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My Favourite Things (MFT): July 27 | Sinéad
From the moment I first heard her fierce voice and mighty, fragile heart thru the radio in my teenage bedroom, Sinéad O'Connor has been one of my favourites. Oracle, prophet, pilgrim. Now, ancestor.
These weekly My Favourite Things (MFT) posts are available as a premium for paid subscribers only, but this one is free to all for what I hope are obvious reasons. It wasn’t what I’d had planned for today or this week or any day, but Sinéad has gone and here we are.
TW: suicide, abuse
She fought so hard to stay on this side of the Veil.
At least, that’s how it seemed from my vantage point as an observer and a fan for decades—since we both were teenagers.
Sinéad O'Connor has lost her fight and the world has lost someone incomparable.
O'Connor was an oracle. No, more like a prophet. Sometimes speaking in a still, small voice, other times roaring like a hurricane.
She was a kaleidoscope of contradictions, a fragile, gale-force of nature who possessed and channeled an eternal voice like none other. I’ve admired her for so many years, I can’t recall a time when the mention of the name Sinéad didn’t conjure her visage, the stories she told in song; her truth-speaking and pain, the depth of her artistry and of her faith.
Faith in herself and in the possibility of a better reality for everyone. Faith in a loving God and a beneficent universe, despite abundant first-hand evidence to the contrary.
She was a pilgrim soul who knew the Divine and kept seeking new ways to be aligned with the One, the Author of Love, Creator of All. Her spiritual journey took her from a genuine, deeply-rooted Roman Catholicism—in the 2022 documentary film about her life, Nothing Compares, she talks about vividly remembering her First Holy Communion (a portrait of her from the day is on the cover of her album, Throw Down Your Arms, pictured above) and how, as an eight year old, she believed she had made a covenant with the Holy Spirit and was determined to honor it—through Spiritualism, free-range Christianity, and mysticism to Rastafarianism, ordination as a priest in a renegade Catholic sect unaffiliated with Rome, and finally a conversion to Islam in 2018. A year earlier, she changed her legal name to Magda Davitt because she wanted “to be free of patriarchal slave names … and parental curses.” After she became a Muslim, she changed her name again to Shuhada' Sadaqat—the first name meaning “one who bears witness” in Arabic.
O’Connor believed in justice and in using her voice and influence to call out and confront injustice wherever, however, and whenever she saw it, no matter the consequences for her personally or professionally.
There are songs she sang about such injustices that are so deeply embedded in my soul that I sometimes find myself singing them quietly to soothe a disquieted heart. When our son encountered some gnarly racism a few years back, I hummed her “Black Boys on Mopeds” for months.
Since I learned that O’Connor had died in a text from a dear friend in Chicago while Wednesday morning was still young here in California, I’ve been time-traveling. Music and memory are intertwined in such a way that a few bars of a song can transport you to another time and place in an instant.
It’s 1987 and I’m standing in front of the American Eagle store at the mall where I worked when I hear, or at least really listen to for the first time, the song “Troy” —the first single off of O’Connor’s debut album The Lion and the Cobra. I don’t know that the album title is taken from a line in Psalm 91, nor do I know that she wrote “Troy” about her abusive mother who would lock her out of the house when she was a school girl, leaving her to sleep alone in the back garden.
I know you wanted me to be there oh oh
Every look that you threw told me so
But you should've left the light on
You should've left the light on
And the flames burned away
But you're still spitting fire
Make no difference what you say
You're still a liar
All I knew is that there was something in the sound of her voice—a fury and an innocence—that I understood. Spirit recognizes spirit. And in those moments, in that mall in suburban Connecticut, mine heard a kindred wounded soul.
I was 17. Sinéad had just turned 21.
Eighteen months later, I danced to “Mandinka” and howled along at the top of my lungs inside Medusa’s, an under-age nightclub not far from Wrigley Field. Dancing was, and is, a catharsis for me. When I was 18 and living more than a thousand miles away from the mother who had terrorized me throughout most of my childhood, dancing to Sinéad O'Connor was almost sacramental. Maybe not almost.
O’Connor had given me, and a generation of women around the globe, a kind of permission to use our voices and inhabit our bodies however we chose, without apology or caveat. She gave it by insisting we didn’t need permission in the first place. She spoke softly and sometimes appeared a bit demure in interviews during her early years of fame, but when she climbed on stage and stood in front of the microphone, she screamed and we screamed with her.
She defied categorization and confines, whether gender roles and expectations, musical genres or the playbook for how to behave as a rock star. Empire wanted her to be a well-behaved pop idol girl. She had no interest in empire, idolatry, or anyone else’s opinion about how she presented herself or lived her life. When they wanted her to dress provocatively, ramp up her “femininity,” and wear her hair long, she shaved her head. She kept it shaved for much of the rest of her life, even after she became a Muslim in what would be her last years and began wearing a hijab, underneath her headscarf was a buzzcut.
In 1987, in Ireland or Connecticut or most other locales throughout the world, Sinéad was radical. And she radicalized a lot of us, even if it took some of us much longer than others to fully manifest our inner O’Connor.
On Wednesday, I heard from so many women friends in our age group who were gutted by the news of her death. It’s as if Sinéad meant more to us and was more formative to our sense of liberation, autonomy, and selfhood than we perhaps realized. That is until suddenly she was gone. For many of us, the wave of grief has been as startling as it is profound.
“It’s just a cataclysmic loss,” my friend Jen wrote Wednesday evening. “I remember reading that the painter JWM Turner used to have himself lashed to the mast in boats out in terrible storms so he could be *in* the storm. Like she was. Sinéad was just *in* the world—no barrier, so vulnerable and yet able to make such art from it.
“It is fascinating and amazing how so many woman our age—Black, white, punks, hippies, urban, rural—are just wounded today,” Jen continued. “I hate that she’ll never see just how much we all loved and admired and were made stronger and happier by her.”
When O’Connor became pregnant at the age of 20 during the recording of her first album, she says the record company pressured her to have an abortion. She refused and her first child, Jake, was born the summer before The Lion and the Cobra dropped on October 25, 1987.
A few years later, when she became pregnant again—a planned pregnancy this time—and it became apparent that the father would not be on the scene by the time a baby arrived, she chose to have an abortion. (She also made her acting debut in the 1990 Irish film, Hush-A-Bye Baby, about a teenage girl facing an unplanned pregnancy.)
O’Connor went on to have three more children and was a vocal advocate for choice and bodily autonomy for every woman throughout the rest of her life. In fact, it was the way she spoke about that autonomy and how Irish women hadn’t had it in myriad ways—a conversation that caught fire with generations of women younger than us—helped shape the way I eventually came to think about reproductive rights.
She blamed some of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother (and in the school for “troubled” girls attached to a still-working Magdalene Laundry where she lived for a time as a teenager in the mid-1980s) on the Roman Catholic Church, which had a strangle-hold on Irish society—and women in particular—for generations. The Republic of Ireland is the product of a centuries-long struggle for independence and self-rule, but for decades after it won those freedoms—well into my lifetime and O’Connor’s—Ireland was a functional theocracy where women and girls were oppressed, controlled, and mistreated by the church and the state.
In the early 1990s, when it was still illegal to sell condoms to anyone under the age of 18 in Ireland, O’Connor was showing up at protests in Dublin demanding a national referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution, which criminalized abortion, saying she believed it would become legal “very soon.” She was off by about 30 years, but it did happen in her lifetime—in a definitive vote and only a few months before Ireland’s second papal visit, this time by Pope Francis, in 2018.
O’Connor railed publicly against clergy sex abuse of children in the Catholic Church more than a decade before the pedophile scandal rocked the church in the United States and around the world—including Ireland. She was calling church leaders on the carpet for protecting pedophile priests years before the Vatican admitted it was a problem or acknowledged its complicity. The scourge of clergy sex abuse ran rampant precisely because church officials refused to believe what women and children were saying about the abuse they suffered at the hands of priests and nuns, O’Connor insisted. She harbored a particular ire toward Pope John Paul II, who visited Ireland in 1979 when she was not quite 13 years old. Two-and-a-half million people turned out to see the young Polish pope—nearly three-quarters of Ireland’s population at the time.
Marie O’Connor, Sinéad’s mother and chief tormentor, had a photo of John Paul II from his papal visit to Ireland hanging on her bedroom wall. After her mother died in a car accident when Sinéad was 18, she took two things from her childhood home: Marie’s cookery book and the pope photo, she said in Nothing Compares.
Sinéad blamed Pope John Paul II for knowing about the clerical abuse of children and covering it up. Although she didn’t know what she would do with it, she held onto her mother’s photo of the pope for years.
After the critical and commercial success of her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, with its cover of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U” (and accompanying iconic music video), topped the charts all over the world, O’Connor was a bona fide superstar, if an unorthodox one. She famously refused to accept four Grammy nominations or the award she ended up winning for Best Alternative Music Performance—she remains the only artist ever to refuse a Grammy award. Her reason: She felt that the music industry, which she called “vampiric,” was materialistic and elevated sales over artistry, discouraging artists from creating music that challenged the status quo or spoke truth to power. She opposed The Gulf War and had caused a kerfuffle when she requested that the Star Spangled Banner not be played before a performance in New Jersey, as was the venue’s custom. Some radio stations, including one I grew up listening to in Connecticut, boycotted her music as a result.
In the fall of 1992, she released her third album, Am I Not Your Girl?, a collection of covers of jazz standards—she would later say that she had achieved a level of success with her first two albums that afforded her artistic freedom to go in radically new directions, that she “could make a record of farts” and the record company would happily put it out.
On the night of October 3, 1992, O’Connor was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. The actor Tim Robbins introduced her and, as clusters of tall white candles flickered in the background, she sang a cappella Bob Marley’s “War,” a reggae anthem based on a speech Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, delivered at the United Nations in 1963.
In her long-sleeved white lace dress, with a silver Magen David pendant hanging from her slender neck, she sang the last words of the song—“We have confidence in the victory of good over evil,” staring straight into the camera lens, then held up a photo of Pope John Paul II and ripped it into several pieces, adding: “Fight the real evil.”
It was that photo, the one from her mother’s bedroom. I didn’t know that until I watched her documentary last year, thirty years after the fact. Context is everything.
The outrage and backlash against her performance unleashed a tsunami of hatred. People still say it effectively “ended” her career. (She went on to make seven more studio albums and continued to perform around the world. Her final tour was in 2020, before COVID derailed live performances for a couple of years.) From her perspective, the aftermath of the pope-shredding on SNL was the course correction her life and spirituality needed. Super fame had been the aberration. Being true to herself and speaking out against gross injustice was her calling, not being a pop star.
“It was the proudest thing I’ve ever done as an artist,” she said of the Saturday Night Live performance in the superb Nothing Compares doc. “They broke my heart and they killed me, but I didn’t die. They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.”
The night she ripped up that picture, I was watching the broadcast live. It was shocking and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand why she did it or precisely what she meant by it at the time. But, something in my gut trusted her. I trusted her because I knew she told the truth and said things out loud that I wanted to say (but wouldn’t be able to say for many more years.) About living with and surviving an abusive mother. About emotional and spiritual abuse that were intertwined with violence and threats of violence. About institutional religion and professional Christians trying to control me by insisting I should or couldn’t do something because of my gender or politics or body or age.
As news of O’Connor’s death spread across social and traditional media on Wednesday, I was taken aback by how many people said aloud some version of, “She was right. She told us and we vilified her for it, but she was right.” Was it too late to apologize?
O’Connor was transparent about her struggles with mental illness throughout her adult life, and in her 2021 memoir Rememberings she revealed that she also suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child when the door on a moving train struck her in the head while she stood on a station platform. She was painfully public about having experienced suicidal ideation several times in the past, most recently after her 17-year-old son Shane died by suicide in January 2022. As of this writing late Wednesday night California time, no cause of death for O’Connor has been given publicly.
Some have attempted to use her struggles with mental health against her, calling her “crazy” to dismiss or diminish her words, activism, and accomplishments. But they have and will fail. Her legacy speaks for itself. There is no asterisk.
In her too-short 56 years, Sinéad O'Connor endured unimaginable suffering, grief, and personal catastrophes. She also achieved artistic greatness, prolifically created consciousness-changing music that will endure, inspire, inform, and perhaps even radicalize (in the best of ways) people throughout the world as long as there are ears to hear. She knew love, she knew God, she experienced grace and forgiveness, and she extended grace and forgiveness to others. She screwed up, made mistakes, owned them, apologized, and she tried really hard to keep going. She was flawed. She could be a pain in the ass. I’m told she was a reliable friend. She loved her children.
Sinéad was brave and she was courageous. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.
On June 10, 1993, eight months after the Saturday Night Live performance, O’Connor published an open letter to the public as a full-page ad in The Irish Times. She was 26.
My name is Sinéad O'Connor.
I am learning to love myself.
I am deserving.
I deserve to be treated with respect.
I deserve not to be treated like dirt.
I deserve to be listened to.
I am a member of the human race.
I deserve not to be hurt.
My name is Sinéad O'Connor.
I am a woman.
I have something to offer.
I am and have always been carrying a lot of grief for my lost childhood.
And for the effects of its horror and violence on my life.
I am grieving the loss of my mother and father.
I am grieving the loss of my brothers and sister.
The division of my family.
The loss of my SELF.
My own inner child
Who is really me.
(Remember you do not know me).
Who was tortured and abandoned and spat at and abused.
Who has been beaten naked until she was bruised.
Who has grown up with no sense of self-esteem.
No sense of trust.
No ability to be intimate
and who therefore is in very great pain
which needs to be looked at and worked through and expressed.
So that I can be free of its effects on my life.
Which are many and varied.
I have been experiencing the need to be held.
Which I have realized
Is the governor of all my behaviours.
Both productive and destructive.
This is why I didn't show up on Saturday...
I find it hard to be myself.
To show my feelings.
To get to the joy I need to release the pain which is blocking me.
If I don't do this I will not survive.
If I don't do this I'll never be the singer I am capable of being
if only I can love myself.
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.
Which is what I want more than anything else in the world.
Recovery has always been my only goal.
I have used my voice
in every way.
It is my life.
The only think I put even before my son.
I've run away from the pain of not having been held
For all my life.
And when the feelings of loss came up this time
I decided not to run away but to go with them.
Feel them and release them
So as to be free of them.
I had to be myself.
I couldn't deal with being "Sinéad O'Connor" for the day.
I have become very self-conscious and frightened
as a result of being "famous"
One doesn't see one's self reflected in the mirror.
I lost my Self.
I cannot sing
until I'm ready to be myself.
And here's how you could help.
Stop hurting me please.
Saying mean things about me.
I've been in public since I was only twenty.
Still a very sad baby.
But I could sing then
because I wasn't frightened.
I know I've been angry
but I'm full of love really
do you think you could stop hurting me?
It is suffocating me.
It's an accident that I got "famous".
But I think it proves that there
are a lot of people out there like me.
It is their pain, which they hear and see also in me—being expressed
which made them respond to that song or to my songs or my voice.
I represent a group of people.
Adult-Children we are called.
Those of us who have lost our childhoods.
We make up 96 percent of the human race believe it or not.
We are in very great pain.
Which if it is to be healed must be expressed
Or we will continue to turn our grief inwards as we do
until it becomes anger and we self-destruct.
The ways in which we do that are also many and varied!
What goes on in the sitting room goes on in the public arena.
War in Tibet, war in Africa, war in Ireland, war in Bosnia.
Do you know that the Serbian leader's
parents killed themselves when he was only a nipper.
And he is "acting out" the rage and grief he has never dealt with.
I swear to you that this is true.
What have the other leaders been through?
I've been trying to give this information.
Because I know it can help the whole human situation.
I was angry before because I was frightened.
I know if you could really listen
you'd see that we do not know what we are doing.
When we mock the expression of human feeling.
When we scoff at the sound of our children's keening.
There is a mirror into which we are not looking.
She signed it, “Love, Sinéad O’Connor”
In 2020, O’Connor toured the world once more, even bringing “Nothing Compares 2 U” out of retirement after many years of not performing it publicly. One of the most moving of her many heart-rending/wrenching performances over the years was broadcast on Ireland’s The Late Late Show on May 29, 2020.
It’s a prayer of thanksgiving. To God. To those she loves and who love her. To a world that, more often than not, didn’t deserve her.
Rest well, sweet sister, in eternal peace.
You are loved. You are whole. And now you know everything.
We will never forget you.
Some Important Sinéad O'Connor Links
The Kathryn Ferguson-directed 2022 documentary film about O’Connor’s life, Nothing Compares, is a must-see. You can find it Showtime (where it originally aired) and on AppleTV, Amazon Prime, YouTube and probably a lot of other places. I could not encourage you more strongly to see it.
In May 2021, Amanda Hess of the New York Times wrote an exquisite profile of O’Connor, “Sinéad O’Connor Remembers Things Differently,” that captures the singer in all her complexity as she rides out COVID lockdown alone in rural County Wicklow. It’s worth it for the turn it takes at the end, which I won’t spoil for you. I know not everyone has a subscription to the Times, but we do and are able to gift articles from time to time, so if you click on the link above, you can read it for free. Please do.
There are two O’Connor albums that, IMHO, don’t get nearly enough attention and that are hard to find on music streaming services: Throw Down Your Arms, her 2005 album of classic reggae songs; and 2007’s deeply spiritually eloquent Theology. Whatever you do, don’t miss the track Whomsoever Dwells. I’ll leave you with a video of her performing it live at Dublin’s The Sugar Club in 2006
Today and in the days and weeks to come, please remember Sinéad’s surviving children, Jake, Roisin, and Yeshua, her grandson, siblings, extended family, and all those who loved her best. May they each have what they need most in their grief.
And may her memory forever be for a blessing.
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