Obituary: Sinéad O’Connor, 1966-2023
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
26 July 2023
O'Connor, with her daughter Roisin, during an Anti-Racism
demonstration in Dublin city centre, in 2000
Sinéad O’Connor has died. Her death at the age of 56 was announced on RTE. The evening news programmes went into overdrive to pay tribute to an incredibly talented musician. As with all such tributes, the great and good were asked for their opinions or they offered them in any case and they were carried uncritically. You are not supposed to speak ill of the dead in Ireland, but more than that, you shouldn’t speak ill of those who seek to praise the dead, no matter how hypocritical they are.
There were many milestones in her musical career, not least her rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U. The media highlighted her musical talent, her voice, sometimes describing her as controversial and outspoken and much loved by the public. Yes, she was loved by the public, to a point, and also by other musicians around the world. However, she was also despised by many, written off and derided by commentators. As with many artists when they die, there is a tendency to rewrite history. Her politics were sometimes erratic and lurched from one thing to another, though she was always honest and forthright when she did so, unlike many a coward. As erratic as some of her opinions could be, there were no smug self-serving platitudes to fall from her lips. She was no Bono. She was honest, frequently angry and went after the powerful at times. The famous incident where she tore up a photo of then Polish Pope, Wojtyla in protest at his covering up and enabling of child sexual abuse, a topic she was painfully personally aware of in her own personal life did not go down well with some of those now praising and lamenting her passing. Bono doesn’t do tearing up photos of popes, he sups with George Bush, the late senator McCain, toured Africa with the head of the World Bank, to name just a few of the scumbags he was not only too happy to rub shoulders but positively revelled in.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders have expressed their sorrow at her death. They weren’t expressing any support when she denounced child sexual abuse, the entire Irish political establishment were busy helping the Catholic Church cover it up, and later facilitated the institution to evade its legal, financial and moral responsibility. Their attitude is best summarised in a typical hypocritical Irish attitude when dealing with those who make us uncomfortable that goes through phases of saying, “She’s mad, isn’t she great gas altogether, she may have a point but…, fair play to her, didn’t she speak up at the time”. All of this without ever examining their own role in it all. That fact that, as we speak, reports of the sexual trafficking of children in care are being ignored by the government, says all you really need to know about their attitude. If a new musician of her talent and courage were to speak out now, she would be cancelled and silenced by many of those now praising her, including some of those on the left, who have grown quite fond of not breaking ranks and clamping down on those who did.
She always spoke about mental health issues, though she became much more public about her own issues as she got older. She even broke down on a video about it, locked away in a hotel, crying. The video led to many expressing their concern, but also a bit of “there goes that one again”. We will no doubt get many commentaries on air and in print about her struggles with her mental health, many expressing concern and sympathy with her plight. Many of them will be hypocritical. It is true that Irish society is more open now about people who have mental health problems, though there is still a stigma attached to it. Ironically RTE followed up the news of her death with another story on the shambolic, criminal (my word, not the words of the media cowards) state of the child mental health services in Ireland (CAMHS). Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar may even refer to her troubles in their tributes, but they never cared about them then, they don’t care now and the proof is not only the state of CAMHS, but mental health facilities in general, with long waiting lists, a rush to medication and forgetting about the patient model of care.
Her politics were erratic in many ways, though in fairness they weren’t much more erratic than others who are not judged as quickly. She flirted with republicanism, then broke with them, even applied to join the more recent incarnation of Sinn Féin in 2014, before withdrawing it. It may be hard to take that seriously, but it was no less ridiculous than Bono condemning the IRA and then spluttering out nonsense about how he admired Bobby Sands. He didn’t, never, ever, when it mattered. Sineád for all her failings took positions that were unpopular unlike some of the vomit inducing smug types that populate the modern music industry.
For my own part, her politics on racism were without fault. Her song Black Boys on Mopeds is excellent. It points out the hypocrisy of Thatcher criticising China whilst British Police like James Bond had a licence to kill.
“Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her”
The song goes on to say something truer today than before.
“These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave”
And then a description of England, that the great and good would run a mile from.
“England's not the mythical
land of Madame George and roses
It's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”
Now she will be lionised in death, praised, described as troubled, talented, controversial and much loved. We should ignore the sanitised version we will be given and remember the Sineád O Connor who was treated with contempt and disdain at times. Aside from her incredible musical talent, that is the version that is worth remembering and celebrating, the version they weren’t too happy to celebrate when she was alive. In Ireland we like to celebrate talented uncomfortable artists and writers in death in a manner we don’t do when alive. She deserves some coherence from us on this.