The passing of Sinéad O’Connor last week shocked the world and rekindled discussions about the urgency of treating mental health issues, writes Jenny LeComte.
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses mental health issues and suicide
IRISH singer-songwriter, political activist and warrior queen, Sinéad O’Connor, spent her entire life searching for meaning but sadly never really found it prior to her death at the age of 56. She trembled with the truths she felt compelled to tell and was a brave, often brash, polarising, divisive and cathartic figure.
She was born Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Dublin on 8 December 1966, later changing her name to Shuhada Sadaqat when she converted to Islam, although she continued to perform under the stage name of Sinéad O’Connor.
The third of five children, Sinéad had a horrific childhood and was plagued with mental health issues throughout her life. At the age of 15, she was placed in a Magdalene asylum for 18 months because her shoplifting and truancy had gotten out of control. Discussing her experience in later life, Sinead said of her time in the asylum, “I have never – and probably will never – experience such panic and terror and agony over anything”.
In June 1993, Sinéad wrote a letter to The Irish Times in which she alluded to extreme physical and mental abuse by her mother. This was later confirmed by her brother, Joseph.
She poignantly wrote:
‘If only I can fight off the voices of my parents and gather a sense of self-esteem, then I’ll be able to REALLY sing.’
She said later that month:
“Our family is very messed up. We can’t communicate with each other. We are all in agony. I, for one, am in agony.”
From about the age of 15, Sinéad became interested in music as a means of sublimating her awful childhood. Through an ad she placed in Hot Press in 1984, Sinéad met world music aficionado Colm Farrelly and was eventually signed to Ensign Records.
Sinéad also acquired an excellent manager, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, formerly the head of U2’s record company. Her first major breakthrough was a song called ‘Heroine’. Co-written by U2’s guitarist, The Edge, the song featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 movie, Captive.
Around this time, Sinéad became enamoured of the Provisional IRA, widely regarded as a terrorist organisation, publicly defending their actions. She later retracted her comments, saying they were based on nonsense and she was “too young to understand the tense situation in Northern Ireland properly”. Nevertheless, she drew heavily on Irish history in her music and this is evident in such songs as ‘Famine’ (1994).
Over the next few years, Sinéad continued to evolve as a singer and attracted the attention of larger record companies and more prestigious managers.
‘Sinéad O’Connor’s voice is one of the most extraordinary you will ever hear — whether in full flight as a singer, or full flight as a woman, mother, activist, writer and friend. Sinéad was a keener — crying for Ireland and our woes, our warrior queen. She was intensely spiritual and under the armour was a kind, generous and sweet woman.’
Manager Simon Napier-Bell described Sinéad as an outstanding performer and one in a million:
‘I love red hot people, and she was fire — I love playing with fire. One of the problems with management is you take a new artist, you make them a huge success and it gets very boring. Now they’re playing gigs and making lots of money; you make a million a year but it’s not as fun as when you were breaking them. I felt she was an artist where that excitement would continue — she felt like an artist who meant something.’
During her career, Sinéad released ten studio albums including her critically acclaimed 1987 debut, The Lion And The Cobra, which gained worldwide attention and charted internationally. The single ‘Mandinka’ was a huge college radio hit in the United States.
Sinéad achieved a worldwide number-one hit in 1990 with ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, penned by Prince. The accompanying video features the elfin singer with a shaved head, deathly pale skin and piercing grey eyes staring straight at the camera. The vocals were both chilling and brilliant with the artist pining for her lost love. The single sold more than 3.5 million copies, garnered four Grammy nominations and one award. Billboard named the song Best World Single for 1990.
However, Sinéad was far from being a typical pop star and refused to conform to what the music industry appeared to expect from her. She decided to shave her head when music industry representatives indicated that she was not pretty enough and refused to accept her Grammy Award. She described the prestigious awards ceremony as a commercial exercise not conducive to art.
“The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act,” Sinéad told the New York Times in 2021. “It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison. You have to be a good girl.”
Sinéad also became both famous and infamous for her outspoken views on human rights, racism, organised religion, war and women’s rights. She was a passionate political activist who promoted a range of often unpopular causes and used her fame for the greater good.
Theatre manager Stephen Faloon said:
“Not only is she a musical genius, the most talented songwriter, [but] politically, she was a trailblazer. She spoke up about things before they were acknowledged in the public. So much bravery, so much courage, so fearless. The world has lost a brilliant person.”
Shortly after ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ topped the UK charts in 1990, Sinéad wore a Dublin AIDS Alliance t-shirt on a popular Irish talk show. This came at a time when little was known about HIV/AIDs and sufferers were often stigmatised.
“Many people living with HIV recall, years later, the profound impact of seeing Sinéad in the T-shirt and listening to her advocating for people living with HIV and Aids who felt judged, marginalised and frightened.”
Sinéad had a strong spiritual side and explored Irish goddess worship, Rastafarianism, Buddhism and, in her later years, Islam. In 1999, she was ordained as a priest by the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, a breakaway group that allowed women to enter the priesthood. Sinéad consistently spoke out about child abuse by the clergy and the continued cover-up by the Catholic Church — many years before others had the courage to come forward.
During a 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Sinéad famously ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II after performing an acapella version of the 1976 Bob Marley song, ‘War’. At the time, she was wearing a necklace with the Rastafari star and a scarf with the Rastafari and Ethiopian colours. As she ripped up the photograph, Sinéad sang “evil”, said “fight the real enemy” and threw pieces of the ripped photograph at the camera.
The audience was so shocked that nobody applauded or booed. There was dead silence. Sinéad was later found in her dressing room, according to a witness, “talking to herself”.
The witness added:
“Her hands were behind her back, she had her socks on and she was doing something between poetry and chanting.”
Sinéad later revealed in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, that she had taken the photograph off her mother’s bedroom wall after her death and waited for the right moment to destroy it as a protest against the physical abuse she suffered as a child.
It could be fairly said that the Saturday Night Live incident probably killed Sinéad’s career stone dead, particularly in the more religious areas of the United States. NBC received 900 calls about it, with only seven people supporting Sinéad. The following week, Saturday Night Live guest Joe Pesci, who was raised as a Catholic, held up a taped-up copy of the photograph Sinéad had destroyed, to thunderous applause.
“I think there is a better way to present her ideas than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people... If she is against the Roman Catholic Church and she has a problem with them, I think she should talk about it.”
At a 30th-anniversary tribute concert for artist Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden, held two weeks after her appearance on Saturday Night Live, Sinéad was loudly booed and had to be comforted by Kris Kristofferson. He reportedly told her not to “let the bastards get you down”.
Sinéad replied, “I’m not down” but the boos continued. Sinéad then decided not to perform ‘I Believe In You’ because the hecklers were too loud and instead screamed an improvised rendition of ‘War’, after which she burst into tears. Kristofferson put his arm around her and gently led her offstage.
Despite her notoriety, Sinéad continued to perform, tour and record well into the 2020s. Her personal life, however, was plagued with difficulties. Diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to childhood abuse and borderline personality disorder, Sinéad began to experience suicidal thoughts that she spoke publicly about — perhaps in an attempt to destigmatise the issue.
In August 2015, Sinéad underwent a radical hysterectomy that she said flung her into surgical menopause.
“Hormones were everywhere,” she said. “I became very suicidal. I was a basket case.”
Unlucky in love, Sinéad married and divorced four times, bearing four children. One of these children, Shane, took his own life in 2022 at the age of 17. It has been suggested that Sinéad never really recovered from her son’s death and this was what finally pushed her over the edge. At the time of writing, however, no medical cause of death has been given.
Sinéad’s passing prompted the usual flow of tributes.
The absolute best tribute to Sinéad – and, arguably, the best tribute for any artist ever – came from alternative musician Morrissey. In a lengthy, often biting piece, Morrissey blasted the hypocrisy of the music industry that abandoned Sinéad in life and fawned upon her following her passing.
She had only so much “self” to give. She was dropped by her label after selling 7 million albums for them. She became crazed, yes, but uninteresting, never. She had done nothing wrong. She had proud vulnerability... and there is a certain music industry hatred for singers who don’t “fit in” (this I know only too well), and they are never praised until death — when, finally, they can’t answer back. The cruel playpen of fame gushes with praise for Sinéad today... with the usual moronic labels of “icon” and “legend”. You praise her now ONLY because it is too late. You hadn’t the guts to support her when she was alive and she was looking for you.
The press will label artists as pests because of what they withhold... and they would call Sinéad sad, fat, shocking, insane... oh but not today! Music CEOs who had put on their most charming smile as they refused her for their roster are queuing-up to call her a “feminist icon”, and 15 minute celebrities and goblins from hell and record labels of artificially aroused diversity are squeezing onto Twitter to twitter their jibber-jabber... when it was YOU who talked Sinéad into giving up... because she refused to be labelled, and she was degraded, as those few who move the world are always degraded. Why is ANYBODY surprised that Sinéad O’Connor is dead? Who cared enough to save Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday? Where do you go when death can be the best outcome?
Was this music madness worth Sinéad’s life? No, it wasn’t. She was a challenge and she couldn’t be boxed up, and she had the courage to speak when everyone else stayed safely silent. She was harassed simply for being herself. Her eyes finally closed in search of a soul she could call her own. As always, the lamestreamers miss the ringing point and with locked jaws, they return to the insultingly stupid “icon” and “legend” when last week, words far more cruel and dismissive would have done. Tomorrow the fawning fops flip back to their online shitposts and their cosy Cancer Culture and their moral superiority and their obituaries of parroted vomit... all of which will catch you lying on days like today... when Sinéad doesn’t need your sterile slop.
In a 1997 interview, when asked what advice she would give to people aspiring to the music industry, Sinéad said:
“Learn how to say no straight off. You don’t have to look like the makeup artist wants. Trust your instincts. You will have to sever professional relationships with people and you’ve got to learn not to feel like a bastard. At the end of the day, it’s your name on the thing and it’s down to you.”
If you would like to speak to someone regarding mental health or suicide, please contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.