Noírín Ní Riain in conversation with Shirley Ward


Shirley:  It is a real privilege to be speaking with you Noírín. There is so much I would like to ask you but let’s begin with your unique, exquisite voice. You are one of Ireland’s most internationally acclaimed singers of spiritual songs and a sean nớs singer and writer.

Noírín: Yes, and my parents would always say I sang before I spoke! I was a troubled child and anytime anyone came near me I would put my hand up to my eyes and cry. My voice has always been my best friend but also given me lots of pain. All of my singing life, although it sounds strange, I may be riddled by a very strong nervousness and strain. Sometimes I just don’t know if my voice is going to be there when I open my mouth, and it hasn’t been there several times. I met a healer when I was 35 and he told me I would lose my voice three times in public. I have lost it twice so I’m still waiting for the third time!  There is always that moment before I perform that I wonder if it is going to be the third time. This has always been connected to my belief in God. My ear has always been my easiest access to God – hearing sound and being intuitive all the time, because I was a very troubled child.

Shirley:  Where were you living as a child?

Noírín: I was conceived and born near Lough Gur, in Limerick, near the ancient stone circle there. When I was four we moved down to Caherconlish, about six miles from Glenstal, where my parents built a house. My mother was a primary school teacher, this was a go-ahead thing at this time, and she had two sisters who were also primary school teachers. She taught in the next parish from where we lived so it meant every day she’d take me six miles from school and bring me back. I had school pals but then when we came home every day at 3 o’clock I had no home pals. I was thrown back to playing on my own and my mother was gone too. She was very elegant and stylish; because she had her own job she always had plenty of money. Very often she’d go into town in Limerick and I’d be on my own there. I had an older brother and sister and they went off quite early to boarding school.

Shirley:  You are known to be a shy person with a quietness, or mystery about your music. Does this quietness and shyness come from the loneliness of your childhood?

Noírín: Exactly. I am writing my life story at the moment.

Shirley: So this is all very fresh in your mind for you?

Noírín: Yes it is.  I was talking to my two boys the other day and I said to them, ́Look lads, look at my life. It wasn’t a barrelful of laughs, not even a thimbleful. There was a lot of loneliness.’ Then I had to stop and look at it Shirley, and say that it had to be, to allow me have a friendship with the Divine Other. There was no distraction there. I had to very early on develop this alter ego. I know you should never call God an alter ego – it’s a very arrogant thing to say but that’s what it became, a friend I spoke to all the time, and who spoke to me. For me, that is what I term the Divine, or God.

Shirley: So this is how you have developed this whole sense of listening.

Noírín: Absolutely.

Shirley: I find this fascinating because listening is one of the greatest qualities of a psychotherapist. But it seems you have developed this listening in silence, to God?

Noírín: But so have you – psychotherapists are genius’s at it, and teachers. You are the two who know how to listen, how to listen between the words. You are reading what the words are actually meaning, in the inner heart and the inner ear, even before people say the words, or whilst they are saying them. You are going beyond the words in psychotherapy with your clients and interpreting in the prime sense, and in silence too. You cannot talk about sounds or words without talking about silence as well, the source and destiny of every sound. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. It was Roland Barthes who made this distinction. I couldn’t find anyone earlier, who made this distinction between hearing and listening.

Shirley: This exceptional ability that you have to listen, which you have developed from child hood, seems to have also contributed to the nature of the voice that you have. When people listen to you sing they say it touches their soul. The first time I met you in your Hildegard of Bingen workshop, and I had not heard you sing before, the sound vibrated deep into my soul. I have heard it said that good music moves the heart but when you sing your voice moves the heart, soul and spirit.

Noírín: It has also developed because I started learning singing at seven. My parents were not into music at all but my father used to say, listen, she never stops singing, take her and have her trained. Then that was light opera stuff, and ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ stuff! I could sing just like Judy Garland… And then I went to classical singing and could sing exactly like an oratorio. But then, Shirley I had to unlearn all that because I knew it wasn’t me. It was like putting a coat on that didn’t fit or a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. So I had to unlearn and go through a lot of pain too. People told me that I was not singing classical, or I was singing very disturbed stuff. About two years ago someone told me I was singing something very difficult as it was very difficult to listen to. My voice would also disturb people, people do find it disturbing. Recently a lad had to leave the room as he couldn’t listen to my voice, it disturbed him.

Shirley: But it’s not your voice that is disturbing, it’s something in them that’s disturbed. You are moving or shifting something in them. They are disturbed because they may not be ready to have it shifted! It’s not your voice – it’s not you.

Noírín: You’re dead right! You are right! I’ll take that on board!

Shirley: Your voice is a wonderful gift for healing people. If they are going to accept it they will. And if the young man wasn’t ready that’s OK.

Noírín:  Yes, it is OK. There are very moving moments too. A woman wrote to me recently from Seattle in America. She didn’t know me at all but her letter reached me on June 6th. In this wonderful letter was a beautiful photograph of an angel of a girl aged five, her daughter, who had died from a very disturbing disease with difficult behaviour patterns. Rose was her name, and Rose had been listening to my singing, and they played one particular track at her memorial service. The mother asked me what I was singing as it was in Gaelic. I wrote back to her, sending her the words of the song and inviting her to Ireland, if she would like to come. I received her reply last week and she told me that my letter had arrived on 19th June, Rose’s birthday. Her emotions were a mixture of love and sorrow. She asked if I would humbly accept a pair of earrings that she had made for me and I have them on today.

Shirley:  Lovely!

Noírín:   There are moments like that when you know all the pain is worth it. You are so right, it is nothing to do with me as a person – it just is moments like this – her mother also wrote that since Rose’s death she had been losing faith in God, but my letter brought it back. We are all here to do wonderful work, like you do, not for me, not for you, but for the planet. It needs it so badly at this particular time. I often wonder if we had all been better listeners would we be in such chaos, and in such a mess. In Ireland particularly, if we had listened to the children that were abused, if the priests could have listened to one other; if they could have listened to the children they were abusing and if parents had listened to their children. Not listening is neglect.

Shirley:  A lot of your work Noírín is in Christianity, but there are a lot of Christians who have left the church and are following their own spiritual path. How do you think your Doctorate thesis on… Theosony….?

Noírín:  Theosony, from two words, ‘ Theos,’ Greek for God and ‘sonan’ Latin for listening, the sound of God.

Shirley: How can this be adapted for anyone to find their spirituality? You have done this through prayer and meditation, and a lot of people meditate. When we meditate what are we actually listening to?

Noírín:  The inner ear.  I come from the Christian tradition but with my own rules too!  There is just quite a lot that you just can’t go along with!

To answer your question- what is happening when we meditate. Very interesting! My form of meditation would have to start with something concrete, be it two lines of a psalm, ‘The Lord is close to the broken hearted’. Then it would go on from there letting the sound go with those words. You may read aloud before you start, but coming out of that sound you are going into another space, some word or form and you reach the prayer for contemplation. That’s one form and I am talking about my own experience.  The other form is being in the silence and waiting for any intuition or a message to emerge. That’s the prayer. We are not in there alone. We are in there with what you might call the Divine Presence. Listen to the breath of God. Don’t get caught up with the names of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha. Listen beyond the names. Listen to the breath of God and just be in that presence – which is a frightening, scary place to go because we don’t like to be in silence.

Shirley: You now live at Glenstal, how much has Glenstal played a part in your life journey?  I know you are friends with the new Abbott Mark Patrick Hederman.

Noírín:   Yes, we’ve been friends for thirty years.

Shirley:  And also you were very close to the late John O’Donoghue.

Noírín:  Yes.

Shirley:  The monks at Glenstal must give you something. What do you find it is? Is it silence?

Noírín:  Yes, identification of the Divine in a genderless context. When you mention John there, and yourself too Shirley, the first contact is as spiritual people, people who are speaking the same language. That just happens to have been with those people. When people look at me they probably think the Glenstal connection is larger than it is because it is unusual that you would have as best friends – monks! That was really because as a couple when we got married first, when we met at Glenstal it was through Patrick, Kieran and Simon. The five of us were inseparable because we were fascinated by their lives, and they were fascinated by us. We all had the same spiritual paths, yet very different ways, the couple and the monks. That’s what attracted us and then we used to stay up all night discussing when we were young – when we were older too really. Although as a young child I was always going to Glenstal. I only lived five miles from there so would cycle over there. That place always called me home.

Shirley:  So something at a spiritual level, a soul level drew you to the place?  

Noírín:  Yes. I’d drop my bike, walk up the avenue but I didn’t know anyone there. But it was home. At home, mother would be away and father was a business man, we were upper middle class, plenty of money. We wanted for a lot of things, not for money, but wanted for love. So I’d go over to Glenstal. I’d always be there. We had maids over the years, a terrible term, so I couldn’t feel at home there, so I’d hop on my bike and go to Glenstal, wonder around at the back of the church. The church was open  – and I’d call that space home. When I was finishing my Doctorate I was going through divorce and separation and applied to Abbot Christopher then, he was very supportive and gave me the little cottage for eighteen months in 2003 to finish my Doctorate. Then I applied back for an apartment five years ago and am still there.

Shirley:  And it was meant to be!

Noírín:  Yes, I can see that now. It came out of a lot of prayer and discernment on his part.

Shirley:  As I am listening to you I believe every single one of us at some point in our lives has that yearning for silence or something beyond us. I believe I have been fortunate, and you have, in finding these places. I am very aware as I work with   clients, that there is a spiritual element which seems to be more and more present in people’s lives. It seems to be a search to find a much deeper meaning to life.

Noírín:  Really?

Shirley:  Yes. People are on this search. I guess in their own time they will find the spiritual place they are looking for. Maybe we find it when we are ready for it at different times in our lives.

Noírín:   Yes, with a lot of discernment and prayer in the widest sense. Just trusting you will be held through all the chaos life can throw in your way and before you.

Shirley: And often we cannot live without that tension. Some things I’m sure we could live without but sometimes it’s there for us, for our growth. I often wonder with my clients, and also in my own life, why we have to go through these tensions to find out, but it seems to be part of the balance of life.

Noírín:  It means going through the pain. It is like the Chinese saying, what you can’t avoid, welcome. Seeing that it is there, embracing it, knowing and trusting that you will be held.

Shirley:  I have been reading through your thesis and it is philosophical and is extraordinary advanced thinking.

Noírín:  Thank you for that.

Shirley:  Are you writing a book from your thesis?

Noírín:  No, unfortunately not yet.  When I went to present the thesis to the publisher they said it was boring! It is there as a thesis, they said, so write your own story instead.

Shirley:  So you are telling your own life story – this is a different book? What are you calling it?

Noírín:  Yes. ‘Listen with the ear of the heart.’ An autobiography, and it is due out in October. I feel very vulnerable with it because talking and writing about listening, a life long journey was one thing but on the other hand I’m not a writer, I am a singer. Later I hope I might write up a theological version that would stand up in the field of theological thinking.

Shirley:  I am glad you are writing your autobiography because you have been on television programmes and internet press reports and websites; you are internationally known and people like to hear your story.

Noírín:  Yes. But it is anybody’s story. It is the personal story of how did I cope with the divorce and separation that people want to know. But for the families’ point of view, how honest can you be when writing a personal story? As Emily Dickinson would say, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant!’ You have to be very sensitive to it all. But going over childhood, one memory leads to another, and another can of worms, and it was very, very painful. I’m sure you have been through it yourself and with clients. It affected my dream world too.

Shirley:  It has made you into the person you are today.

Noírín:  Yes, and I am glad for that. I have grown through the tears.

Shirley:  So where is life going for you now?

Noírín:  I don’t know. Sure we make plans and God laughs. It’s been the story of my life. My heart is very much in Glenstal attending all the offices. But I don’t know how long that can go on for. It is a very vulnerable position because I have nothing at all, no house…. The biggest lesson I have learned in life is not to plan. I remember when we bought our house and were married, I thought the marriage was going to be for ever and ever. And I would be carried out of that house in my coffin. I just have to say at the end of the day, not my will but Thy will be done. It is difficult because I want things and than am disappointed when I don’t get them. Then I look back and say ‘Oh for heaven’s sake! If I were still married I wouldn’t have studied for a doctorate’.

Shirley:  It is difficult being a ‘one-off’ too isn’t it! You stand alone and it is finding people who are likeminded to be friends with. I am hearing you say that your life was going in one direction and here you are going in a completely different way. And you have to go along with it.

Noírín:  Absolutely. And you have to have the courage to do it, sometimes hiding away, crying in the kitchen, and getting angry; but it is having true friends like you and my monks – it gives me the strength, and also, actually, I realise I am  not a ‘one-off’ alone,  but there are a few of us around!

Shirley:  We are all different but I do try to help my clients have hope for the future. You have come through, I have come through and they can come through too.

Noírín:  As Julian of Norwich would say, ’All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’  Or Bob Marley, ‘Don’t worry about a thing!’  People are saying the same thing if you can just listen to it.

Shirley:  How about your future work?

Noírín:   There’s a trickle of international work but as I get older it is difficult to travel now with all the instruments, so I am hoping that people will come to me. I love Glenstal and it is much easier to run courses from here. I love teaching and I sing also in the groups when I am teaching. And the listening always embraces the sounds whatever they may be.

Shirley:  Noírín, I hope that anyone who has not yet crossed your path, or not heard you sing will actually do so by reading this conversation we are having. I look forward to listening to your future music and also to reading your autobiography, and I really wish you well with all that you are doing. Thank you so much.

Noírín:  Thank you too Shirley for asking me. It has been a privilege.

Dr Noírín Ní Riain may be contacted through her website Her music is available also from Sounds True; and video clippings may be seen on YouTube.