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Remembering Sinead O’Connor

I was seven years old when I watched Saturday Night Live for the first time on television. It had previously been banned under the apartheid censorship laws and in 1992, I was finally able to engage in this wondrous thing I had only ever heard about from my penpal in the US. I was excited to watch Sinead O’Connor on stage and during her cover of Bob Marley’s War, as she sang “And we know we shall win/As we are confident in the victory/Of good over evil,” she held up a picture of then-pope John Paul II and tore it to pieces right in front of the single camera that was fixed on her face.

People now may only remember the 56-year-old icon as the woman who sang Nothing Compares 2 U, which is a cover of Prince’s 1985 hit for his side project called, The Family. But I remember her as a revolutionary. Born Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Dublin, Ireland, she released her first album, The Lion and the Cobra in 1987, which reached gold record status, earning a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nomination. Although she started in the 1980s, O’Connor rose to prolificness in the 1990s and made her first foray into cinema, starring in and writing the music for the Northern Irish film Hush-a-Bye-Baby, which dealt with one girl’s story during The Troubles – a thirty-year Northern Irish nationalist conflict. After being placed in corrective school aged 15 after bouts of stealing – the An Grianán Training Centre in Dublin, previously a notorious Magdalene laundry for ‘fallen women’ – one of the nuns there spotted her musical talent and bought her a guitar and pushed her to have lessons. Through an advert in a Dublin music magazine, she met Colm Farrelly and together formed the band Ton Ton Macoute, which brought O’Connor to the attention of the global music industry.

O’Connor was always political and became an iconic and influential figure in the music industry, known for her powerful voice, emotionally charged performances, and thought-provoking songwriting, coupled with strong feminist imagery. She left a lasting impact on the music world with songs like Take Me to Church (no, nothing to do with Hozier, though he is very much inspired by O’Connor’s music and politics) and her voice was one of her most distinctive features. With its hauntingly beautiful tone and incredible range, her singing style captivated audiences worldwide. She effortlessly transitioned between soft and delicate melodies to intense, raw, and emotive vocal deliveries. O’Connor’s voice carried an incredible depth of emotion that resonated deeply with listeners, and her willingness to be open about her bisexuality came across in many of her lyrics. Describing herself as “three-quarters heterosexual and one-quarter gay”, her interest in women was not entirely spoken about in the press but was apparent in her love songs that were sometimes sexually ambiguous. 

Throughout her career, O’Connor was never afraid to express her authentic self. She challenged and tackled controversial issues through her music, performances, and politics. Her ripping up the photograph of the pope was not an anti-religious protest but one against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. This act sparked immense controversy but also raised awareness of the issue, which ran rife in the Republic of Ireland, where Catholicism is the majority denomination. Her introspective and socially conscious lyrics often explored themes of love, loss, spirituality, and personal struggles amidst a sea of political issues and her tenderness showed in every single performance. An untamed and almost feral spirit on stage, she was not afraid to speak and spoke out about having mental health issues because of physical and sexual abuse as a child. 

Two weeks after the Saturday Night Live appearance, O’Connor was set to perform “I Believe in You” at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert in Madison Square Garden but was greeted by cheers and jeers from the crowd. During the booing, fellow artist Kris Kristofferson told her not to “let the bastards get you down”, to which she replied, “I’m not down.” The noise eventually became so loud that O’Connor called for the music to stop and the microphone to be turned up, and screamed over the audience with an improvised, shouted rendition of War, which she stopped just after mentioning child abuse, looked straight to the audience for a second and left the stage. Kristofferson then recalled comforting her offstage as she cried. ​​There were protests, death threats, cancelled gigs and even a bulldozer used to flatten a pile of her records in Times Square in New York. Several years later, in 1999, O’Connor caused a religious uproar in Ireland again when she became a priestess of the breakaway Latin Tridentine Church – a position that was not recognised by the mainstream Catholic Church.

She later appeared on a British late-night television programme After Dark during an episode about sexual abuse and the Catholic church in Ireland with a Dominican friar and another representative of the Catholic church, along with then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald. O’Connor showed up unexpectedly and argued that abuse in families was coded in by the church because it refused to accept the accounts of women and children, which was inherently sexist. She received criticism from the public and her peers, including Madonna, who attacked O’Connor for fighting in the wrong way, essentially tone-policing an Irish woman about issues inside her own country. 

While Nothing Compares 2 U was her most famous hit and became a universal anthem of heartbreak and emotional vulnerability all her love songs conveyed a sense of vulnerability and honesty that became feminist in its tenderness and willingness to be vulnerable. I know she was to me but O’Connor was and still is an inspiration to countless women and femme artists and played a significant role in empowering women in the music industry. She demonstrated that women could be strong, outspoken, and successful in a male-dominated field. O’Connor’s influence encouraged other women to unapologetically express their creativity and ideas. 

O’Connor’s music blended elements of folk, rock, and alternative sounds, which contributed to shaping the alternative music scene of the 1990s. She opened the door for other artists who wanted to experiment with unconventional genres and push the boundaries of mainstream music, with a large impact on things like mental health discourse as well, which I clung to in the days when I didn’t understand my own mental illness. She was open about her struggles with mental health issues, which helped reduce the stigma around discussing mental health in the public sphere. In October 2007, O’Connor told Oprah that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years earlier, and had attempted suicide on her 33rd birthday in 1999. In 2014, O’Connor said that she had received three “second opinions” and was told by all three that she was not bipolar. She was also diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. Speaking frankly about her health in 2015, she announced that she was to undergo a hysterectomy after suffering gynaecological problems for over three years, almost yelling that medical maltreatment of women is all too common as she said the hospital’s refusal to administer hormonal replacement therapy after the operation was the main reason for her mental health issues in the subsequent years, stating “I was flung into surgical menopause. Hormones were everywhere. I became very suicidal. I was a basket case. Her willingness to share her experiences encouraged others to seek help and fostered a greater understanding of mental health challenges. 

Sinéad O’Connor’s influence on music goes beyond her artistic achievements. She used her platform to raise awareness about important issues, challenge societal norms, and created a space for honest and emotionally charged expression in the music industry. Her impact continues to be felt by artists and fans alike, making her an enduring and revered figure in the world of music. 

In 2018, O’Connor, while still performing under her stage name, reverted to Islam and changed her legal name to Shuhada’ Sadaqat and her death, which was announced by her family late on Wednesday, 26 July 2023, comes a year after her 17-year-old son, Shane took his life in January 2022 after escaping hospital while on suicide watch. At the time of her death, O’Connor was thought to be spending her time between Ireland and England. In her last Tweet, O’Connor posted a photo of Shane and said: “Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.” Her family has not released details of her death.

To the fierce Irish poet, singer, writer, and activist, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.