War & Peace

The only other celebrity who's taken an equally vicious lashing, O'Connor thinks, is Courtney Love. ''It seems to me that there's someone who needs compassion, just as we all do. If you really thought someone was crazy, why would you beat the s--- out of them, media-wise? Why is it that crazy is a term of abuse, an excuse to hurt people?''

The relentless media attention eventually died down, and O'Connor continued releasing albums, albeit with a fraction of her previous success (2000's Faith and Courage, for instance, sold just 216,000 copies). All the while, she continued to crumble emotionally. ''About six years ago I went to confession and spent a half an hour crying my face off about what a horrible monster I am,'' she recalls. ''I was quite ill, literally struggling with the will to live. I'm a manic-depressive, and it took a long time for me to get diagnosed properly.''

When O'Connor talks about the past, it's as if she's speaking of somebody else. '''Sinéad O'Connor' — I don't even know that person,'' she says. Though it's clearly painful for her to go back there, she doesn't dodge questions, even about her sexuality: ''I'm three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay. I lean a bit more towards the hairy blokes.'' (These days, she's single.) And she certainly doesn't apologize for her actions, least of all the Pope incident. ''I'm not sorry [about SNL], because as I see it, it was a valid artistic statement,'' says O'Connor. ''I don't have either pride or shame about it. I don't want to be hurtful to anybody, but it was a horn-blowing, [not] an attack on the Pope. And in fact, watching the poor man [before he died], and the extent to which every last drop [of life] was taken from him, would reinforce how I feel about the Vatican and their lack of actual caring for people.''

In 1999, a fringe segment of the Catholic Church ordained O'Connor as Mother Bernadette Mary, and though she doesn't consider herself as ''belonging to any particular religion,'' she's still a practicing ''priestess.'' ''It's a private thing between me and the Holy Spirit,'' she says. If people are confounded by the apparent contradiction — a vehemently antireligious woman working as a priest — so be it. ''It doesn't matter, because me and It,'' she says, pointing to the ceiling, ''know.''

Feeling more focused and confident than she has in years, O'Connor is relishing being ''out of the kitchen'' and back in front of a microphone. But when she takes Throw Down Your Arms on the road with Sly and Robbie next fall, don't expect to hear any of the old songs. ''In my heart, I closed down 'Sinéad O'Connor.' I'd like to be approached as a new artist,'' she explains. ''I even contemplated working under my second name, Marie Bernadette.'' Out comes the dimpled smile. ''It's a bit f---in' Irish, though.'' She's already at work on Theology, a record of new (non-reggae) material that she describes as ''religious songs with bad words.'' So no, she's not talking ''Kumbaya.'' ''If I were God, I'd be pretty ill listening to a lot of that boring religious music, you know? There's room for some serious testosterone in that arena.''

''I'm confident the records will sell enough,'' she says when asked about the commercial potential of her current or future albums. ''But it's not about that. I've got six and a half million quid in the bank. I can feed my kids.'' Would she consider appearing on SNL again? ''I'd be afraid of what they might do,'' she says. ''They'd probably have Ratzinger in there to f---ing excommunicate me.'' She grins. ''Which would be quite a great thing.''

THE ALBUM
''Burning Spear is like a serious f---in' god to me,'' says O'Connor, who's obviously studied reggae's greats. Throw Down Your Arms includes fairly faithful renditions of some of reggae's best protest songs, including tunes by Burning Spear (''Marcus Garvey''), Bob Marley (''War''), and Peter Tosh (''Downpressor Man'').