Akron Irish: Nothing Compares to Sinéad


A month ago, Sinéad O’Connor was living in her modest house in Bray. Certainly, living quietly, with what must have been severe depression. She had lost a son six months prior to suicide.

The striking protest singer of the late 80s had morphed into something else, depending on the viewer. Some saw her as a curiosity, a shadow of her former self, while others still recognized her heartbreakingly beautiful voice and incredible talent.

Shuhada Sadaqat, as she was going by in her latest incarnation, lived at the fringe of the carnival that is the music business. She started her musical career in 1987, with the release of her album, The Lion and the Cobra.

In what was to be a trend in her career, being a little out-of-sync with the times, she surfaced looking like a punk a little after the fact. She certainly acted the part. Her music and performances had all the defiance and edge of the earlier punk era.

Her shaved head and seeming indifference to the male gaze cemented her rebel stance in her debut. Punk may have been her pose, but Sinéad had real issues on her mind. Her rebellion was all about shining light on injustices and defending the underdog. She was a person who could not look the other way.

As an Irish Catholic, she was on the crest of the tsunami of scandals that were just beginning to engulf the Catholic Church. She felt this one personally.

Sinéad and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church abuse revelations had just begun to surface in 1985 in the US, in a series of small, seemingly isolated cases. In Ireland, the stories that were surfacing were still the subject of private admonishments and rumors.

Saying that, many people on both sides of the ocean knew that certain members of the clergy had abused their power and were not dealt with appropriately. As the times were changing, the grasp of power that shamed people into silence was loosening and the rumors and accusations were rising.

It was in this spirit in 1992, a stunning but stone-faced Sinéad ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. I don’t think that she understood the storm that she summoned.
She certainly knew that it was a controversial thing to do and that it would generate discussion, but the hate that was dumped on her was something else.

She had also refused to have the Star-Spangled Banner played before a concert in New Jersey. Frank Sinatra and MC Hammer were her most vocal critics then.

Think about that. I remember reading her comments at that time, and it seemed to me that she meant to draw attention to the institutions that she felt were not living up to their ideals and causing harm in some cases.

Honestly, I still can’t understand the fury. What she did was express an opinion. In a country founded on the freedom to express opinions, we have some surprising reactions. In 2015, when several Muslims burst into the offices of the French paper Charlie Hebdo and killed several journalists for satirizing Muhammed, we called it extreme.

Sinead’s career never fully recovered from that moment on Saturday Night Live. But she continued to sing and speak her mind. Her rendition of the Prince song, “Nothing Compares 2 U” will probably define her career. I love her performances on traditional ballads with bands like the Chieftains.

Her version of “Skibbereen” is enough to give any human goosebumps. She had an amazing ability to convey both a depth of sadness and endurance through her amazing voice.

My husband and some friends met her in London in the late 80s at a pizza place that she had some connection to on Portobello Road. They came home talking about her amazing beauty and that ethereal quality that she had.

She became romantically involved with a journalist from Castlerea, my husband’s hometown. It was an unlikely pairing and probably sparked some local binocular sales. They ended up having a child together, her only daughter.

It was a troubled, short relationship. Their ensuing custody battle dragged both of them through the mud in Ireland and did neither of them any favors. John Waters ended up making some headway in Irish law for paternal parenting rights, but he also lost a lot of credibility in what was an ugly fight.

Sinéad had so many wars to fight in her life. She fought for social causes and was always looking out for the underdog. One of the first things that I saw was that she advocated for rap music and a place at the table for black performers at the Grammy’s, well before that was a popular cause.

She fought for religious freedom. She was a nun and a priest and finally, a Muslim. She fought for her mental health. She suffered from bipolar disorder for the better part of her life.

She fought for her children. She was a devoted mother who lost custody of one child and lost another to suicide. What she didn’t do was sit still or sell-out. She continued singing, and performing, whatever the venue.

She performed with Glen Hansard at his annual Christmas busking for charity event on Grafton Street in Dublin. I recognized the strong sad strain of her voice in the theme song in latest Outlander series that began just a few weeks ago. She could deliver something that no one else could.

And work is what she wanted to do. She was a self-professed protest singer. Sinéad never wanted all the fame and certainly not the notoriety that she received. She was in many respects, the pure drop.

Representing Ireland

Her voice and the emotion that poured out of it, had characteristics of both the old and new Ireland, innocent and irrepressible in a way. She understood Ireland and what it had been through, and she took it personally, maybe because it mirrored her own struggles. Her candor was certainly of modern Ireland too, not willing to look the other way while injustices happened around her.

Sinéad’s ability to be both of the old and the new is why I think that her death has struck such a chord. I am sure that she would not believe that memorials are springing up outside of her home and vigils have been held in Dublin in her honor.

She was buried today with a cortège passing her home in Bray, no less than Irish President Michael D. Higgins in attendance. All the Irish radio stations played her song, “Nothing Compares 2 Uin her honor at 12:30 on the dot today.

It is hard not to think that she was taken for granted. She was quirky. But she was brave with a conscience to match. She was relentless in her fights for underdogs, especially the Irish and women.

All of those qualities combined to make a fearless woman who called it as she saw it, and Ireland will never be the same. Godspeed Sinéad.

Find this column and others from the September 2023 issue here!

Picture of Lisa O'Rourke
Lisa O'Rourke

*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education.Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division.She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her dog, cats and fish.

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