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And There Was Light: An Ode to Sinéad O'Connor

Sinéad Gleeson

There is a moment at the end of every gig, after the encore when the lights go down and the artist slips off stage. The audience claps and cheers, desperate for more, but deep down we know there will be no more music. In 2019 in Dublin’s Vicar Street, I watched Sinéad O’Connor sing to a spellbound crowd, the plume of their love so palpable. When it was time for the encore, she returned quietly to the stage and sang the magnificent ’Three Babies’, a song about motherhood and children, but also about abortion and reproductive rights. A quiet, lullaby-esque tune with a political message deeply embedded in it. The song is emblematic of the contradictions of Sinéad’s life and work. The tiny woman possessed of a cavernous voice; intense but also very funny, modest but bolshy when it was required.

In the coming days and weeks, you’ll read a lot about this already much-missed artist. Some pieces – which have already appeared - will focus on ‘controversy’, or talk about ‘fragility’. Certainly those words orbited around the singer but only because they were projected onto her by the media. She deserved better than such descriptions, and in the midst of all those opinion pieces, the focus will drift away from the music. From the fact that her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, was released a month before she turned 21; that in a decade when women were handed manufactured music that swarmed the charts, Sinéad was writing and producing her own songs. And where to even start with that epic, ne plus ultra voice? One that sung of heartache and love, of racism and inequality; of faith and spirituality. From the whispered despair of ‘Nothing Compares to You’ and the Amazonian ululations of ‘Troy’ to the no-nonsense playfulness of ‘No Man’s Woman’.

Sinéad had a talent – that might have been infuriating tic for other artists (not just Prince) – of taking someone else’s song and transforming it. She would strip it down to its bones and rebuild it. Few will contest that ‘Nothing Compares To You’ ranks as one of the greatest covers of all time. I think of her doing Nirvana’s All Apologies in barely a whisper, of tackling Tim Buckley’s heart-rending ‘Song to the Siren’ or the unexpected make-over of ABBA‘s ‘Chiquitita’.

Among her finest moments were when she tapped into the deep well of her Irishness, channelling something deeply primal and female. It’s echoes through ‘Mná na hEireann’ ‘She Moved Through the Fair,’ and ‘The Foggy Dew’. The latter was performed with The Chieftains, and Sinéad chose her collaborators with care, and was generous in return. Jah Wobble recounted that when she guested on his song ‘Visions of You’, she refused any payment. On ‘Haunted’ with Shane McGowan, the smooth felt of her voice buffs the rough edges of his snarl. The best of her duets, for me, is ‘Kingdom of Rain’ with The The (with Johnny Marr on guitar), one of the most devastating songs about the end of a relationship. Listening to it again this week, I’m in awe at how she bends so much emotion around the notes. A kind of electricity that only Sinéad could conduct.


In Ireland, singing binds us together, often as a way of telling painful stories of historical horror, or as acts of commemoration It is the social glue of weddings and family gatherings and in these situations, I only have one song I can sing when prodded: ‘I Am Stretched On Your Grave’ by Sinéad. A lament about the death of a loved one that is an eloquent howl of grief. (I never do it justice.) This week, Philip King of Scullion who co-wrote the song with Sinéad said of her: She didn’t sing the song, the song sang her, like nobody else I have ever, ever seen.

Sinéad was her own instrument, a medium through which pure emotion moved. In many interviews, she spoke of finding great comfort in the Holy Spirit, and somehow I equate these two things as some sort of divine inhabiting. It now feels as though we must use Sinéad’s own songs to mourn her.


(c) Michael Grecco

As a teenage girl in the 1980s, a decade awash with shame, misogyny and fear, many of us looked up to Sinéad. For her steadfastness and activism and her unwavering resolve to what felt like constant criticism. I shaved my head at fifteen, not to mimic her, but because she gave me the courage to do so. (I got into a lot of trouble in school, and was mistaken for her many times, an extra problem when someone shouted ‘Sinéad!’ from across the street and I turned because that was my name too.) She was not afraid to take on those who tried to cover up decades of systemic abuse of the most vulnerable among us. Institutions that had seemed so unshakeable for centuries, now had Sinéad rattling the gates and demanding answers. Despite being gaslit and undermined, she consistently spoke into, and against decades of silence, refusing to augment her language, or her anger. It was culturally and politically brave, paving the way for other women.

Many of us found our voices – in creativity, in activism, in politics – because she urged us to speak up. Not just for ourselves but for more marginalised voices: queer people, refugees, people of colour. Today’s generation might think this no big deal but to really appreciate what Sinéad did – and the risks she took - is all about context. She was determined to say the unsayable, even if she was greeted with ridicule or derision, or it could damage her career. I looked up to her as much for her activism as her music. In one interview, she discussed tearing up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live years before, and countered the idea that it had derailed her career in the US. ‘People said, “Oh, you fucked up your career,” but they’re talking about the fucked up career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine. It meant I had make my living playing live, and I am born for live performance.’

Sinéad supported countless movements: abortion rights, anti-racism, contraceptive rights (wearing a t-shirt when pregnant than said ‘WEAR A CONDOM’) and spoke about HIV/AIDS at a time when many artists chose not to. For the album Red, Hot and Blue, she donned a platinum wig, aping a 1940s nightclub singer, and sung an uncharacteristically coquettish version of Cole Porter’s ‘You Do Something To Me’. The album raised nearly $1m for AIDS charity ACT UP.

Her artistry and morals mattered more to her than the expectations of record company executives. As we struggle with this news, I also find it hard to think of a comparable figure as singular in Irish musical and cultural history of the last few decades. Her songs will be a small comfort, and I’d urge people to read Rememberings, her 2021 autobiography. Apart from correcting many wrong assumptions, it is profoundly moving, funny and beautifully written. Buy the audiobook, which Sinéad herself reads aloud, and let her tell you the stories. I wish there was more writing from her to come. Kathryn Ferguson’s excellent documentary Nothing Compares offers another glimpse into Sinéad’s life, the good and bad, how she responded, what mattered to her most.



The final encore song at that Vicar Street show in 2019 was a new song, ‘Milestones’, which ends with the lines. One day we’ll sit with our maker/ Discuss over biscuits and soda/ Which one of you and me was braver/ Which one of us was a true soldier?’ In the same venue, earlier this year, she accepted the Choice Music Classic album award for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. It was a quintessentially Sinéad appearance, using her time to welcome and thank refugees. In the widely shared photos of her clutching the award, she is giving the middle finger.

There was no one braver or more uncompromising than Sinéad O’Connor: in how she sang, her political activism, or her generosity to so many. But mostly for her incomparable vocals, a divine and ethereal phenomenon that she gifted to the world.

We are bereft that Sinéad will never sing for us again; will never stand on a stage, but she left us so much. A lesson in how to be fearless, how to live a generous and politically engaged life, and to never falter in being who you are. Sinéad O’Connor – or Magda Davitt, or Shuhada Sadaqua – was an utter original. An agitator, a seer, a mother, a truth-teller, a warrior and someone possessed of the best voice ever to grace Irish music. Her faith meant a lot to her, which means she may be somewhere else now. I hope she’s singing, that there are more encores and that the lights never go down.


(c) Sinéad O'Connor

This piece appeared in The Irish Independent on July 29, 2023.

 

Sinéad Gleeson is an Irish award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. Gleesons essay collection Constellations: Reflections from Life (Picador, 2019) won Non-Fiction Book of the Year at 2019 Irish Book Awards and the Dalkey Literary Award for Emerging Writers. It was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Michel Déon Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and has been translated into several languages. The Dutch translation, Hemellichamen, was published by HetMoet in 2022. Her short stories have featured in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber, 2019) and Repeal the 8th. She has edited several award-winning anthologies, including The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers. For HetMoet-Menard, she has contributed to the bestselling anthology On Being Ill.

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