Some Catholics will never forgive Sinéad O’Connor for tearing the pope’s photo. Others will never forget its power.
Sinéad O'Connor was a light that refused to hide. Like the light that cannot be put under a bushel in the Gospel of Mark, she thwarted any attempt throughout her life to extinguish her creativity or her output. O’Connor, who was found dead in London on July 26, wrote music and commentary that represented the postcolonial Irish tradition of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Nuala O’Faolain. Theirs was a movement in Irish politics and art toward raw truth-telling as a way past sectarian violence. But O’Connor had a style all her own.
She released 10 studio albums, each gem-like. Her sophomore effort, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. It featured O’Connor’s most famous song, her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Billboard ranked the ballad as the top worldwide single of 1990.
The words of “Nothing Compares 2 U” are by Prince, but it is O’Connor’s pristine voice modulation—often copied—that has made the words immortal.
The words of “Nothing Compares 2 U” are by Prince, but it is O’Connor’s pristine voice modulation—often copied—that has made the words immortal. The song gives us one of the great apophatic moments in modern art:
I said nothing
Can take away these blues
'Cause nothing compares
Is the singer addressing a human lover? God? Both? However we answer, the effect is transcendent.
O’Connor was a member of the L.G.B.T. community . As a nonbinary, genderqueer Irish Catholic kid, I drew inspiration from the beauty of O’Connor’s shaved head. The look was monastic. It prophesied that there is more than one way to be female, more than one to be male—that queerness, like gender and sexuality, has dignity.
At the start of “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” we hear O’Connor speak the well-known petition: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Her voice here is focused and melodic, grave, but not grandiose. The unifying pitch of O’Connor’s art is crystallized in a prayer.
Matthew Cortese, S.J., wrote in America after O’Connor’s death that her spirituality was “about the pursuit of justice in the face of evil…of the importance of song when the lyres have been snatched.” I would add that it is also about political anger, transmuted to wisdom.
O’Connor is perhaps best known for tearing up a photo of Pope St. John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” (1992). She sang the Bob Marley song “War” in the lead-up, changing the words “fight racial injustice” to “fight sexual abuse.” At the moment of ripping, O’Connor stared into the camera and said: “Fight the real enemy.”
Some Catholics will never forgive this iconoclasm. Many more of us will never forget its power.
In a 2021 memoir, O’Connor revealed that the photo she tore came from the bedroom of her mother, Johanna Marie O’Grady. O’Connor had been sexually assaulted by O’Grady in childhood. She wrote: “Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another.”
O'Connor: “Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another.”
O’Connor’s relationship with the Catholic Church was complicated. In the late 1990’s, she was ordained a priest in an independent Catholic denomination—a church self-identified as Catholic but not in communion with Rome. The artist later converted to Islam. She took a new name, Shuhada' Sadaqat, while retaining her birth name for professional purposes. In 2019, the singer gave one of her most rousing performances of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” live on Ireland’s RTÉ One TV network, wearing a hijab and abaya of fire-engine red.
As a child, O’Connor’s truancy led her family to enroll her at An Grianán—a reformatory institution for girls attached to St. Mary’s High Park Convent in Drumcondra. Years later, in 1997, O’Connor played Mary of Nazareth in Neil Jordan’s dark masterpiece “The Butcher Boy.” The movie is about a 12-year-old who experiences sexual assault and healing visions of Mary at an Irish Catholic reform school. In that film, O’Connor’s Virgin Mary is a wise therapist to the young hero. Her performance is earthy and tender. Watching, one cannot help but wonder: Might the actor be drawing from her own experience at An Grianán? Jordan appears to be leveraging O’Connor’s insight into trauma, to paint a portrait of the artist as a young woman.
In the same year that “The Butcher Boy” was released, 1997, O’Connor released her extended play album “Gospel Oak.” The album features an almost overwhelmingly beautiful lullaby, written by O’Connor herself: “This Is To Mother You,” which includes the following lyrics:
For when you need me I will do
What your own mother didn't do
Which is to mother you...
Sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you.
In 2010, Mary J. Blige recorded the lullaby with O’Connor as a duet. Blige’s jazz precision and O’Connor’s Celtic sensuality converge like joyful streams. Their duet stands as one of O’Connor’s best recordings.
Last month, Pope Francis celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s modern art collection by hosting a cross-section of sculptors, photographers and painters—some of them controversial or critical of the church—at a gathering in the Sistine Chapel. Sadly, it is now too late for Francis to invite O’Connor. But, knowing her, she might not even have accepted.
O’Connor was once asked by Salon if she regretted ripping up the photo of John Paul II. Her reply: “Hell, no!” In that same interview, she said that her trauma and her arguments with Christianity notwithstanding, her faith had given her the ability to live.
The final words of “This Is To Mother You” will echo in many hearts this summer:
I’m here to mother you,
To comfort you and get you through—
Through when your nights are lonely,
Through when your dreams are only blue:
This is to mother you.