by Mindy Clegg
I had plans this month for a discussion of the phenomenon of easter eggs in film and TV. Instead, the sudden death of singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor demands our attention, although I doubt I’ll have much of an argument about her career, other than it matters, much as Allyson McCabe argued in her new book.1 Much like McCabe, I want to remind us of how and why the life and career of this extraordinary women matters, and to dwell a bit on what she can tell us about the past and present. This will mostly a bit of disconnected ramblings, so I hope you bear with me to honor this incredible woman, who refused to be cowed and always told her truth, whatever it cost her. So, let’s discuss a bit about her feminism and women in music, what she told us about the history of Ireland and the Catholic Church, and what her very public struggles with mental health tell us about our evolving understanding of mental illness.
As a historian of punk and postpunk musics, I harbor a healthy skepticism of artists who hit the big time—or rather I find myself critical about how the recording industry shapes artists to make them more palatable to the widest possible audience. It rarely is about pure talent but about marketability. In the face of this, O’Connor stood firm on her own artistic ground, even as there were attempts to market her in particular ways. The industry demands women shape their image to primarily appeal to men’s tastes, so she rebelled, shaving her head and wearing baggy clothing. This has been changing in recent years, as more women dominate the charts, more often on their own terms–that seems in part thanks to O’Connor. Despite all this pressure, she flatly refused to play the adorable manic pixie girl role that some in the industry hoped to slot her into. She insisted on her voice being heard and her experiences being honored above the misogynistic din of the recording industry.
O’Connor also spoke candidly about forms of discrimination in the industry, regarding both gender and race. She took MTV to task for its pervasive misogyny and racism. Although she cited the careers of people like Dylan and Lennon as a goal, she might be more comparable to the great Joni Mitchell in many ways. Mitchell’s idiosyncratic playing style and insistence on discussing her own experiences in a society which valued men’s experiences over women’s has led her to be considered one of the greatest songwriters of her era and of all time. Ditto for Kate Bush, who wrote and produced her own work at a time when that was rare for women, especially one of her age when she started out in the 1970s. O’Connor came onto the scene at a time when more women were on the airwaves as songwriters, playing music that spoke to their own experiences in life—Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega, Lesley Rankin, and the Riot Grrl movement in the Pacific Northwest. O’Connor’s work was among one of many women speaking to their own and larger political truths of the day. They laid the groundwork for artists like Amanda Palmer, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift to put their own experiences front and center and be commercially successful at it. O’Connor’s feminism was active. She did not make herself into some ideal of womanhood for which we all should strive. Her own authentic voice mattered too much to her for that. Rather, she exposed herself via her songwriting and public engagement in a way that made others feel comfortable doing the same. Until the end of her life, she expressed her solidarity with others, not just with words, but with actions.
O’Connor also struggled with the faith she was raised with, in part due to the violence visited upon her and others by the church. She was born and raised in Dublin during a period where the church and state were highly intertwined. According to Simon Hattenstone writing in The Guardian, she compared growing up in Ireland in the 70s and 80s to living in another theocratic state, Iran. In 1992, O’Connor decided to make a public statement about the problems of living in a theocratic state, using a picture her deceased mother owned of John Paul II. She had gotten a big break in the US with her first two albums. Her second album, which included her hit single of that Prince cover (feel free to look it up), saw a further bump in her public profile in the US. SNL invited her to perform, first her hit single and then a second song of her choosing. It proved to be monumental, and in her own words, gave her the career she wanted rather than the career the industry wished to impose on her. History would prove O’Connor right in her protest. Not long after she ripped up her mother’s picture, one of the now infamous Magdalen asylums run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off land to raise funds in 1993. Of the 155 bodies discovered in the graveyard, only 75 had death certificates. In the coming years, as the depth of the cover up of violence and abuse carried out by representatives of the Catholic Church and sanctioned by the government of Ireland started to become even clearer. In one case in Tuam, County Galway, nearly 800 remains of babies and children were discovered at a mother and baby home run by the Catholic Church in 2012, thanks to the tireless work of historian Catherine Corless. The totally number of those who died in all of Ireland’s mother and baby homes since the founding of the Republic until the end of the century might be as high as 9,000 unwed mothers and babies. In her moment of rage, widely panned across America by even those who found the Catholic Church distasteful, O’Connor spoke for all those who died, or suffered abuse in those institutions. She condemned that abuse by her rebellious act and called out both the Church that covered up these crimes, and the state which was complicit. In recent years, the bravery of her actions have become more widely recognized, especially as the scope of the cover-up, not just in the Ireland but in other places like the United States and Germany, has become clearer to the public.
O’Connor’s life also tells us something about the modern movement of people around the world. Ireland’s demographics have changed in recent years. These changes came in part from the period of the Celtic Tiger, where the Irish economy became super-charged bringing in new wave of immigrants, primarily from Europe and the Americas. In more recently years, Ireland has let in a number of asylum seekers, though to some controversy and with difficulties in accommodating them. For years, the story of Ireland and immigration was specifically about people leaving for political reasons (during the colonial era), and for better work prospects (since Independence). O’Connor was herself a part of that emigration from the homeland, specifically for a career opportunity, but she always came home. She never rejected her identity as a woman of Ireland. Nor did she reject the inclusion of newer immigrants into Ireland. She was never an Irish supremacist, in other words. She often engaged with cultures from other parts of the world in a deeply curious way. Early in her career, she embraced Rastafarianism, in both her spiritual journey, and her in music. Both of the songs and videos for “Fire on Babylon” and “No Man’s Woman” are shot through with references to that Jamaican faith.
O’Connor also expressed solidarity with refugees around the world. In 1991, she recorded an EP called My Special Child and donated the proceeds to the International Red Cross in support of Kurdish refugees and participated in a benefit concert.
Her sense of curiosity about religion and spirituality never left her. In 2018, she converted (or reverted, in her own words) to Islam. This was at the same time that migration into Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia—places with Muslim majority populations—was becoming a hot button issue:
In one video, she is welcomed into the Umma and she gives the call to prayer. The members of the congregation reflect this new diversity in Ireland’s population. The gathered audience audible appreciate her version of the call to prayer (traditionally given only by men):
This past year, on winning the Choice Music Prize for a Classic Irish Album, O’Connor dedicated it to refugees in Ireland. No doubt she saw a direct connection between the violent history of British colonialism in her own country, and the wave of migration arriving in Europe from the global south. That connection evoked sympathy and empathy in O’Connor, even as some in Ireland reject giving safe-haven to the vulnerable.
Last, was O’Connor’s own public struggles with her mental health. Much like her commentary on the church, her public struggles were rarely treated with compassion, but rather as the butt of a joke or a way to dismiss her. In some cases, she was even seen as a means of boosting the careers of others. She appeared on the TV show of “Dr” Phil, in manner that she later considered highly exploitative. She was promised comprehensive treatment by Phil which never materialized. Rather he sent her to a facility that only further traumatized her and then abandoned her. She charts much of her mental health in her own words in her book Rememberings (as well as the abuse she suffered in childhood and the highlights of her career).2 Recently, the discussion around the singer Britney Spears was a more high profile example of how women’s mental health was often just treated as tabloid fodder and a means of dismissing women, until Spears’ fans demanded she get more empathetic treatment by the press. As a result, a more empathetic and nuanced discussion has emerged in the public discourse about gender and mental illness in part due to the support of both O’Connor and Spears by their fans. There has been greater awareness of how many people suffer from some form of mental health issue and a greater focus on people getting help. There is a serious attempt to destigmatize mental illness. But even here, O’Connor took us a bit deeper into the issue in a piece published in Counterpunch originally in 2013 and was republished this week. In addition to demanding greater respect, despite her public struggles, she also argued that a critical part of understanding mental illness is how that is sometimes used to marginalized particular voices. Often, those who refuse to conform are assumed to be mentally ill, therefore safe to ignore. There is absolutely something to the argument that part of our mental health issues stem from a society that is set up to brutalize some people in order to empower others.
Sinead O’Connor was often dismissed in her life, despite her obvious talents and keen insights into the modern human condition. Some found her constant engagement with this religion or that, embrace of some ideas or others, and insistence on total artistic freedom confusing or even upsetting–as evidence of some kind of unfitness for public respect on her part. But her public life reflects the chaos that many of us live within on a constant basis. Rarely are our lives smooth and easy. Her refusal to be defined by an industry that regularly squeezes women into very restricted boxes allowed more women to do that. O’Connor’s life reflected the changing history of her country, which she dearly loved, and many at home took inspiration from her. Her public struggles helped us to be okay with struggling ourselves, too. Despite the often dismissive and caustic nature of how the media treated her, I’m with Allyson McCabe on Sinead O’Connor mattering a great deal in understanding a number of things about the world today. Mostly, I know that I’m better off for having heard her music and gotten a glimpse into the slices of her life she felt compelled to share with us.
2 Sinead O’Connor, Rememberings, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).