THE FACT OF THE MATTER
I met Sinead O’Connor in 1991 when – with her toddler son Jake – she arrived one day in the offices of The Sunday Tribune, where I was an assistant editor. The paper’s editor, Vincent Browne, had offered to show her around the newsroom.
Joseph O’Connor, Sinead’s older brother, was a columnist on the Tribune – before becoming a global best-selling novelist – and had been Sinead’s introduction to Browne.
She was introduced to all of us on her newsroom tour. She was petite and pretty as a picture with those searing eyes, wonderful cheek bones and most generous of smiles. And, of course, her shaved head. She was beautiful, both inside and out.
“So, what do you do?” she asked with that smile. Somewhat overcome by her presence – although I have interviewed many famous people – I simply blurted out: “I help the editor.”
She smiled. “That’s good. It’s good to help people.”
She came back to the paper intermittently over the next year. By then an international star, she would always stop for a chat. And then the whole tearing up Pope John Paul II picture thing on American television’s Saturday Night Live came crashing down.
Born Sinead Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Glenageary, Co. Dublin, in December 1966, the singer had a difficult childhood, bullied at school for being ‘different’. Her mother Marie suffered mental health issues – her father walked out on them –and Marie died in a car crash in 1985. As a teenager, Sinead was placed in Dublin’s An Grianan Training Centre, once one of the notorious Magdalene laundries set up to incarcerate girls deemed promiscuous.
One nun bought her a guitar and set her up with a music teacher – which led to her musical career.
Sinead released her first critically acclaimed album, The Lion And The Cobra, in 1987. Her follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, included Nothing Compares 2 U. Written by Prince, the song reached No.1 globally. She released 10 studio albums between 1987 and 2014. In 1991, she was named Artist Of The Year by Rolling Stone magazine and took home the Brit Award for International Female Solo Artist.
The following year, she ripped up that picture of the Pope on US TV, where following, a rendition of Bob Marley’s War, she looked at the camera and said “fight the real enemy” – a reference to child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Consequently, she was banned for life by broadcaster NBC and protests saw copies of her records destroyed in New York’s Times Square.
“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she told the New York Times in 2021.
The affair, though, effectively torpedoed her career.
Converting to Islam in 2018, she changed her name to Shahada Sadaqat, but continued to perform under her given name. She published a memoir, Rememberings, in 2021.
In January 2022, her 17-year-old son Shane was found dead by suicide. She paid tribute to Shane in one of her recent final tweets, calling him “the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves”.
All her life experiences were etched into her music. I Am Stretched On Your Grave is a hauntingly beautiful song about love and loss while Three Babies, from her debut album, laid bare her sorrow after she had suffered several miscarriages. She also took on other people’s pain. Her breakthrough single, Mandinka, contained oblique references to female genital mutilation. Black Boys On Mopeds addressed US police brutality against Black men, two years before the LA riots thrust the issue into the spotlight.
Sinead O’Connor did not pull punches. Not with her voice, nor her ideas, nor her troubles, nor her rage, nor her sorrows, nor her faith. She flaunted raw passion and raw nerve. Her singing encompassed cathartic extremes: lullabies and imprecations, sighs and soarings. She made bold, intemperate public statements, like with the Pope’s picture and dressing in clerical garb and then in converting to Islam.
She was a voice for victims of abuse and displacement, offering comfort and righteousness. She boldly called out injustices. She was an idealist, not a provocateur. She too suffered. Publicly. With the music business, with unforgiving journalists, with personal pressures and with mental health.
“Everyone wants a pop star, see?” she wrote in her 2021 memoir. “But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.”
I saw her one time more. On the seafront in Wicklow, about nine years ago. We exchanged pleasantries. She was still beautiful and fearless.