I don’t know no shame,” Sinéad O’Connor sang in “Mandinka,” her first hit song, from her 1987 debut album The Lion and the Cobra, “I feel no pain.” If the first claim was true—which for anyone raised Catholic anywhere is a skyscraper-sized “if”—the second was demonstrably false. Sinéad O’Connor’s life and career and art were about pain: exorcising it, escaping it, endlessly searching for ways to transcend her own and to spare future generations theirs. Yet, relief and reprieve eluded her as loss and abuse repeatedly struck her life, persisting until the very end. The news of her passing today, at the remarkably young age of 56, just a year and a half after her son Shane's death, comes as both a shock and an inevitability."
As an artist, she was the voice of an Ireland summoning the power to shake off a theocracy. At the time of her birth in 1966, the Catholic Church maintained such sway over the Irish government that divorce and remarriage were forbidden (and remained so until 1995), so her father had to emigrate to America after leaving her mother. Such a thing as a “home for fallen women, operated by nuns” existed—a “Magdalene laundry,” as they were known—and Sinéad was sent to one at age 15 for shoplifting. It gave her a chance to work on her music, which is the bright side.
She made her American debut as a backup singer for World Party, a group that was formed by members of the renowned British-Irish band The Waterboys. She’s there in the video for their first single “Private Revolution,” and she steals the show with the shaved head and the joy she expresses. You can’t hear her exactly, but there is ecstatic release in the dancing.
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The next year saw the release of The Lion and the Cobra, and while "Mandinka" became the album's first big single, it wasn't the album's first single; instead, it was "Troy," whose video appeared on an early episode of MTV's 120 Minutes. It’s a six-and-a-half-minute song, one that has movements, none of which would have gotten played on the radio. “Troy” is a howl of a song, the arrival of a singular artist. A statement.
“When I moved to Dublin in the late ‘80s, Sinéad O’Connor was the only cool Irish person I could think of,” says Irish actor and writer Tara Flynn. “Maybe Phil Lynott, but that was it. She was the coolest, most outspoken, most beautiful person you could think of.” The Lion and the Cobra also contained “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” a song that speaks to her coolness, a song whose remix was way ahead of the “pop songs with rap breaks” curve.
She broke through globally with a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but you know that already. You have heard how she turns a breakup song into an expression of pure mourning, how she goes through all five Kubler-Ross stages of grief and then goes back and adds three more. It was huge in 1990, inescapable really, in a way no artist could replicate.
All but the very smartest artists would try anyway.
Sinéad didn't hold back. In 1992, she released "Am I Not Your Girl?," an album featuring jazz standards, and during its promotional tour, she appeared on Saturday Night Live where the unforgettable moment you're familiar with occurred. You’ve seen the big moment, the “fight the real enemy,” the ripping apart of the photograph of Pope John Paul II. But have you watched the performance? The pure, clear-eyed rage? The determination? The absolute bravery of going on SNL to do this song at all, much less a cappella? Legendary.
And as for the ripping of the picture: we knew she was right, even then. “When she got international fame, she spoke out against the Catholic Church,” Flynn says, “and that’s something not many of us were ready to do. I wasn’t.” The global press tortured her, Frank Sinatra said “For her sake, we’d better never meet.” You got the impression that was pretty much it for her commercially in the States and that it was perfect for her. She continued to put out albums, some of which combined catharsis with pop perfection, like "No Man's Woman" from the year 2000.
She also continued to look for relief from the pain of her abusive childhood and her perhaps more abusive relationship with fame. Though she was outspoken in her criticism of the Catholic Church, she never fully left faith behind. She was ordained a priest in the Irish Orthodox Catholic Church and called herself Mother Bernadette Mary for a time, before changing her name to Magda Davitt, then converting to Islam and changing her name yet again, to Shuhada Sadaqat. Ten years ago, having heard that Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video was inspired by her own “Nothing Compares 2 U,” O’Connor wrote Cyrus an open letter that deserves to be read in full. But here’s a representative sample:
None of the men ogling you give a shit about you, do not be fooled. Many's the woman mistook lust for love. If they want you sexually that doesn't mean they give a fuck about you. All the more true when you unwittingly give the impression you don't give much of a fuck about yourself. And when you employ people who give the impression they don't give much of a fuck about you either. No one who cares about you could support your being pimped … and that includes you yourself. Yes, I'm suggesting you don't care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don't encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and its associated media.
She was candid and open about the impact the Pope incident had on her career. “People say ‘oh, you fucked up your career,’ but they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine. It meant I had to live my life playing, and I am born for live performance.”
Ireland on the day of Sinéad’s death is vastly different from the country she was born into. Abortion is legal, and gay marriage is the law of a land where homosexuality was illegal until 1993. A once-repressive country has become one of the world’s most progressive. “There is no Ireland moving away from the Church as we have without Sinéad,” says Flynn. “There is no me speaking out about abortion, there are none of the many ways legislation has changed in this country.”
“It’s almost impossible to put into words what Sinéad meant to Ireland,” says Hugh O’Conor, who directed her 2015 video “8 Good Reasons.” “She was a true artist who sang from her raging soul, she was perhaps our most gifted songwriter and musician.” O’Conor recommends the recent O’Connor documentary Nothing Compares, directed by Kathryn Ferguson, streaming now on Hulu and Paramount+. “It’s worth seeking it out to witness her fierce strength and unforgettable fire. It’s such an immense loss.”
“The Church that she bucked against is still very vivid in this country, the secrecy and the control of it is still revealing itself in people’s family lives,” Flynn says. “The bullshit is still unfolding. She stood up square against it. People laughed, people ridiculed her because they weren’t ready to stand up to the misogyny of the Catholic Church. But everything she said about them, everything that she said about mental health, it was true. Everything.”
Tara Flynn and I get off the phone, and twenty minutes later, she sends me a WhatsApp.
A single word.