Strength, Fragility and a Lasting Legacy

A tribute to Sinéad O’Connor

By Eoin Meegan

The sad news of the passing of Sinéad O’Connor on July 26th came as a collective shock. It was almost like we lost a family member, someone we knew. Born in Pembroke Road, Dublin 4 on December 8th 1966 Sinéad grew up in Glenageary in South Dublin, and attended Dominican College, Zion Hill. When she was only 15 she was placed in a Magdalene asylum run by the Sisters of Charity for truancy and shoplifting. These early experiences gave shape to her life and the often complex and sometimes personal stories she conveyed in her songs and her music.

Sinéad O’Connor (Getty images)

After a brief sojourn with indie rock band Ton Ton Macoute in the mid 80s she swiftly embarked on a solo career, and was managed by Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh of U2 fame for a while. Her big break came with the release by Ensign and Chrysalis Records of the 1987 seminal classic The Lion and the Cobra, which included the instantly catchy and evocative Mandinka. The supernova that was to be Sinéad O’Connor had burst onto the world stage and it would never be quite the same again. Sinéad possessed an amazing tonal versatility as well as a precociousness that was breathtaking, with her willowy ability to hit every high, and evoke the deepest low. Mandinka was a smash hit on this side of the Atlantic, and even managed to be a big radio and college hit Stateside. The album still remains one of my favourites from her outstanding portfolio of brilliant work, containing such classics as Jackie, I Want Your (Hands on Me), which featured in the fifilm Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and Never Get Old, where she was joined by another Irish legend Enya. But the outstanding track for me and one of my all-time favourites from O’Connor’s songbook has to be Troy; evoking love, heartache, history, Yeats, betrayal and even war. It is a song that still today manages to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. The album and her arrival on the scene coincided with a time when Ireland too was coming of age, struggling to release itself from a dark murky past of unspeakable acts. Sinéad later claimed to have written those songs as therapy.

If The Lion and the Cobra heralded a new voice in pop, the follow up album, the 1990 I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which sold over seven million copies, and was acclaimed by the Bible of British Rock, the NME, to be the second best album of that year (No. 1 was Happy Mondays Pills ‘N’ Thrills & Bellyaches) cemented her place in rock history. From this gem the classic Nothing Compares 2 U emerged, a number penned by Prince but which Sinéad made her own, and which reached number 1 around the world. With its evocative lyrics, its sultry but very dramatic delivery, the song alone deserves all the accolades it received, but the video that accompanied it elevated it to another level, with the Dublin singer managing to transmit enough hurt and personal pain that was to endear people to her everywhere.

I Do Not Want… continued the themes of attempting to disentangle the strands of Nationalism, Catholicism, and all the hang-ups which she explored on her debut. It also contained gems like I Am Stretched on Your Grave (a 17th century Irish poem, with music by Philip King), and the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Marred by controversy throughout her career, some of which she courted, but much of which was unwanted, it undoubtedly left a strain. The much overplayed incident when she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992, should not be allowed to define her career. And although whatever the wisdom (or lack of) in looking back it was born out of her own anger and hatred of child abuse, which she claimed to have been a victim of at the hands of her mother, although the family dispute this. And while it’s probably an exaggeration to say it ruined her career, it certainly was a car crash from which she may never have fully recovered. Adding to this was her ongoing battle with mental and physical illnesses (she announced at one time that she had fibromyalgia, and also that she was diagnosed as bi polar).

While her career may have fluctuated somewhat, she continued to record and perform up until very recently, experimenting with various musical genres, including a jazz album (Am I Not Your Girl?), a reworking of popular Irish ballads, and reggae music which she loved. If Nothing Compares was to become her signature song, she interpreted many other great covers in her own inimitable way; the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classic, Sacrifice, and Cole Porter’s You Do Something To Me among that roll call. As is the haunting You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart, from the soundtrack to the 1993 film In the Name of The Father, a song written by Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer. And of course her totally unique and spine-chilling rendition of Silent Night, always a personal favourite whatever season it happens to be.

Like most of us in Ireland Sinéad was brought up a Catholic, and obviously had a religious, or at least a spiritual vein running through her. The title of her debut album is taken from Psalm 91:13. And while she had a fractious relationship with the Catholic Church and at one stage was ordained a priest by an order
which is not officially recognised by the Church in Rome. Then in recent years she converted to Islam and took the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat.

Throughout all this, and indeed through all of her troubled life no one can doubt her sincerity, as shown by her standing up for the marginalised, women in poorer countries and those whose rights are denied. Sinéad O’Connor became a voice for them all, for the disenfranchised, the lonely, those who are cast to the margins of society. The tragic loss of her son Shane in 2022 at only 17-years old was a devastating blow that resulted in her being hospitalised for a time.

She died at her home in London, on 26 July 2023, at the age of 56. Her family issued a brief statement on that evening announcing her death, without indicating a cause of death. London police reported that the death was not treated as suspicious.

Sincere tributes poured in from her colleagues and fellow musicians after the news broke, from Kate Bush to Morrissey, from Annie Lennox to Alison Moyet, and just about everybody in between. When we put all the controversy aside, what Sinéad will be remembered for ultimately is that voice, that one moment could roar like the fiercest lioness, and in the next be as soft as a feather falling on grass. The thing I found about listening to her music was the intimacy, you always felt as if you were the only person she was singing to, and that somehow, miraculously, she let you alone into her most inner heart and secrets.

She will be loved and remembered for a long time to come.