Sinéad O’Connor on her teenage years: ‘I steal everything. I’m not a nice person. I’m trouble’

The singer on family break-up, reformatory, and her escape to music

I’m staring at the reflection of my eyes in the window of the back seat of my father’s car. I’m thinking it will always be the same two eyes looking at me all my life. I made him stop at the record shop so I could buy a copy of Bob Dylan’s Desire. I left my mother’s house months ago, a little while after we got caught over the charity tins. I’ve been at my father’s house since.

At the time my mother lost us, I didn't want to leave her. She made such a scene of grief when our father drove off with us

His house is kind of chaotic. It’s like there’s three families: my father’s, my stepmother’s, and the one they made together. My stepmother has three daughters. The oldest is the same age as my sister, the next is the same age as me, and the next is the same age as my little brother but my little brother isn’t here, he’s still at my mother’s. Then my father and stepmother have a son who is nearly five. There are only four well-behaved people: my sister, my five-year-old half-brother, my youngest stepsister, and my stepmother. The rest of us, including my father, are completely out of order.

I like Viola, my stepmother. She is very slim. She's from the north of Ireland with a soft accent and a soft voice and always a huge toothy smile. She has short blond hair and she can speak fluent French. She likes calligraphy and teaches me some. Very rarely, she will have one glass of sherry and have to be helped to bed. She's so innocent. She adores the ground my father walks on. I dearly wish she were my mother. Sometimes I'm angry at her because she isn't. I was cross with her for not meeting my father earlier.

My mother said we’re not allowed to like my stepmother. When we’d go driving through town, she’d point out shops where she said my stepmother buys clothes and say, “Only hooers go there.” She’d point out hotels and clubs, too, and say the same. It made me and my sister laugh and want to go to all those places. She said, “Only hooers pierce their ears,” so I got my ears pierced a few days after I left her. Got my hair cut real short too because “only hooers” do that.

Viola loves God like I do. We talk about God a lot. She’s very gentle and she’s really in love with my father. I don’t know how she puts up with him. He’s a little trigger-happy. Maybe it works because she’s so uber-gentle. She couldn’t lose her temper if she tried. When she gets cross with me and my stepsister, we laugh at her.

My siblings and I lived in my father’s house for nine months or so when I was nearly nine. As I mentioned, I used to steal everything, sweets and such from the shops, and I was generally a pain in the ass, arguing all the time as to why I didn’t have to do a thing Viola told me. Poor woman, having me and my big mouth dumped on her.

The reason my siblings and I lived with her then was that my mother lost custody of us because the day my father left her, she put us to stay in a hut he’d built us in the garden. Once he’d gone, we started crying. She said if we loved him so much, we could go live in the hut. 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. She never responded and off went the light in her bedroom and everything went black. That is when I officially lost my mind and also became afraid of the size of the sky.

When I think about that moment, my mind goes blank and I can’t remember what happened after, nothing until I found myself walking around the judge’s garden, holding his hand, not wanting to say painful things that could result in more pain.

At the time my mother lost us, I didn't want to leave her. She made such a scene of grief when our father drove off with us, and she kept crying whenever we met her the odd Saturday, so I felt really sorry for her. At my father's house, I lay under my brother John's bed howling exactly like a wolf from one end of the day to the other until we got sent back. I also spent a lot of time singing Bohemian Rhapsody along with the record really loud because Freddie Mercury is singing to his mother.

I'm not a nice person. I'm trouble. I drive my father nuts. Poor guy drops me at school and I just walk out the other gate

My father is not a happy person. I can’t say I blame him. His voice sounds sad, like an opera singer’s, when he sings in the bathroom in the mornings. He gets blue and goes to bed after lunch a lot. I sit next to him at the table and see the sadness come up into his eyes from down inside his belly. He doesn’t like me to see it.

He’s a bit like someone who has been scalded and is running around looking for cool water to stand under. He can’t sit still. He’s addicted to working. He gets away with leaving my stepmother to deal with us savages because he’s a man. I can’t say I blame him for that. I’d try getting away with it too if I were him.

I’m extremely uncomfortable around him. I sit cross-legged on the very edge of my seat and shake my foot really fast without meaning to. I don’t really know him and he doesn’t really know me. It’s not his fault or mine, it’s my mother’s, because she didn’t let him see us for so long. But she didn’t tell us she wouldn’t let him, so I thought he just didn’t come and I was really angry at him inside myself all that time. I get cross if he tells me what to do and I say really nasty stuff like he hasn’t any right to act the father now.

I'm not a nice person. I'm trouble. I drive him nuts. Poor guy drops me at school and I just walk out the other gate. I go to the bowling alley and play Pac-Man, waiting for the boys from Oatlands to come by at lunchtime because I'm in love with B but he doesn't want a girlfriend, so I'm going out with Jerome Kearns. I don't give a shit about school. What's the point? The most important thing to be doing is getting hugs and Jerome is really nice to me. All we do is talk about Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd and hug. His shoulders are just the right height for my head and he calls me sweet names.

I do turn up for English class when I know we’re going to write about Yeats poems. I love Yeats’s poems, they’re like music but they open up a different sky, the one that’s inside me. I’m not scared of that sky because it has boundaries. It feels like the poems have opened all the windows and brought the garden indoors. Now I can see inner scenes, and the outside colours have gone.

There isn’t a scary spinning universe outside me; there’s a misted olden-days sitting room inside me, with a huge gray marble fireplace. Yeats is out of his mind there, writing Easter, 1916, about the tragic uprising by Irish republicans against the British. Nobody is f**king laughing now is what I wrote on my test in answer to the question, What was the poet saying?

Yeats has made me wanna write songs but I ain’t ready yet. I haven’t fallen in love as many times as him, the silly old bugger. Always asking a woman to marry him and not getting the message when she said no and then asking her daughter, which makes you know why the mother said no so many times. He’s a freak. He looks a bit like a walrus. He’s quite off-putting. But his poems are paintings. My favourite is No Second Troy, although I get fed up with people rhyming desire with either fire or pyre. There’s got to be some other option.

I’ve actually been thrown out of, like, three schools in the past nine months. And I still keep getting caught stealing. If a thing ain’t nailed down, I’m stealing it. I don’t even know why. It’s gotten so bad my stepmother called in a social worker, Irene. I hate her. I got caught stealing a pair of gold shoes for my friend to wear to the Pretenders concert. I stole outfits for my friends because I’m the second-fastest sprinter in the class. I just put the clothes on in the shops and run. Irene told my father and my stepmother to send me off to this place I’m now on the way to in my father’s car, looking at my own two eyes in the window. Knowing they’re the same eyes I’ll see all my life.

The place is called An Grianán – “the sunrise”.

WHEN YOU DRIVE in the gates of High Park to An Grianán, there's a massive full-colour statue of Jesus in His red and white robes. He has His arms wide open in welcome. I feel sorry for Him – He must be freezing. And I wonder why He always looks like He came from Kerry instead of Bethlehem. Surely His skin and eyes should be browner.

This is a grey place where loads of nuns live. And a lot of old ladies are shuffling around in their slippers with their chins to their chests, but we aren’t allowed to talk to them. They live in a different part of the building.

It’s a huge building in an L shape. There’s a little garden and a big church. I snuck in there once for a funeral to see what a dead nun looked like. The half-moons of her nails were dark purple.

The girls keep saying there’s a White Lady ghost in the garden; they say she crosses the little bridge toward the church, but I’ve never seen her. They also say there’s a load of graves covered up with weeds and they’re each marked MAGDALENE. But how could so many people in one place have the same name?

I wonder if those old nuns know.

The rule here about music is that you may play two songs on the record player during break time but you have to let the staff know in the morning whether you want to so you can book your slot. That way everyone who wants to, gets a turn. The morning I got here, the girls were playing Elkie Brooks’s Don’t Cry Out Loud over and over in the sitting room. It made me crouch down and keen in the corner.

My cubicle has three wooden walls painted pale blue. It has a little dressing table and a chair and a little bed. Across what should be the fourth wall, an orange flowery curtain blows. When I’m in my bed I can see someone’s forgotten a tiny blue and white Virgin Mary statue; it’s stuck into the latticework above the railings.

When I first got here, the girl in the cubicle next to me used to stick her head over the top of the wall that separates us and smile like a nosy fairy above the blue sky. She wanted to know everything about me. Asked me questions like a machine gun’s rat-a-tats. Couldn’t find things out quick enough. She likes me. She’s real ladylike. She’s 17.

One of the girls is 22. Word is she's been here since she was my age, 14. That scares me; I don't want to be here when I'm 22

She has dainty little hands and she used to be always shaping her nails. Her nails were perfect. She has dark skin and huge brown eyes and her black hair is cut real short. She looks like Audrey Hepburn, only she's brown. She used to pluck her eyebrows all the time and wear a little lip gloss. She used to speak real ladylike too. If you told her she looked beautiful on a particular day, she'd say, "I know!"

I think all the girls are here because their families don’t want them. One plays Supertramp’s The Logical Song over and over. If I were her mother or father, she wouldn’t be here or anywhere listening to such a sad song. One has a crooked hip; she needs operations. She’s had loads already but she’s waiting to grow up some more before she can have the next big one. I don’t know why she isn’t waiting with her family. She’s only 12 and she’s a Traveller.

Her cousin is here too. She’s really pretty. She’s a Traveller too. She has lovely black hair and dark yellow skin. She’s about 17, I guess. She is the most beautiful girl God ever made. I love how the two of them talk; their accent is so beautiful and their voices are so deep. The way they use words is not like regular people. I practise talking like them in my cubicle because I love how they talk so much. When I get it right, it feels the same as singing.

One of the girls is 22. Word is she’s been here since she was my age, 14. That scares me; I don’t want to be here when I’m 22. She doesn’t seem completely “present”. She has the same look in her eyes and the same way of shuffling about in her slippers as those old ladies.

Upstairs they teach us typing in the afternoons but in the mornings, we do maths and English and other lessons with John. I really like him. Actually, I have a massive crush on him because he’s gentle and I like the sound of his voice. But I still pay no attention unless we’re studying poems or short stories. Then I’m pretty sure I can see him secretly thinking, Hmm, maybe that annoying girl isn’t totally pointless after all. It’s like a quick eureka moment for him. Gone as soon as the maths book comes out and I prove impossible.

One night a band called the Fureys played a gig downstairs in our little concert hall. We girls were allowed to attend. They played my favourite song, Sweet Sixteen, which always makes me think of my first love, B. I had to leave him when I came here, him and all my other friends. But then they did an instrumental piece, played on a sort of high Irish whistle, that they said Finbar Furey, the lead singer, wrote when he was 12. It was called The Lonesome Boatman. The most beautiful and haunting melody I've ever heard. Such grief to have come from a child. It was like he knew my own heart. And no one in this place had ever known my heart.

I waited behind when the audience left and the band was packing up. Walked up to Finbar and told him he’d made me want to be a musician. I’m friends with him now (at 53 years of age) and he doesn’t remember meeting me. But I will always remember meeting him. And to this day, if I so much as see his name on a dressing-room door, as I sometimes do when we are doing the same festivals, I cry. Just because his music and his songs are so beautiful.

WHEN YOU GET to nearly 18, they start setting you up for a job. They've been teaching us typing so we can get jobs in typing pools or offices. They start letting you out now and then to get you used to the world of work. You do the odd day in the office or typing pool that you're gonna be working in. When the girl in the cubicle next to mine, the one who looks like a dark Audrey Hepburn, started this process, she met a boy from Glenageary, which is where I'm from. She and this boy fell in love and she got pregnant.

She was very happy about it. And really excited and proud. She was, of course, in trouble with the nuns. The baby was a boy, so white his skin was blue, and his hair was black as night. She fussed over him and took care of him and all his little clothes, just as she had formerly fussed over herself. She adored him.

Someone told me that in Ireland, you can't keep your baby if you are under 18 and not married

I loved holding him. I loved his little noises. I loved the smell of her on his little head. He looked like baby Moses, all wrapped up in his blue and white blanket, ready to float up the Nile in his reed basket. I don’t know if she knew they weren’t going to let her keep him. I don’t know if we knew. But I don’t think we did. I got such a shock, is why I can’t remember, when they took him from her arms and he was gone. Someone told me that in Ireland, you can’t keep your baby if you are under 18 and not married.

Now she’s gone too, even though her body is still here.

She doesn’t shape her nails. She doesn’t do her makeup. She doesn’t dress nice anymore. She never smiles or speaks. All she does is cry her poor heart out all day. She says they didn’t give him to his father, and she doesn’t know who they gave him to. They just took him and he’s gone. Poor lonesome little Moses.

THERE WERE MAYBE four hospital beds against each wall, with curtains drawn around them. Just like a real hospital. Everything was coloured buttermilk – the linoleum, the curtains, the walls. The lights were very low and dark yellow and seemed to shine from behind the walls so that they leaked up the back of the cubicles. Since no staffers were present, I stood waiting, expecting someone to come and say where I should sleep. I heard moaning from one of the beds; someone was calling, "Nurse, nurse".

After 10 minutes no one came so I stole a quick peek into each cubicle. Every bed had in it an ancient lady, sleeping. I’d been in hospitals before and seen some dying people, so I recognised this was a tiny hospice. And I recognised these were some of the old ladies I sometimes saw shuffling about the grounds, the ladies we were never allowed to talk to.

I'd been sent up here to sleep by Sr Margaret as punishment for the most recent of several successful escapes, all of which had resulted in much busking and entering of talent shows at hotels around Dublin, where I would always win the fiver if I sang Don't Cry for Me Argentina.

The final time I ran away I made a big mistake – I brought another girl with me. An older girl. She ended up shagging a guy against the wall of a block of flats, and his friends ran off with all our stuff, so I got scared and went back to Grianán. The girl didn’t come back for about two weeks. I never saw my stuff again but luckily I hadn’t lost my new guitar because I’d never put it down.

The old ladies don’t lift their feet much when they go around the edges of the building, like a row of ducks behind no mother. All seems unnaturally reserved because there is always a nun behind them. The ladies’ slippers make a shh-shh sound. I get such a strange feeling when I see them, alarmed by the courtyard I can’t cross to quiz them. They all hold their chins to their chests and hold their hands clasped across their wombs, and it makes them look as if they’ve murdered someone and are praying for forgiveness or as if they’re a line of slaves in ghostly silent shackles on their way to auction.

I stayed that night in the one bed I found that didn’t have anyone in it. All through the night the lady next to me called out in a frightened voice. Other ladies called out sometimes too, but no one came. I rolled, half asleep, half awake, trying to figure out why Sr Margaret had gone to such an extreme; the usual punishment is you are put in Coventry and you have to sleep on your mattress on the floor outside your room and eat on your own. You’re not nice again until after all the girls wash their clothes in the laundry before the Wednesday-night meeting.

It's a bit weird in the laundry. For a start, there isn't a washing machine in sight. There are lots of pipes and maybe 30 enormous white sinks and a tonne of spiders. It's all made of concrete, and the floor is worn into deep grooves from zillions of footsteps. Looks like the rock at Lourdes, which is worn from a 130 years' worth of hands that have rubbed it in the hopes of having miracle babies.

At some point I fell asleep and dreamed the old lady in the cubicle next to me was sitting on my bed, lighter of demeanour and seeming years younger, shaping her nails and singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him. And then the walls and curtains of the cubicles vanished and the old ladies’ beds became rows of graves marked MAGDALENE.

I never ran away again after my night in the hospice. In the morning when I woke, I knew what Sr Margaret had been trying to tell me. The worst part was, I knew she wasn’t being unkind. She was being a nun I’d never seen before. She deliberately hadn’t told me why I was to go to a part of the building I’d never known existed, climb a flight of stairs I would never have been allowed to ascend if I’d asked to, knock on a door I would previously not have been permitted to touch, and enter such a scene with no staff present.

She let me figure it out for myself – if I didn’t stop running away, I would someday be one of those old ladies.

I'M ALLOWED TO leave because I agreed to go to boarding school. That's the deal. I'm going to my father's house for the summer and then to the boarding school in Waterford. After that I can go to my father's house every second weekend and for the school holidays.

I already know singing is a thing that will take me away from people. Before I left Grianán, I sang at my guitar teacher Jeanette's wedding. Evergreen. My knees shook. Jeanette's brother, Paul Byrne, is the drummer in a band called In Tua Nua. Him and the guitar player, Ivan O'Shea, gave me a tape with some music on it. Asked would I write some words for it because they were looking for a singer.

Sr Margaret let me come out a few Sundays and they brought me to Eamonn Andrews’s studios and I sang with reverb and headphones for the first time. I love reverb so much – it sounds like church. Sr Margaret was pretty cool to have let me do it. I think it’s because they said they’d pay me. Not that she wanted the money; she was just glad I could do something other than steal to earn my keep.

They kept the song, which was called Take My Hand, but said I was too young to be their singer. I was so jealous of the girl who got the job that at first I wanted to cry when I heard her sing my words. And she was so gorgeous and beautiful, and, to be fair, she did sing it better. I sounded like a child. She sounded like a woman. A child can't be singing a song whose narrator is Death.

I don't know where it came from.

Rememberings, by Sinéad O'Connor is published by Sandycove on June 1st (£20). © Sinéad O'Connor 2021. You can preorder a copy here

Lead image of Sinéad O'Connor taken by Kate Garner