Back to article index


Which brings us to what I see as her masterpiece - the double album called Theology (2007). But first we should take account of Throw down your arms (2005). This is made up of very straightforward versions of quite well-known Jamaican Reggae songs. As such it could be said to follow on from Sean-Nós Nua (2002), made up of very straightforward versions of quite well-known Irish songs. She says in Rememberings that Sean-Nós Nua 'contains the very best singing that I ever did in my life' but this article is concerned not with the quality of her singing (always beautiful or powerful in all the phases she went through) but her adventures in religion, and thus primarily with the words she wrote herself. In this respect Sean-Nós Nua is mainly notable for the absence of anything to do with religion. Nor does it include any rebel songs, though a powerful version of 'The foggy dew' appears on Youtube and Universal Mother features the song 'Famine'. She says of this: '“Famine,” of course, is a song about Ireland and how everyone believes there was a nineteenth-century famine, but in fact, there was lots and lots of food in the country, it was just being shipped out of the country. It was just that you were shot dead if you were Irish and you went near anything but a potato.'

But Throw down your arms is both religious and rebellious, despite its very charming cover which shows her own first communion photograph with a decoration of Celtic scrollwork on either side. They're all Rastafarian songs. lamenting exile from their homeland and calling on Jah to free them from their bondage to Babylon. She says of it:

'In 2005, I was lucky enough to go to Kingston, Jamaica, and record Throw Down Your Arms with Sly and Robbie (Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) and the most incredible band on earth. I got to perform some of my favourite and most inspirational songs, which are all very male Rastafari numbers. I had the time of my life in Kingston with a friend of mine, who was very gay, for three weeks; at the time in Jamaica, you got ten years’ hard labor for being gay. So I had to keep poking my friend’s chin to make his mouth close every time he was staring at the lovely-looking men ... 

'I also felt so strongly about making Throw Down Your Arms, I paid four hundred thousand dollars of my own money for the record’s production. I was heading toward my next record, Theology, which is an album, believe it or not, that I had wanted to make since I was seven years old. Throw Down Your Arms was very much the precursor to Theology, which I also paid for personally. (I can’t remember how much that one cost me.)'

She says of Theology

'Around the year 2000, I went to college for a brief period to study theology. The books of the prophets were where my passion lay. We had the most beautiful teacher, a priest, who was able to bring God off the page when he was discussing the prophets. Particularly Jeremiah; he’d be going, “My poor people, my poor people,” and his eyes would be streaming tears ... I wanted to do the same thing musically that he was doing when he was teaching, bringing God off the page. Let everyone see the humanity of God, the vulnerability, the moodiness, the emotionality ... There’s a very fine line between corny and cool when it comes to writing religious songs, and I grew up in the 1970s with all these terrible charismatic Christian songs on the airwaves. So I didn’t want to risk making that mistake.'

On the actual CD cover she says:

'I would like to thank Father Wilfred Harrington, to whom this record is dedicated, for his inspired classes on the prophet Jeremiah and for his suggestion that I should set some scriptures to music. Also, as usual, thanks to all Rastafari for having been doing exactly that for fifty years; and for having me as a daughter.'

Theology is a double CD, one recorded in London, the other in Dublin. The London sessions have a full band backing, the Dublin sessions a very simple acoustic accompaniment - herself and another guitarist. There are the same songs on each of the different sessions, except that the London sessions include the Tim Rice song 'I don't know how to love Him' which, she admits in Rememberings - rightly - was a mistake. She also says the Curtis Mayfield song 'We people who are darker than blue' was a mistake. Insofar as it isn't Scripture-based, she might be right but it's still a very impressive version of a song which - like the songs on Throw down your arms - one might think only a black person could sing, protesting as it does against black on black (or indeed, as it expands to include brown and yellow, non-white on non-white) violence. It may be that she feels it is her Irish identity that gives her the right to sing such songs. As she says in Rememberings: 'I’m Irish. We’re different. We don’t give a shit who you are. We’ve been colonised by the very worst of the spiritual worst and we survived intact.'

The rest of Theology is scripture based. Although there is no hint of reggae the Rastafarian influence is still present. God is referred to as Jah and all the scriptures used are from the Old Testament - from Jeremiah ('Something beautiful', which starts as a song in her own voice but turns into an anthology of God's complaints against Israel taken from different parts of Jeremiah), the Psalms ('Out of the depths', '33', 'The Glory of Jah', 'Whomsoever dwells' and 'Rivers of Babylon'), Song of Solomon ('Dark I am yet lovely'), Job ('Watcher of men') and Isaiah ('If you had a vineyard'). If she never did anything else, her life on earth would have been justified by her version of 'If you had a vineyard':

Jerusalem and Judah
U be the judges I pray
Between me and my vineyard.
This is what God says
What more could I have done in it
That I did not do in it?
Why when I ask it for sweetness
It brings only bitterness

For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
Is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah
His pleasant planting
And he looks for justice but beholds oppression
And he hopes for equality but hears a cry

'Out of the depths' contains, interspersed into words from Psalm 130, what almost amounts to a personal creed as well as a statement of intent:

And I’ve heard religion say you’re to be feared
But I don’t buy into everything I hear
And it seems to me you’re hostage to those rules
That were made by religion and not by U

And I’m wondering will U ever get yourself free
Is it bad to think U might like help from me?
Is there anything my little heart can do
To help religion share us with U?

For oh you’re like a ghost in your own home
Nobody hears U crying all alone
Oh U are the one true really voiceless one
They have their backs turned to you for worship of Gold and stone

And to see U prisoner oh makes me weep
Nobody hears U screaming in the streets
And it’s sad but true how the old saying goes
If God lived on earth people would break his windows

I long for U as watchmen long for the end of night

The statement 'U are the one true really voiceless one' evokes a passage in Rememberings in which she is reflecting on the loss of her father as a child when her parents separated and custody was given (as it always would have been at the time to the woman) to her mother:

'I don’t go looking for any father because I have God. And God sends me stuff because I talk to Him. Naturally He’s the number-one father. But I’m a kid. I need a father’s voice, and poor God don’t have a voice. I like voices for some reason. I dunno why.'