarist Dermott Hayes.
Her son, Shane, seven, was the product of her relationship with another musician, Donal Lunny.
More recently she was involved in a tempestuous affair with Frank Bonadio, an American businessman with whom she had her youngest son, four-year-old Yeshua. That relationship was marred by an ugly dispute with Bonadio’s estranged wife, the singer Mary Coughlan (culminating in Sinead threatening to ‘break her face’ and emailing her rival with the words: ‘You have no idea how f***ed you are.’).
The dysfunctional nature of her relationships speak volumes. She separated from Bonadio last year and promptly married another musician, Steve Cooney, from whom she separated four months ago.
Struggling to keep up? So is Sinead herself, as she continues to bounce from one break-up to the next. As one of her exasperated former partners put it to me: ‘It’s been like this all her life and I cannot see it ever changing. She thrives on conflict. When she was younger she was obsessed with the issue of child abuse. She claimed her mother had mistreated her — even took a page in a newspaper to list it all.
‘I’m not saying she didn’t have a point, it’s just that she cannot move on from things. She will always find a reason to get upset, and she has burned so many bridges over the years I’m amazed she has a single friend left. She got away with murder back then because she was gorgeous and had this amazing voice.’
In 2000, Sinead outed herself as a lesbian before promptly changing her mind. The year before that she was ordained as a priest by the breakaway Latin Tridentine church, but has of late been a devotee of Rastafarianism.
Her supporters insist she has dedicated her life to motherhood, and these days she lives in ‘boring domesticity’ in a rambling seaside home in Bray, just outside Dublin, with her three youngest children, two Yorkshire terriers, a cat and a housekeeper.
Yet even here nothing is straightforward. Earlier this year she provoked a storm of controversy in Ireland by declaring she would welcome a visit from social services to deal with her son, Shane.
Her comments were made in the aftermath of a series of postings on Twitter claiming she wanted to die. The troubled singer revealed that in a fury she had smashed her son’s computer games console on the floor and was terrified she couldn’t cope with motherhood.
‘I felt suicidal because it’s my fault that Shane’s father isn’t in his life,’ she said.
Such outbursts must be put in the context of her mental health issues. Ever candid, Sinead has revealed that she attempted to kill herself ten years ago and was put on anti-depressants after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder — or manic depression. She blames the medication for her putting on weight.
At a recent gig she told the audience how Shane calls her a ‘pot-bellied warthog’, and she has also revealed how perfect strangers walk up to her in the street and inform her she is fat.
It makes for an agonising balancing act. While she is absolutely clear on the benefits of anti-depressants (‘I actually kind of died and got born again as a result of taking the meds,’ she has said), the comments about her weight cut deep.
The result has been an ongoing quest to prop up her self-esteem with relationships. Most recently, this was manifested in her marriage to Steve Cooney, a 57-year-old folk musician.
Hardly any of her friends were aware of any romantic involvement between the couple until the eve of her wedding a year ago. The first most people knew was when they received a text message saying: ‘Guess who’s getting married tomorrow!’
When her marriage broke up after a few months, few were surprised.
So it is that her life has come full circle and she is back under the wing of Fachtna O’Ceallaigh — the hugely experienced manager who guided her to the top of the music business two decades ago.
‘Sinead doesn’t have the primal rage and anger of her youth any more, and I would say she’s in as good a place as I’ve ever seen her’
Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, O’Connor’s manager
He will surely not have forgotten how Sinead sacked him at the height of her success, following the break-up of their love affair. Yet time is a great healer, and he is again shepherding her back to the spotlight.
‘Sinead doesn’t have the primal rage and anger of her youth any more, and I would say she’s in as good a place as I’ve ever seen her,’ he told me. ‘The tempest of the past has blown itself out, but there are still occasional bolts of lightning.’
That is an understatement. But O’Ceallaigh says he’s in discussions with British record companies, and has already sorted Sinead a deal on the other side of the Atlantic.
‘Hardly anyone has heard her music in the past ten years, which was partly her choice. But times are changing, and when the new record comes out things could be very different,’ he says.
Should she succeed with her latest look it will be one in the eye for the image-obsessed music industry. If not, it’s back to the anonymity of the school run.