Sinéad O’Connor: A take-no-prisoners defiance in the face of trauma
Sinéad O’Connor, who has died at the age of 56, was a uniquely expressive and individual voice at a pivotal moment in the history of modern Ireland.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, the singer’s family said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”
For many, she embodied a raw, take-no-prisoners defiance in the face of trauma and abuse. Others admired and loved her but were alarmed by her apparent mental fragility and vulnerability.
From the earliest stages of her musical career, she announced herself as a new and very different sort of female artist in a music scene defined and controlled by male expectations. By her early 20s, she had become an international superstar, but her fierce honesty about her personal beliefs, along with a refusal to remain silent about her own experience of trauma and mental health issues, meant she was incapable of playing the game which the global mass entertainment industry demands from performers.
It was a turbulent life from the beginning. A family separation, a troubled childhood and a rebellious adolescence, including 18 months of institutional incarceration in a Magdalene institution – “I steal everything. I’m not a nice person. I’m trouble,” she would recall in her memoir – were the prelude to an early creative flowering, when she discovered her voice as a writer and singer.
By her mid-teens she was already performing publicly and her voice was getting noticed. Characteristically, she was also already making comments about U2 (negative) and the Provisional IRA (positive) which made life difficult for her management. Equally characteristically, she was quick to acknowledge when she felt she had got such comments wrong.
Within a couple of years she was ascending international album charts with her first album, The Lion and the Cobra. Her second, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, reached further heights, but its career-defining song was not an original. The cover version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, with its memorable video by English film-makers John Maybury, brought to the world the close-up image, head shaven, a tear rolling down her cheek, that would resonate in the public imagination right up to the present day.
The world lay before her to be conquered but she had other ideas. She would not permit the US national anthem to be played at a concert in New Jersey, drawing the wrath of Frank Sinatra. She withdrew from the Grammys. Most famously, in 1992, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on US television show Saturday Night Live in protest against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Her commercial career never recovered and it is hard to argue her gender did not play a role in that.
“The industry has managed to completely pervert the idea of female liberation ...” she told The Irish Times Women’s Podcast 30 years later. “They’re giving little girls the idea that all they are worth is how they look.”
Record sales faltered, and there were personal difficulties – failed relationships, an overdose, a suicide attempt. But as the 1990s slipped into the 2000s, she still regularly re-emerged to recapture public attention, whether through new musical explorations or duets with artists from Peter Gabriel to Mary J Blige. She became a priest. She converted to Islam. She changed her name. Her fans and those who loved her were often concerned by social media posts that led to genuine fears for her safety. In 2007 she had told US talkshow host Oprah Winfrey she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, although later she said that diagnosis had been incorrect.
Her lyrical, funny, revelatory memoir Rememberings was published to widespread acclaim in 2021. A fine documentary about her life followed a year later. But sadness was never far away: her teenage son, Shane, died last year. And now Sinéad herself is gone from the stage too soon.