Féile ’19: Sinéad O’Connor’s voice glimmers like a blade in Semple Stadium

At an event that’s all about nostalgia, her performance demands that we live in the moment

 Sinead O’Connor at the Féile ’19 music festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

Sinead O’Connor at the Féile ’19 music festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

 

On a not-very-rainy night in Thurles, Sinéad O’Connor is performing Shane MacGowan’s timeless meditation on life, love and all the ways your past can haunt your present.

Her quietly tumultuous cover of MacGowan’s A Rainy Night In Soho was a highlight of her recent comeback appearance on the Late Late Show. Now, on the first night of the two-day Féile ’19 festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles, she once again plunges into its bottomless swells of melancholy. Accompanied by the Irish Chamber Orchestra O’Connor summons a one-person weather-front of emotion.

The original Féile coincided with the megastardom phase of O’Connor’s career yet she never played the festival. The so-called “Trip to Tipp” ran in its initial incarnation from 1990 to 1994. It has retrospectively come to be regarded as Ireland’s definitive Generation X rite of passage.

As is the way of these things, it wasn’t perceived as nearly so glamorous or epochal at the time. But nostalgia exerts a powerful pull and several thousand 40 and 50-somethings have made the journey to Semple. It is a glimpse of a world without Millennials or Gen Z-ers. An alternative universe where nobody is Instagramming their meals, taking a selfie every 0.8 seconds, fighting the righteous fight on Twitter or fretting about climate change. We are all so very, very middle-aged tonight.

O’Connor is arguably the biggest draw on the opening evening of the festival, which builds on last year’s Féile Classical event. The Frank and Walters, Horslips, Wendy James and The Stunning also feature on Friday’s bill. There is an appearance by Dustin the Turkey and video montages of the 1990s Féile and the Beyond the Thunderdome-levels of apocalyptic debauchery visited upon an unsuspecting Thurles.

Wendy James. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
Wendy James. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
The Frank and Walters. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
The Frank and Walters. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

Yet much of the advance chatter is about O’Connor, standing before an audience for the first time since her cameo at MacGowan 60th birthday celebration at the National Concert Hall in January 2018 (and excluding the Late Late).

She arrives dressed in a Panic at the Disco hoodie and headscarf. O’Connor has described converting to Islam as the final destination in her lifelong journey of spiritual discovery. She has also spent her time away immersed in the repertoire of her friend MacGowan. They go back quite a way having collaborated in 1995 on a re-recording of the Pogues single Haunted.

That track sparkles amidst the 40 or so minute set, as O’Connor duets with Steve Wall of The Stunning. His voice is low and rumbling. Hers glimmers like a blade.

O’Connor’s complicated relationship with her own catalogue came up during her Late Late appearance. She explained how she had “parked” her 1990 hit Nothing Compares 2U because she “couldn’t find anything” in it”. However, time, and the death of the song’s composer, Prince, had encouraged her to approach it anew.

“When I close my eyes I’m talking to [Prince],” she said. “I will be all of us in the whole universe singing to Prince about how much we miss him.”

She certainly conjures with ghosts performing Nothing Compares 2U in Thurles. Many in attendance will have come to Tipperary drawn by an ache for their slightly misbegotten youth. But O’Connor invests in her biggest smash a powerful and unsettling urgency. At the end of a day that is all about nostalgia it demands we live in the moment.

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