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Sinead O’Connor
Sinead O’ConnorPhotography Michel Linssen/Redfern

Sinéad O’Connor was never meant to be a pop star

‘They tried to bury me, they didn’t realise I was a seed’: There are endless lessons to be learned from the late, great singer – namely to live boldly, with kindness, and to never stop speaking truth to power

On a warm afternoon May 26, 2018, we celebrated a landslide national triumph for Ireland in the sweaty fug of an east London basement bar. Ireland had voted in favour of repeal, paving the way to legalise abortion. This was our last big Room for Rebellion, a party we had been running across London, Dublin and Belfast for the abortion rights movement. The victory soundtrack we chose to close was Sinéad O’Connor’s “Heroine”. “The night is long, but the day will come, with promises were the chosen one,” Sinéad keens across The Edge’s soaring guitars. As the results rolled in on the projector, we held each other close, cried, and pirouetted around the room. We wheeled “Heroine” up again. And again.

Sinéad O’Connor was never meant to be a pop star. It wasn’t part of her plan. “I was really a protest singer,” O’Connor, who has died aged 56, would say. More than that, she was a troublemaker, a trailblazer, a wicked sense of humour, a rarified figure of defiance in conservative Ireland, an Irish woman who aligned herself with the causes and movements of the most marginalised at her own expense, time and time again.

Despite her resistance to the religion of celebrity and fame, you can’t deny O’Connor’s starriest trait: her charisma. It glimmers in that piercing stare down the camera barrel on Saturday Night Life in 1992, age 26, as she ripped up an image of Pope John Paul II to denounce the Church’s shrouded system of child abuse. “Fight the real enemy” – a shattering statement. O’Connor confronted society with truths before it was ready to hear it, and its powers subsequently tried to destroy her. In the Christian biblical context ‘charisma’ means, quite literally, a gift or power bestowed upon a person by the Holy Spirit for the good of the people. O’Connor had that. It was for good, sooner than what society was quite ready for. She would often quote Lee Scratch Perry too, who said that music was a gift from the Holy Spirit.

“A lot of people think that tearing up the pope’s photo derailed my career,” she wrote in Rememberings, her raw, riveting, regretless 2021 autobiography. “That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” I have raved maniacally at people to read both the book and listen to the audiobook, which O’Connor narrates. Her childhood and past life are written in an all-encompassing, poetic present tense. It is electric with her dry wit, self-deprecation, and sharp observations. “I am a protest singer,” she emphasises. “I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.”

More than anything, O’Connor chronicles her life through a series of bombastic bad behaviour. She repudiated the path her record label was forging for her – whether that was condemning the powerful Catholic church, keeping her first pregnancy, or writing songs about the psychic amnesia around the Irish famine and the north. She slalomed the pop machine template for striking women with beautiful voices and stuck two fingers up. “I never signed anything that said I would be a good girl,” she writes. Her humour sparkles always: continually referring to her adversary Prince as “Ol’ fluffy cuffs”, and her incisive, hilarious dissection of Yeats’ work. After stating she didn’t want the US national anthem played before her gigs, she attended an anti-Sinéad O’Connor demo in disguise.

“The reason why people like me are singers is because we best communicate through songs,” O’Connor says. In ten studio albums, she articulated the fierce love she felt, female strength, and the frenetic power of truth-telling. After her Grammy-nominated debut The Lion & The Cobra, her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and 1990’s world-penetrating “Nothing Compares 2 U”, O’Connor embraced sean-nós, a beautiful traditional Irish singing style. Her Irish accent became more prominent, and other Irish artists followed suit. On the Blindboy podcast in 2021, she describes the communal, purpose-driven feel of it. “The ghosts of the songs came into me and said, ‘here bitch, you’re meant to be singing us’,” she says. She is, she says, a “Stanislavski method singer”, which, fused with her emotive bel canto voice training, made magic. She took that from pop to folk, jazz, soul, and reggae. “Our job as artists is to be ourselves. And, in doing so, to inspire other people to be themselves,” she says.

She radiated a coolness, an innate sense of defiant style and attitude. See the photo with her large pregnant belly, pulling taut a t-shirt that reads ‘WEAR A CONDOM’. Another where she sits cross-legged in a playful pose with a “RECOVERING CATHOLIC” tee. Her shaved skull reflected her sublime, insolent nakedness of emotion and rebellion. “I looked like an alien,” she recalls of that first cut. Apt, for someone barely of this world. So cool, and still, never reducible to just that.

O’Connor’s breaking of silence was a catalyst and precursor for change, but it would often bring her ridicule and disdain. She was a vocal ally for the Dublin AIDs Alliance and spoke up for the X Case, and stood against the racist sidelining of hip hop in the music industry, sporting the Public Enemy logo on her shaven head at the Grammys. Just in March, she dedicated an award to Ireland’s refugee community.

Her track was always truth-telling – about the world and herself. We can’t write tributes and mourn O’Connor without addressing the structures that punished her in such a protracted, cruel format. She suffered openly, sharing her struggles with mental health, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress. She showcased vulnerability online before it became the internet dialogue du jour. And this world wasn’t – and still very much isn’t – a place to hold space for such suffering. Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe. Yet community mental health services are scarce and spending is low. Every day, people slip through the net. Kathryn Ferguson’s spitfire documentary Nothing Compares traces O’Connor’s story, and the trajectory of women who “stick their heads above the parapet”. In O’Connor’s name, we have to keep telling those truths.

That she was looking to the future not so long ago, new music in her midst, is painful. Ireland, the pop machine, and the world stage are very different today, but we can move forward with her fervour and integrity. She equips us for living against the grain, for speaking truth to power. She’ll reverberate through the rebel yells of Ireland and beyond, and live in the voices made hoarse by the “Jerusalem” chorus howled across the world by those who loved her long and who might be coming to her for the first time this weekend. Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor, Shuhada’ Sadaqat, says: “They tried to bury me, they didn’t realise I was a seed”. Suaimhneas siorai, sleep in peace.

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