'I've learned to enjoy Christmas time once again without my mum'
Sharon Corr tells Barry Egan about dealing with her mother's death, and the secret to her unconventional marriage to Belfast barrister Gavin Bonnar.
The week before Christmas, Sharon Corr remembers a story her parents told her. In 1962, Gerry Corr met a young beauty from Lifford, Co Donegal, called Jean Bell at a dance in the Pavilion ballroom in Blackrock, Dundalk. The handsome Dundalk lad's case of love at first sight was so pronounced that he even wrote a poem about the impression that fateful first meeting had on him, entitled Pavilion 62:
Did angels convene
To bring me to Jean
Of wraparound eyes
In passion of pink
We dance forever.'
Fifty two years later, Jean and Gerry's second child Sharon Helga Corr - born on March 24, 1970, following her brother Jim who arrived July 31, 1964 - had previously had her coat pulled up around her ears to protect her from the Arctic chill in Dublin. The star is, on the day we meet, braving the crowds to get her father a present. She got him books last Christmas but isn't sure as she walks towards Hodges Figgis bookshop. "What's a good book for him? What do you recommend?" she asks.
En route, she changes her mind and ducks into Timberland to look for boots for him. That job completed, we go for a walk through the Christmas market, stopping to buying Santa candy thingamajigs for her two young kids.
Time, like Santa and his reindeer in the sky, flies. It is soon 1pm and we stop for a much-needed Irish coffee to warm up. There's a little bit more Christmas shopping to do (this time for husband Gavin) before, famished, we go for lunch.
Ordering a glass of prosecco and chicken wings with chips, Sharon watches the excited little kids coming in with their parents and hears all the talk of Father Christmas being on his way from the North Pole with their presents. Sharon's mind goes back to her own childhood Christmases in Dundalk with her mum and dad. "I remember getting up way too early - like four o'clock in the morning - because I just really wanted Santa," she says. "I was dying for it to happen. I remember I would get up and it was still dark and I would think: 'No, it's too dark. It's definitely not time yet for Santa.'"
Sharon and her siblings - Caroline, Andrea and the eldest, Jim - would wake each other up "purposefully" with "the joy of it", and "scramble down the stairs to see what was under the Christmas tree. And drag mum and dad out of bed!"
Because their parents were musicians in a band, the Christmas period was a particularly busy time for them; with gigs around Co Louth and further afield. As such, older cousin Miriam used to babysit the Corrs when Gerry and Jean were out gigging. A "lovely neighbour" would also would mind them when the need arose. "Her name was Deirdre," smiles Sharon, "she was so beautiful that I used to think she was a princess."
"And as we got older, Jim used to mind us!" laughs Sharon of her big brother, six years her senior. "Can you imagine that! He was rubbish as a babysitter! He'll kill me for that!
"We were a very family-orientated family. Mum and dad were just about our little unit," recalls Sharon, "which is kind of what I'm like now with my own family. I am very much about just that - the magic of Santa Claus and all those sorts of things for kids. My own family was like that."
The Corrs all went to Mass on Christmas morning at the local church, The Holy Redeemer. ("It was a very modern church. It looked like a UFO had landed.") Their father played the organ in the church. Sharon would play the hymns on the altar at the Christmas midnight Mass too in The Holy Redeemer with her mother Jean and Caroline and Andrea and Jim looking on. "I started doing that quite young," she says, "from the age of eight ..."
"Obviously music is my passion, and religion is not," she explains, "It is much more possible to unite people through music than religion, really, because I think religion divides people too much. 'My God is better than your God.' This sort of idea. But once you bring music in, there is such joy and such beauty, such soul in music ..."
I ask her are there any Christmases that stick out in her memory.
"The day we all got racing bikes. That was really cool. I was 12." On Christmas Day, they all went for a cycle to the factory across the road from their house. It had a huge car park. That was, she recalls, super exciting because they hadn't asked for the racing bikes and they had absolutely no idea they were getting them. Their parents hid the bikes in the narrow alleyway around the side of the house. And when Jean and Gerry gave them their presents, Sharon describes the look on her and Andrea and Caroline's faces "as pure joy. Racing bikes were so cool at the time."
"Some of my favourite Christmases are the quietest Christmases where it is just the four of us," Sharon says meaning herself, husband Gavin, who is from Belfast, and their two young children - Cathal Robert Gerard, born on March 31, 2006, and daughter, Flori Jean Elizabeth, born on July 18, 2007. "It's the simplicity. Just two presents each for the kids. They just immerse themselves in those two presents."
Sharon is clearly conscious of not spoiling her children. "If you want to get anything in life, you have to work really hard," she says, "and I think you set that example from the ground up. I don't think that you all of a sudden introduce it later on in their lives. During the Celtic Tiger, I was seeing 16-year-olds walking around with Christian Dior bags. I just thought, 'That's obnoxious. They have nothing to aspire to.'" Sharon says that when she was a teenager and the first time she could afford something nice - "it really meant something to me. I really appreciated it."
She can remember putting money down on a skirt for months in a store in Dundalk. "It was a gorgeous green skirt. It wasn't Gucci. But it was more than I could afford. I put money down per week. I just believe in those values, because I don't think you get any enjoyment from something that you get too easy." (Sharon says her pocket money when she was very young was about 20 pence, with which she would go and buy 20 penny sweets at the local shop after Sunday Mass.)
"Because I was travelling so much around the world with The Corrs, I would come back to Dublin and I would see the changes during the Celtic Tiger. You go into the Four Seasons hotel and there would be a debs and they would be all wearing Christian Dior or Vera Wang. I'd be like - 'That's for your wedding, if you could ever afford it. It's not for your debs.' And then, I feel for those kids now because they've come from having everything to now, 'OhMyGod! It's not there any more.'"
I ask her what did she wear to her debs.
"I didn't go to my first debs because I was suspended."
She used to go on the hop from school a lot?
"No. I went once, but I was caught. Listen, I do anything once, I get caught! I'm too honest. I mitched twice, actually," she says of being absent from school without permission. "My mum knew I was a good girl and I wasn't really up to anything. So it was kind of innocent. I went to a friend's house and we watched Elvis Presley videos. Nothing wrong with that. It was a boy, actually. So I got suspended for mitching and not being able to go to my debs was part of the punishment."
Asked how she felt about missing her debs, Sharon says now, "I didn't really care. I thought it was b******t anyway, honestly. What is it? Coming out? I'm out! I don't really get the idea of it. It seems to be an over-hang from the aristocracy in England."
Be that as it may, Sharon Corr did eventually go to her debs a year later. "I repeated my Leaving Certificate in a boys' school," she explains. "I was in a convent for my secondary education and I was very young to come out of second level and go to third level. I was too young. I was 16. So I didn't do as well as I should of in my exams because I was bit lazy. I didn't do very well in my Leaving Cert overall. So mum and dad said, give it another go. So I went to a boys' school. Nine girls - 300 boys! That's where I met my two best friends, Caroline Keelin and Gillian Callan. It was a very unusual situation. 300 boys and nine girls. So we had to stick together."
So were she and Caroline and Gillian the most chatted-up girls in history? "Not really! The boys were extremely shy around us. They clammed up. And we were such novelties in school. It was very good education for me, socially, because I really hadn't been exposed to boys at that stage, coming from a convent school. I had to work out how to navigate this completely new territory. I grew up a lot in that year."
And as for her debs, Sharon brought her then-boyfriend Damon. "He was a punk. He spent an awful lot of time in London. He was just a very interesting character," she recalls, "the total opposite of what anyone would have thought I would go for.
"I found him very, very interesting. A lovely guy. He loved books. He was a beautiful thinker. So I took him to my second debs. We were only together for a couple of months. I didn't go out with many guys. I just didn't. I was always about independence."
Sharon believes the sense of independence she possessed was because of her mother and the era that she was brought up in. "My mother came out of school to go to work. So that her five brothers could go into third-level education. My mother's father died young. The mother Lizzie was left to bring up 10 children. So her mother was a real hero."
I've known Sharon 17 years now and she is as far as you can get from the reductive idea of one of 'those nice girls, The Corrs.'
"The Corrs didn't exist when I met Gavin," she says of her husband whom she married in Co Clare on July 7, 2001. "He saw me and he got me. But Gavin comes from a family where the women are very respected. His mother," Sharon says referring to Betty, "is a great, strong woman, a strident woman." There was, says Sharon, no question of her taking a lesser role in life. "She worked her whole life and brought the children up through the Troubles in Belfast. Her husband was an amazing man - completely unconventional as well. He came from a discipline of admiring and respecting women. So he [Gavin] had no problem being with me, because in actual fact, that is what he would have been attracted to: a strong woman. He doesn't need a woman to fulfil certain roles in order to feel better about himself."
Perhaps like Sharon and Gavin themselves, their marriage is hardly the most conventional. She is away on tour a lot around the world (she is off to Australia in February for a month); he is a barrister in Belfast. So, how does their marriage physically work?
"I think both of us are very attracted to doing things differently. We are very attracted to the buzz that you get off the fight that you need to have to make something work. If love's not there, you're wasting your time. If love is there, anything is possible. That's why it works. Touch wood, I have so much respect for this relationship; I want it to work forever. As long as he's feeling loved and respected, and I'm feeling the same, then that can work ..."
The first time Gavin walked up the driveway in Dundalk to see Sharon in 1995, her mother looked out the window and said to Sharon: "I wouldn't mind him myself."
"We were in the front room," Sharon smiles now, "and she was peeking through the curtains."
Did Gavin notice the curtain move?
"I don't know! But I told him the story afterwards. Himself and my mum got on like a house on fire. Again, it was that thing that Gavin had this innate respect for women. She knew it immediately when she met him. I'll always remember him walking up the driveway. He was super-handsome."
Jean passed away on November 24, 1999, in the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where she was being treated for a rare lung condition.
Christmas must be forever coloured for Sharon by the fact that Jean died coming up to the festive season? (Indeed there is a song called Christmas Night, on Sharon's new album The Same Sun, that echoes that sadness.) Does the pain of her mother's death ever get any easier?
"It gets easier if you channel your mind in a different direction. You literally have to work your own mind to deal with things," she says, "and once you realise in life you can do that, you can make things easier. I make Christmas smaller. I make it about the children. Not about the loss. I make it about what is standing right in front of you, the beauty that is right in front of you, believing in all the magic of Christmas. So I have to refocus it. I'm a mum now. My mum loved Christmas for us. I would be doing her an injustice by not focusing on my children.
"My kids asked me about her a lot," Sharon continues, "and every so often Flori will say to me: 'I think nanny Jean is here.' You know, maybe she is."
"With Gavin's dad dying recently," she says of Bob Bonnar who passed away in November (Sharon gave the eulogy at the Requiem Mass in St. James's Church in Belfast that moved everyone to tears), "what we're saying to the children is: 'He's not really gone. Because he made Gavin and Gavin and I made you. So therefore Bob is in you.' That's the way I look at it with Jean, my mum," Sharon says, pulling her coat up around her and walking out into the cold afternoon air.
The phenomenal rise to stardom of The Corrs
The Corrs are a band of siblings from Dundalk who combine rock with traditional Celtic Irish folk within their music. The group consists of Andrea (lead vocals, tin whistle); Sharon (violin, vocals); Caroline (drums, percussion, piano, bodhrán, vocals); and Jim (guitar, piano, keyboards, vocals).
The band formed in 1991 and have released five albums and numerous singles, which have gone platinum around the world. Talk on Corners, their most successful album to date, was the highest selling album of 1998 in the UK. They are the only act in history to hold the top two positions simultaneously in the UK album charts, with Talk on Corners at number one and Forgiven, Not Forgotten at number two.
In 2005 they were awarded honorary MBEs for their contributions to music and charity. The band is currently inactive. Andrea and Sharon have both embarked on solo music careers, while Andrea also tried her hand at acting. Jim, meanwhile, is a member of the 9/11 Truth Movement and operates a website where he writes about the New World Order, including the idea that the September 11 attacks were an 'inside job' by the US government.