Sinead O'Connor, Sacrificial lamb
by Brian F. Cousins
Sinead O'Connor's death earlier this summer at the age of 56 was equally shocking and sad. Undoubtedly a huge talent and a musical and cultural icon to so many, her passing seems to symbolize the revenge of the values of an "Old Ireland" against those of the forward-looking "New Ireland," which has embraced secularism, plurality and tolerance.
Sinead O'Connor emerged as a raw talent by dint of an huge burst of creative energy that differentiated her from a very conservative and provincial Dublin in 1987. At 19, she largely wrote and produced her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, recorded in London as she was about to give birth to her first child. She was emerging from a culture that celebrated and almost demanded conformity. Yet her vision and ambition led her to go beyond the narrow perimeters that would have been available to a teenager in Dublin. She had fired the original producer of the album, rerecorded it herself and had hit upon a mix of musical elements that incorporated straight forward rock, nascent hip-hop and classical string elements that supported her unique voice and songwriting. While not "difficult" or self-conscious, this music was her own and she emerged a fully-formed individual, an artist with her own direction. She had arrived seemly effortlessly with her debut album. When record company executives suggested that she be more feminine and alluring, she shaved her head and defined her identity.
And with her second album in 1990, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, she moved into global stardom and her interpretation of the Prince song "Nothing compares 2 U" made her a household name. Her talent coupled with her stunning good looks seemed to almost guarantee her a huge career with all the trapping of wealth and celebrity. However, it soon became apparent that this was really not something that she either wanted or was emotionally or psychologically equipped to deal with.
When she emerged into public consciousness '87 I was living in Dublin. Sinead, a Dubliner like myself, was somehow an enigma. She seemed to have arrived fully-formed to such an extent that it was as if there was something unreal or inauthentic about her. Here was this 19 year old, working with the rhythm section from the Smiths, producing her own album and writing these incredible songs. It almost seemed surreal. And it has to be remembered that in Dublin in 1987, the world belonged to U2. This was the year of The Joshua Tree, when they also graced the cover of Time magazine and embarked on a huge world tour. The media could only give so much attention to Sinead who seemed to have decamped to London and was already somewhat erratic in interviews, professing support for the IRA among other things.
However In 1990, this all changed. With the video for "Nothing Compares 2 U" getting worldwide exposure in a pre-internet and social media world, Sinead got as much media coverage as seemed possible at the time. She had arrived and seemed unstoppable. Her album from this time remains a classic- it's a stunning collection that showcases her talent and depth and dispelled any doubts regarding her worth. I can certainly remember the impression the video made on me as I think most people who saw it at the time can. She could be viewed as the classic girl next door or an "Audrey Hepburnesque" beauty or as a wounded rebel depending on the viewer's perspective.
Her nemesis or self-destruction came two years later with a live performance on Saturday Night Live where her seemly adolescent and somewhat benign attack of the Pope was met by a huge wave of outrage and hypocrisy in the U.S. and around the world. Ironically, in an Irish context, a criticism of the Pope or the authority of the Catholic Church might have been taken with a proverbial "pinch of salt' as it was so common place. However in the U.S., this criticism, even in the context of freedom of speech and First Amendment Rights was taken as an assault on Patriarchy and male authority. Frank Sinatra was outraged, Joe Pesci threatened symbolic violence on the following week's SNL and the world shuddered. Even a Bob Dylan audience, gathered for his 30th anniversary concert two weeks later, booed her and forced her off the stage. The celebrity world was not interested in supported her but time has proved that her claims of gross sexual abuse and of a comprehensive denial and over-up by the Catholic Church to be true and shameful.
In many ways, it seems that she was happy to have slammed on the brakes and abruptly ended her few years as a celebrity, it now seemed that she wanted to return to the business of making music and being a singer and perhaps she was the master of her own destiny after all.
Sadly, it seemed that there were greater demons at play in her psychic and that her anger and confusion was not manufactured or but all too real. Perhaps the force of the public's rejection of her destabilized her and she seemed to lose her bearings and confidence.
From the mid-90's and onwards, the quality of her recordings diminished greatly. There was no real return to form until 2012-14 when she recorded a pair of strong, consistent albums that returned her to her original style- How about I be Me (and you be you) (2012) and I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss (2014).
Rather, her lifestyle and her traumas became the focus. Few things seemed to make any sense and she seemed to enjoy the confusion and chaos that surrounded her. After her criticism of the Catholic Church, she was ordained a priest by a breakaway sect in 1999. She later converted to Islam, wore a hijab and adopted a Muslim name, Shahada Sadaqat and had a Muslim funeral. Of her 20 plus tattoos, all but one is biblical, with "All things must Pass" featured on her neck and a glorious colorful image of Jesus on her chest. "I guess I was born with a huge faith and it never left and nothing would shake it".
She seemed to have no filter and in a brutally frank interview with Simon Hattenstone (from which the above quote is taken) in the Guardian two years before her death, she described her traumatic upbringing, her numerous marriages, her four children with four different fathers, her suicides attempts and her extended stay in a Dublin psychiatric hospital.
Her mother seems to have suffered from some form of serious mental illness, Sinead describes her as a Kleptomaniac, a habitual liar and physical and sexually abusive to her. She claims that part of the reason she shaved her head was so as not to resemble her mother. Some of these claims have been disputed by her brother, the writer Joseph O'Connor. Regardless, her parents separated while she was young, with her father receiving sole custody of the children. At 14, she was sent to reform school after she herself had been caught stealing. At 18, Sinead's mother died in a car accident and undoubtedly Sinead carried much of her own childhood trauma for the rest of her life.
In the Hattenstone interview, she described the six years she spent in and out of St. Patrick's psychiatric hospital in Dublin with the her longest stay there of eight months. "Thank God, I spend a lot of the last six years there, otherwise I wouldn't be alive ... I'm 10% bipolar, 40% complex traumatic stress and the rest is borderline personality disorder ... I went there all the time because I was suicidal. I would take myself there. In the past I've made several suicide attempts. I would take pills and say to God: 'OK it's up to you, you decide and then of course I would wake up three to four days later. Clearly God thinks I'm a pain in the arse and he doesn't want me either' ... I'm a strong little fucker. I wasn't meant to die."
Despite her attempts to move from her traumatic childhood and her distain for all hypocrisy of the world, she seemed unable to get the help that she really needed.
Clearly, she was on the right path towards the end of her life, attempting to deal with her issues and get professional help. But it seems that the inter-generational trauma was just too great. The mental health issues that affected her mother and herself also effected some of her children. And she was attempting to deal with it in a country and a society had still has great reservations about addressing these issues. She lived for many years in Bray, a coastal town just south of Dublin. Here she was known as a "character"- a person with issues but really left to her devices. A town councilor Erika Doyle describes "a protective ring" that was formed around her (from the Rory Carroll article in the Guardian, 7/28/23).
There is a passive acceptance in Ireland of people who have mental health issues, chronic alcoholism or other self-destructive tendencies- a condescending containment. As long as these people don't express their frustrations with society in general, as long as their misfortune isn't seen as reflecting a systemic failure to support these people, then they are allowed to function, and to a large extent, enabled rather than helped. So I suspect Sinead's decision to remain in Ireland for most of her life may have prevented her from coming to terms with her problems earlier and seeking and getting the help that she really needed.
In many ways, she regressed from the tenacious teenager that forged a path into the world and retreated back to the familiarity of a world that offered only superficial support but denied her what she needed most. Sinead could be as "crazy" and inconsistent as she wanted In Ireland and few if any would call her out on it. She had retreated back into the "Old Ireland," where, as she told Hattenstone "I'm Irish and I grew up in the 70's when to be a good Catholic you had to think that you were shit; you weren't allowed to boast, you weren't allowed to be proud of yourself. You would never declare: I am loving and lovable!"
She was part of a generation of Irish artists, entrepreneurs and innovators that raised the national emotional IQ and proved that Irish people could perform and compete at the highest with the best talents in the world. Sadly, she then looked for support in areas where it was lacking. She seemed never really to have freed herself for the attitudes of her upbringing, from the "Old Ireland" of secrecy and shame.
On January 6th last year, her 17 year old son Shane, who had been on suicide watch in a hospital, escaped from care. "My world would collapse with you," Sinead wrote on social media. "You are my heart. Please don't harm yourself". He was found dead the following day.
Ironically, or perhaps not ironically, she had moved to London to start over a month before she died. Neighbors said that she spend long periods looking down from her balcony and left the lights on all night. She was recording new songs and was considering touring again. She seemed devastated by the suicide of her son and was had posted again on social media that she had lost the love of her life and that she was living in a purgatory.
Sinead O'Connor remains a huge talent. She will always be remembered as a fearless soul and someone who constantly sought out the truth and remained committed to those she loved. She belongs with the truly innocent ones that refuse to compromise and are destroyed by an uncaring world.
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