In Defense of Sinead O’Connor



October 1992: The musical guest on Saturday Night Live, Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II after singing Bob Marley’s “War” a cappella, swapping the lyric “racism” for “child abuse.” The country was outraged at the audacity of this bald girl with her unbridled rage, wide eyes, and high cheekbones. On the word “evil,” ending the song, she held the note as she lifted the picture directly in front of the camera and then slowly and deliberately tore it in half. She ripped it again and again, the sound echoing in the microphone. “Fight the real enemy!” she yelled into the camera, flinging the pieces into the silent audience.

What few knew was that that photo of John Paul II had been push-pinned to the bedroom wall of her recently deceased mother since 1978. A staunch Catholic, her mother loved the pope’s gentle face and regularly beat Sinead and her two older brothers. The following week on SNL, host Joe Pesci, with his likeable wiseguy braggadocio, said he would have given O’Conner “such a smack” and the audience roared its approval. Some journalists speculated that maybe Sinead had been protesting the refusal by the church to ordain women, the lack of availability of contraception, or its treatment of nuns. Nobody picked up the child abuse references in the song. Most people, insulted by the rudeness of the gesture, thought Sinead was just a brat looking for attention.

Everywhere is war

October 1979: Pope John Paul II, the “people’s pope,” visited Chicago. My mom woke me at five and we stopped for coffee, doughnuts, and fresh cigarettes on the way to the little Mexican school in Pilsen. It was an extra stop for the pope; they wrote letters, they were poor and brown, and he couldn’t deny them. Up so close behind the wooden Chicago PD horse, with hundreds jammed into the street behind us, we could see the blue of John Paul’s eyes, his lips curled in a beatific smile as he recited the opening prayer in what sounded to us like flawless Spanish. His hands raised like a holy statue. A champion of human rights, he spoke eight languages. His visit to Mexico earlier that year had drawn record breaking crowds. “He’s so cute,” my mother gushed on the city bus afterwards as we rushed to his final stop, the giant Mass in Grant Park. “He looks nice.” My mother was so happy that morning and it had been a tough year. Her mom, my Grandma Hanley, died three months before my dad left us. As I was the youngest of five, she let me take off school so I could see the pope. She called me an old soul. I was happy to be there; I loved it when she laughed, which she did often. She surrounded herself with her sisters, her children, and her good friends. Even with my father gone, I had a solid foundation.

Child-abuse, yeah, child-abuse, yeah

After Sinead’s parents divorced in Catholic Ireland, she lived with her mother, showing up at school with scars and welts that everyone ignored. In kindergarten, Sinead said in a recent interview with Dr. Phil she got the prize for “being able to roll up into the smallest ball.” Her mother always targeted the groin area when she hit her, repeating “you should have been a boy.” In Catholic Ireland, her father had no parental rights, so Sinead stayed with her mother. When she was fifteen, she was picked up for shoplifting. “I stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,” she’d say later. She was sent to a Magdalene Laundry—Catholic-run girls’ institutions which started as workhouses for “fallen women” and their babies. By the late 70s they were more like traditional reformatory schools, but the workhouse ethic remained; early every morning, Sinead worked in the basement washing priests’ clothes with bars of soap in sinks of cold water. “One of the nuns, at least,” she said, “was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.” That same nun found her a coach who helped Sinead develop her naturally beautiful voice. At the time, rumors of sexual abuse within the Church swirled around the parishes of Ireland. Sinead understood how it could easily happen in an institution like the one she attended, where contact with her family was severely limited. Pedophile priests were transferred from parish to parish, raping new children every school year—the same types of details that were revealed in the Boston Globe investigation ten years later. Pope John Paul II, “champion of human rights,” firmly turned his back, allowing the priests to be tucked away and protected. Everyone still went about their business. Was the whole country, except crazy Sinead, willfully blind? Despite her brutal upbringing, she was a true believer who often spoke of her voice as a gift from God. Her idol, Joan of Arc, inspired her to do battle. When she had a platform that night on SNL, she could not remain silent.

There is war

When we got off the bus, there were already thousands filling Grant Park to see the first Polish pope say Mass on the concert half shell. So many Poles in Chicago, so much pride. He stared down the Communists in Poland with soft force, the love of God. To the Polish people, he was a hero. Grant Park was filled with Polish flags and Solidarity banners, waving red and white in the reflection of the windows of the downtown buildings, Lake Michigan impossibly clear in the distance. A historic moment, even to me at thirteen. I could see a group of women far away, in bustles and full yellow sleeves, flowers in their hair, Polish Dance troops. Chicago was an ethnic city in those days, a city of neighborhoods. Me and my mother held hands, found a fence to lean against on a slight hill. Our hearts lifted when we spotted the tiny spark of the kind pope in the back of a convertible, a light in a sea of humanity—crisp blue sky contrasting with the pure white of his robes. Two peas in a pod we were that day, leaning on the fence. Pope John Paul was so far away on the giant square stage tiered like a wedding cake, decorated with lines of red cardinals like candles on top, and the black and white of nuns and common priests like sprinkles at the base. My mom squeezed me. Even though I was self-absorbed as any teenager, I looked around and I felt the power of the Church, with this great charismatic figure, bringing people together.

Children, children

Sinead’s career suffered after she ripped up that picture. It seemed everyone’s mother back then had that picture up on the wall. She only hurt herself—swatted like a fly, smacked like a baby. Nobody liked the bald girl with the dimples and the pretty face, with the bad sense of timing, the ugly wronged-woman mouth. Weeks before she ripped up the picture, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers waved his dick in some poor female fan’s face. His career didn’t suffer and he had accosted a real person. A few months later, during an interview for People magazine, Sinead explained her stunt was a protest against child abuse, that she was not ripping up an image of the man, but of the office. But Sinead was guilty of the unforgivable sin of shrill, the public had already passed its verdict. She always created havoc, going back to 1990, two years before SNL, when she refused to allow the national anthem to be played before her show at the New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center. I was at that concert, up pretty close, and she rocked, looking bad and beautiful in black leather, cute dimples and big shining eyes. Everyone in the audience enjoyed the show (I almost cried during “Troy”). We weren’t aware of the controversy, but most of us would have said it was her right. Frank Sinatra appeared at the same venue a week later and told the audience that he wished he could meet her so he “could kick her in the ass.” After those two incidents, Sinead was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute and was unable to perform the song she intended to. In an interview, she recalled trying not to vomit all over Kris Kristofferson as he gently led her away from the stage.


January, 1987: When I was nineteen, I shaved my head because my girlfriend told me I had the cheekbones to pull it off. “You’ll look so counterculture,” she said, “like that bald girl who screams.” We had Sinead’s The Lion and the Cobra in our CD collection, but didn’t quite know what to make of it. I met Mary Alice at college, love at first sight, and six months later we moved into a one bedroom apartment by the lake. Like Sinead, I was a daughter of the working class. Everyone I knew was Catholic. I went to one church, St. Gabriel’s, my whole life, the same church my mom and her mom attended. But in high school, I decided I couldn’t believe in a religion where a woman couldn’t be a priest. I drifted. My mom loved me anyway, and chuckled when I took off my beret and she saw my head. Honestly, I didn’t think I had “pulled it off.” My skull looked flat and round like a turtle, and I grew my hair out as soon as possible. My mom liked Mary Alice, and accepted our relationship, but she hoped that I’d marry a man someday—which I eventually did. In fact, when Sinead ripped the picture, I was with my husband smoking a joint in front of our tiny bedroom TV. We were stunned—and stoned—so we started laughing. Reading the morning newspaper, we were shocked by the outrage. My mom dismissed Sinead as being a “look-at-me.” I didn’t know what to think. I still liked her music, and I still cherished my day with my mother and the pope. Ten years later, child abuse allegations finally broke in the United States with the stories in the Globe. “Remember Sinead?” I asked. My mom nodded her head and shrugged. The terrible revelations saddened her, but she told herself they were isolated incidents. After she retired, she went to eight o’clock mass every morning, eventually becoming an Eucharistic Minister, her faith deepening. I didn’t know what a state of grace meant until I was with her when she died years later. She was unafraid, sad to leave us, but truly joyful to see God.

Child-abuse, child-abuse, yeah

October 28, 2014: Sinead O’Connor performed at the City Winery in New York. She walked onto the stage wearing leather pants, a black jacket, a priest collar, and a big silver cross. Seven years after SNL, Sinead was ordained by a Catholic splinter group, the Latin Tendertine church, dubbing herself Mother Bernadette Mary. “I deserve to be a priest. Music is a priesthood,” she said in a 2014 interview with the Guardian. Lately, she had been in the news for sending an open letter to Miley Cyrus warning her to not prostitute herself to the record industry. The gesture quickly devolved into a fight—three open letters—ending with Miley making fun of mental illness, intimating that Sinead was crazy. On the Internet, Sinead looked old, bloated, and fat, gray fuzz covering her head like new growth on a Chia Pet. But here at City Winery she was in the flesh, and thank goodness, she looked happy and well.

There have been many more incidents since: Sinead claiming Prince tried to kidnap her; going missing from her bike ride in Wilmette, Illinois; a two-week marriage; a twelve-minute video threatening suicide from a Travelodge in Hackensack, New Jersey; and, the most recent, a heart-wrenching interview with Dr. Phil detailing her mother’s physical abuse. If she had killed herself like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, or Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, would she be mourned or mocked? In the Dr. Phil interview, as well as the New Jersey tape, she looked tired and disheveled, no makeup—brave again to let the world see her naked face. But in my heart, I hold the image of this Sinead: when the lights went down on the intimate stage of the City Winery, the audience hushed and she started out the set with “The Queen of Denmark,” a new cover. At first her voice was low, and then it quickly built to a wail. She still sang like a banshee, voice deepened with age, whispering the high notes, but full of emotion. She looked lovely, big eyes, a wicked smile as she sang, her hand raised like a holy statue. She was right when she tore up that picture. She is a witness, a thorn, and, like any other hero, she just can’t help herself.


Feature image via Creative Commons.

Eileen Toomey has lived on the East Coast for over twenty years, but a big piece of her heart still resides in Chicago. Her essays have appeared in The Eastern Iowa Review and Fish Food Magazine. More from this author →