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28 July 2023

England will always get Sinéad O’Connor wrong

Only Ireland could have produced a protest singer like her.

By Finn McRedmond

The world now sees the staggering breadth of the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal. But this reckoning was only a product of recent history. A 2002 investigation by the Boston Globe was a powerful catalyst – triggering an international call to action over to the crisis. In the one hundred days following the Globe’s story, the New York Times published 225 articles on the subject, making it front page news 26 times. From 2001 to 2010 the Holy See examined cases concerning 3,000 clergymen. In 2001, Pope John Paul II had issued an official apology, declaring the crimes “a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ”.

It is hard to imagine the world before these revelations and the revolution they inspired. The Church’s systematic abuse and cover-ups might be common knowledge now, but there was a time it was dismissed as frivolous concern, a nuisance, or even a conspiracy. In such a climate one woman’s singular bravery and radicalism stands out.

It is 1992 in the United States. The Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor – whose death aged 56 was announced on Wednesday 26 July – took a sledgehammer to her career on Saturday Night Live, and single-handedly took on the most powerful institution in the world.

At the end of a performance of Bob Marley’s “War” O’Connor, then 25, tore up an image of John Paul II and glared down the camera lens. “Fight the real enemy,” she said. O’Connor was accused of blasphemy; she was promptly banned for life by the broadcaster NBC; copies of her records were destroyed at protests in Times Square, Manhattan; and the woman set to be the biggest star of the decade reversed her trajectory on the spot.

Less than two weeks later she was met with a wave of boos and consternation from an audience at Madison Square Garden. O’Connor, up until then, had been known as troubled, beautiful, tough and sensitive. Now it was clear that she was a simple pariah, condemned – like Cassandra – to be right but not believed.

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[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

Any similar declaration would hardly generate such severe opprobrium now. But this was the early 1990s, before the full extent of the Church’s malfeasance had revealed itself. O’Connor was one of the first to condemn the abuses of the organisation so openly, so straightforwardly. She had no blueprint to guide her, nor any protest group to belong to. This was by definition counter-cultural.

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Blasphemy was a charged accusation in 1990s Ireland. In fact, O’Connor’s Irishness had a multiplier effect on the controversy: she came from a country that had not even legalised divorce yet, one still under the thumb of the Vatican, and steeped in cultural conservatism. And she performed the stunt on American television, a society with its own currents of conservative religiosity, far more so than the UK at the time. O’Connor may as well have taken a match to a powder keg.

But there was a personal stake for her too. Her life had been turbulent from the start: an abusive childhood, adolescence riddled with truancy and theft, a disjointed family life. She spent 18 months incarcerated in a Magdalene institution – houses for “difficult” women run by a Roman Catholic monastic order. “I have never – and probably will never – experience such panic and terror and agony over anything,” she said many years later, confirming that the experience led to her Saturday Night Live protest.

It is clear O’Connor’s life was marred by anguish. And now, in the wake of her death, coverage details her personal failures: serial marriages; her reputation as a troubled starlet who lost control of her life too many times; her public forays into madness; her mercurial religious beliefs; her inability to bite her tongue and guard her own privacy. And most of all, how she was never capable of playing the game the music industry demanded of her. The Guardian, for one, said “she lacked the determination needed to keep a top-flight pop career aloft”.

But O’Connor was clear that she didn’t want to be a pop star. “I wanted to be a protest singer,” she said. By that metric, she was a screaming success. In fact, she mounted one of the most memorable and impactful artistic protests of all time, at great personal sacrifice. Her commitment sets her apart as a rarified figure, devoted to her cause and uninterested in marketable stardom.

This puts her in stark contrast to the vainglorious and hollow pop protestations of the 21st century, like Taylor Swift’s risk averse “Only the Young”. Modern musicians lack any of the conviction of O’Connor, afraid to alienate parts of their lucrative fanbase. O’Connor did not just alienate a fanbase; she made herself an enemy of one of the most powerful institutions in the world, at a time when no one else dared to. The Guardian may think she lacked “determination”. But she certainly did not fail.

[See also: The pop stars tackling the climate cost of live music]

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