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  • Writer's pictureLaura Kelly

How Sinéad O’Connor risked it all to speak truth to power – and inspired a new generation

I'd been thinking a lot about Sinéad O’Connor in the days and weeks before her untimely death, as I'd watched Kathryn Ferguson's excellent documentary – and had been writing this reflection on her life.

I was in a bar in Manchester when the news came up on my phone. The tears were immediate, dropping down my face before I knew I was crying. This feature was just about to go out, so I was looking through wet eyes as I made a few edits to reflect the horrible change in circumstances.

Her absence remains a huge loss. I hope with these words I do her some justice. She mattered. She mattered to the world, but she mattered so, so much to little girls in Ireland – like director Kathryn Ferguson and like me.

Sinéad still matters to me right now. She's an icon of defiance, of refusing to be contained but prejudice and horrible people who want to keep you in your place. I try every day to carry some of her power, and maintain her empathy.

Sinéad O'Connor
Sinéad O'Connor's iconoclasm led to her exile from pop's mainstream. Photo: Andrew Catlin/Sky

In a long, white lace dress, her huge eyes locked straight into yours through the TV screen, hair shorn to a brown fuzz that somehow emphasised both her fragility and her power, Sinéad O’Connor tore her career in half.  

It was 3 October 1992 and the Irish singer was on top of the world. Her version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U had catapulted her to international superstardom. Her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, had sold seven million copies worldwide and won a Grammy. She’d been invited to fill the prestigious musical guest slot on Saturday Night Live to promote her follow-up album Am I Not Your Girl? and performed an electrifying a cappella version of Bob Marley’s War. Then, as she sang the word “evil”, those beautiful eyes flashed, she held up a picture of Pope John Paul II… and ripped it to pieces. 

It was a protest against widespread child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – something that nine years later would be admitted by the pope – but the world was not ready to listen. She had gone too far. The outrage was swift, the backlash brutal and global.  

The front page of the New York Daily News branded her a “Holy Terror”. Catholic organisations pressured record stores to pull her albums from their shelves. Madonna ridiculed her. Public figures competed for the most repulsive ways to denigrate her. On the following week’s SNL, Joe Pesci said he “would have given her such a smack”. So-called feminist academic Camille Paglia said, “in the case of Sinéad O’Connor, child abuse was justified”. O’Connor and her team received bags full of death threats. Her career never really recovered. 

Director Kathryn Ferguson – then a pre-teen schoolgirl and passionate Sinéad O’Connor fan – watched on. And she heard the lesson. “She’d been playing on MTV constantly, then she just kind of vanished. It showed me: here’s somebody that’s amazing and incredible, and she’s been dismissed and reduced to the point where I can’t see her any more,” she says. “What does that say to a young woman? You say something that’s important, and that’s what happens? For me, as a young Belfast girl, it was just demoralising. And it left an emotional dent on me.” 

In that moment “the seeds were sown” for Ferguson’s fiery documentary, Nothing Compares, which traces the roots of that explosive action back to O’Connor’s childhood in the intensely Catholic, regressive, deeply misogynist Ireland of the 1970s and ’80s.  

“I wanted to tell a story that made sense of what happened,” explains Ferguson. “She was written off as being dramatic or attention-seeking. But it was such a direct line from the Ireland that spawned her to that moment.” 

Growing up in an abusive household, Sinéad O’Connor was placed in care when she was 15. The facility, run by nuns, was attached to a Magdalene laundry – one of the notorious institutions in which an estimated 30,000 Irish “fallen women” were locked up in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1993, an unmarked mass grave was uncovered in the grounds of one such “asylum” in Dublin. It contained the bodies of 155 women. That was the start of the national reckoning with a dark secret history.  

In Ferguson’s film, O’Connor recalls being sent to sleep in the hospice part of the laundry as punishment. “To remind me that if I didn’t behave myself, I was going to end up like these women,” O’Connor says. “The poor ancient ladies, who were the Magdalen girls, were lying in their beds calling out for nurses all night who never came. It was awful.”  

The women O’Connor would have met may have been incarcerated, in what were effectively penitentiary workhouses, since the 1920s. They were locked away for their entire lives for having sex – for many of them, because they had been raped.

“You can feel my rage in our film. It’s palpable,” says Ferguson. “Sinéad didn’t come from outer space; she was part of a system that was hugely broken and abusive from the top down.” 

Nothing Compares finishes with the fallout to the SNL protest. But it also draws a line from O’Connor’s bravery then through to the changed Ireland of today, showing equal marriage rallies, the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ movement that overthrew the ban on abortion and officials apologising to the women who’d been imprisoned in Magdalen laundries.  

“She inspired so many people to just say no, and to stand up for what’s right,” Ferguson says. “That’s where the inspiration hopefully comes from in Nothing Compares. It’s a reminder that actually, collective activism works eventually.” 

It’s a powerful riposte to the powerful forces that victimised one courageous woman for telling the truth and, in doing so, attempted to silence all “difficult” women. But the final word has to go to Sinéad O’Connor herself. Throughout the film, she reflects on her life with clarity and triumph, but here’s one line in particular that will stay with you. “They tried to bury me,” she says, “but they didn’t realise I was a seed.” 

Nothing Compares  is available on Sky Documentaries and Now from 29 July

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work please buy a copy.

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