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Maire Brennan: From fame to faith

By Maire Brennan

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from Irish singer Máire (pronounced Moya) Brennan’s autobiography, The Other Side of the Rainbow. The Grammy Award winner is lead singer for Clannad, the world-renowned group from Ireland, from which Máire’s sister Enya received her start. Máire has recorded with U2’s Bono, Paul Young, Bruce Hornsby and others. Last year she released a solo project, New Irish Hymns – entitled In Christ Alone in the United States (EMI Worship/Chordant) – in which she collaborated with Margaret Becker and Iona’s Joanne Hogg. Máire’s autobiography frankly charts her upbringing in rural Donegal, Ireland, through hurtful and hedonistic years and into a search that led to her rediscovery of faith and solid footing in her life and work. Máire is a member of St. Mark’s Family Worship Center (Assemblies of God) where A/G missionary Gary Davidson is pastor.

In the 30 years of my time with Clannad I have stood in the wings of The Late Late Show on numerous occasions, but I have never felt so sick with nerves as I did that night. With a tight knot in my stomach and perspiration on my palms, I listened to Pat Kenny’s introduction and prayed that I might be able to say the right things: "Now, ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is no stranger to The Late Late Show. She is the girl from Donegal, the one we all know and love as the voice of Clannad. But tonight she’s here to talk to us about her autobiography and let me tell you, there are some shocking revelations. Do we actually know the real Máire Brennan? Let’s meet her."

I took my seat to the audience’s welcoming applause, taking a moment’s comfort as I made out the silhouette of my husband, Tim, sitting on the front row. As expected, Pat Kenny honed in on the darker aspects of my story, particularly the abortion. I knew that this would be a terribly shocking revelation to some people, especially those who knew me, but I wanted to get across my message about God’s forgiveness and to share how my broken life has been healed through turning to Him.

For the next few days I felt like I wanted to hide. I found myself on the front pages of Ireland’s newspapers.

Numerous times I was stopped while out shopping when a woman would thank me for my honesty and tell me how encouraged she was by my story. Stories [from readers] continued to flood in, making me more and more grateful for the things God has done in my life and the opportunity I have, through my story, to help others.

So easily we wrongly fear the judgment of these people who, perhaps more than most, might reveal compassion and forgiveness.

The abortion
I had been trying to ignore the sickly feeling in my stomach, but now there was no doubt about it. I had to face the fact that I could be pregnant. Panic-stricken, I had no idea what to do. What I feared and focused on most was the potential I had to hurt so many people. What kind of example was I? The eldest of the family, and here I was, only one year out of school and pregnant through a night of silliness at a festival.

All day and for the past few weeks I had persuaded myself that [an abortion] was a necessary evil. I had made a mistake and it was up to me to deal with it with minimum fuss. But what I was about to do was …

I awoke, back on the ward with a pounding head and lurching stomach. I was terribly sick and longed for the numbness of sleep. It was dark and quiet on the ward, except for the restless stirring of other haunted dreams. Eventually, I quietly cried myself to sleep.

The partying
I’d never smoked as a teenager. I knew some of the girls at school did it, and later in my father’s bar the air used to be thick with nicotine fumes, but we’d grown up in a cigarette-free household and admired our parents’ stance against it. Then again, life on tour was different. We were musicians and that’s what musicians did. It was in Germany that we were also introduced to cannabis. It seemed quite widely available, though I was shocked when I was first offered it. The first time I tried it, I hated it. But it was "cool," so I persevered. That’s the worst thing about young people with drugs, drink and sex. It becomes the "thing to do." It was all part of "having a good time." More and more we found ourselves surrounded by people who indulged and supplied us, and a joint every now and again helped us wind down after a show.

The fame
The "Theme from Harry’s Game" [by Clannad] was touted around some of the major record companies and RCA (who later became part of the BMG group) rose to the challenge.

The Harry’s Game film was broadcast over the next three nights and by Wednesday the sales of the single had rocketed.

Bono tells a story that he nearly went off the road when he heard it on his car radio. He had to pull up and listen to it properly. It was so unusual and, of course, Bono recognized that the singing was in Gaelic. We were very flattered when U2 later used it to open and close their show and also in their concert video filmed at Red Rock.

Even with Clannad’s success, my confidence had been gradually, and fatally, eroded.

Though I probably didn’t realize it at the time, my self-esteem had plummeted and inside I was dreadfully lonely. It was easy to drink and smoke a joint. It helped me forget all that and meant I didn’t have to think too deeply about anything. I should have been excited and on top of the world with the way my career was going, or thinking about starting a family of my own, but no, my future didn’t get beyond the next couple of hours in a day.

People had gone crazy and our music was being played everywhere. When the night of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards came around we were all in very high spirits.

I cringe now to think what I must have looked like among all the other guests – the "beautiful people" – actors and actresses, models and general celebrities, all in their designer gear and glitzy hairdos. Still, when Ronnie Scott made the announcement that Clannad had won the award for the best soundtrack, I couldn’t have cared less what I looked like. The moment [going on stage to accept the award] was simply breathtaking.

Champagne flowed and we chatted and laughed our way through the rest of the evening – to the point where we were getting angry looks and eventually a telling-off from the table next to us because they couldn’t hear Charlton Heston do his speech. Later we joined the lineup with Heston, Jane Seymour, Roger Daltry and other stars from the stage and screen to be presented to Princess Anne. The next morning the film company sent over bottles of champagne which we sipped over breakfast in the hotel room as we giggled at our pictures in the newspaper.

The drugs
Dope and cocaine were always available through the crowd I now mixed with. Looking back, it’s hard to understand why it did not become more of an addiction. For some reason it didn’t get a grip on me the way it does with so many others. Perhaps it had something to do with Mammy and Daddy back home on their knees praying, as they always had, for the protection of their children.

Spiritual journey
When I announced on the phone to [my future huband] Tim that the next time I was over in London I wanted to go to his church I think he was quite horrified. He tried to make an excuse for us not to go, but I was intrigued and determined. This was a part of his life that was alien to me and I wanted to understand more of it. I think he thought it might scare me or emphasize the difference between us, and he tried to warn me what it might be like.

But in a way he was right. Even his warnings had not prepared me for what I discovered the Sunday morning we walked into his church. I was amazed at how casual it seemed. Everyone was really friendly, laughing, chatting, hugging each other, and the vicar had a hard time getting everyone’s attention to start the service. When the music started I didn’t know what was going to happen. There was a proper band playing and in minutes people were singing, dancing and throwing their arms in the air. While the music was upbeat they danced and clapped, then the worship leader brought the music down. There followed about 20 minutes of gentle songs that seemed to stir people’s emotions even more.

I looked around. Some were crying, others just stood with their eyes closed and their hands held up towards the ceiling. Over to my right I watched one of these women start to shake, then before my eyes she collapsed backwards and lay on the floor. It made me jump and I was amazed that the people around just left her lying there. There was also a strange muttering coming from some people, like a different language. I didn’t understand it. It was very strange to me, quite mad in fact, but I was interested in what was going on and what was being said, especially when the vicar gave his message. He spoke with power and passion about the love of God, how Jesus died to take on our burdens, to wipe away our sins, to be our personal Savior. It was a new language for me, but I found myself quite gripped by what he was saying.

I came out of the church with many questions. I had never heard people talk about Jesus in such a close and loving way, and as Christmas approached I was beginning to look at the nativity story that I knew so well in a new light. I suppose I was seeking a deeper meaning to my life and through the faith of my childhood and my meeting Tim I was beginning to find it.

During Christmas that year my family witnessed a smile on my face and lightness in my spirit that they had not seen for years. There were still many clouds overshadowing me, but as I lived each day I found myself looking ahead with anticipation and hope, perhaps for the first time in my adult life.

I had a lot to learn. I had no doubt in the existence of God, but what I had to grasp hold of was the fact that He heard my prayers and cared enough to pull me through. I knew that handing myself over to His mercy was my only hope. When you get that desperate, the rules and trappings of any kind of religion disappear. There was no dramatic experience or great spiritual awakening, but I was beginning to understand that the God who had watched over me since my birth was carrying me now.

Somewhere in the middle of all this was Clannad. Our success was beyond anything we could have hoped for. But it wasn’t necessarily bringing happiness.

The change
The love [Tim and I] shared was special and the more we explored our faith together, the more we wanted our relationship to develop on solid ground. This is where we both recognized that we were living a lie. We wanted to live as Christians, but there was the issue of our sexual relationship. We knew it didn’t sit right with the spiritual walk we wanted to pursue. Though our backgrounds were different, we were both raised to respect the sanctity of sex within marriage. It was something we had both rejected in the heat of our passion, but now it seemed to have become an issue. We turned to the Bible to seek justification for our behavior, but it didn’t come. God’s Word was clear. We knew we couldn’t go on the way we were. It was as if we were living two separate lives. We were a couple, now going to church regularly and seeking [God’s] blessing on our lives. But we were also caught up in our sexuality. We decided to be celibate.

At our first Easter together, Tim had offered to buy me an Easter egg. I’d asked if he would get me a Bible instead. He had been thrilled and inside wrote some words I have always cherished: "To dear Máire – Never forget how much God loves you. May He always give you strength and encouragement and may you always be able to show His love in your life."

My Bible had become a treasured companion, along with my grandmother’s prayer book. I had taken it on tour with me, quietly and shyly seeking my way on my bunk in the bus while the others played cards or watched videos. All through the tour I made sure that I went to church regularly. The others never took much notice. Sunday morning was usually the time to catch up on sleep and they rarely missed me. One of my visits took me to a large cathedral church in Christchurch. The worship was wonderful and it was a great service, but it is neither the music nor the teaching that lingers in my memory. Something happened that day; I came out of the cathedral feeling more alive than ever.

"Tim, don’t laugh at me," I said, "but I think God has spoken to me." I went on to tell him what was going on in my head. It was hard to explain. There had been no audible voice and it wasn’t even anything the preacher said, but somehow I felt God was telling me that I would be used to help break through some of the barriers of prejudice in the Northern Ireland situation.

One of the most amazing things about life is that you never know what’s around the next corner. In many ways my life was complete, happy and fulfilled. I had a wonderful family [having married Tim], I had my career with Clannad and I was enjoying church life at St. Mark’s. One day my dear friend, Ann Trainor, who leads one of the worship teams at the church, invited me to sing a Gaelic Psalm for the morning service. Gradually I found myself becoming a regular member of the worship team. When Ann discovered that Tim played the cello when he was younger, she eventually coaxed him into the team as well.

Coming from Ireland, and seeing the misery caused by such factions, I am ashamed that such obvious bigotry still exists among those who profess to love and serve the Lord. Is there any wonder that the outside world looks at the church with a certain disdain? The impression so often is of a body of people who wallow in self-reflection and are bound by guilt and rules. Yet, the reality of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, the man from Nazareth, blew away the rules and regulations and replaced them with love – a love that does not condemn and judge, but breaks down barriers and unites people.

Thankfully this is the heart of some people I have met around the world. Toward the end of 1999 I found myself performing at a Presbyterian church in the Loyalist stronghold of East Belfast. I had to double-check that the pastor knew what he had set up. There I was, with my band, our traditional Irish instruments and Gaelic songs in a place that traditionally has had no tolerance for the things of Irish culture. And yet that night the church was alive and electric with joy as I performed in concert. It is in areas such as this where the seeds of unity are beginning to flourish. As the politicians struggle to bring peace to Ireland, the people of God – from all backgrounds, denominations, classes and walks of life – are seeing their prayers answered, and I cannot help but remember the conviction I had all those years ago in Christchurch. Once again, He is working out His perfect time in my life and I am honored and privileged beyond words to be able to play a small part in uniting God’s people in my music.

From The Other Side of the Rainbow (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000). Reprinted with permission.

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