The most striking image I recall of Sinéad O’Connor, the moment she became indelible, was that of her staring to a rolling camera with tears springing from her beautiful, plaintive eyes. They travelled down her beautiful face, those tears, as she sang a famous line from her famous Prince song.
‘But I’m willing to give it another try’.
Even in 1990, drunk on youth and anxious always to move to the next thing, I had an inkling that what I was watching was no performance. Her tears were true.
A shrink acquaintance once told me that families can designate an individual member within their ranks to hold their collective pain. If this is true – and it is a confronting idea – perhaps a similar paradigm played out between Sinéad and the Irish people.
This lone woman was right in so much of what she said, and her gravest affront most of the time was her manner of saying it. Impoliteness was a high crime in those days, and prudish America certainly found fault in O’Connor’s ‘performative activism’.
Less so my generation in Ireland, where we had dawning awareness that it was institutional power, disguised in politeness, which was holding our society back.
‘They’ve never criticised my music’, Sinéad often would say, when the next journalist in line would rehash the tired trope of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks rants. And she was right.
They never did, because they never could.
O’Connor was an artist who would only have come to greatness in the 20th century, because she made music not only with her vocal cords, but also with her breath.
Just as silence is an essential part of orchestral music, breathing was the essence of Sinéad O’Connor. And it took 20th century technology to detect and amplify the subtlety of her new art.
The effect on the listener was a curious one – as though she were singing in your ear, and to you alone.
Her voice, beautiful on so many levels, was elevated to genius by its ability to channel intimacy.
And because she inhabited the quality of a lover in her art, she became profoundly loved by those who did not know her.
In 2002, O’Connor released Sean-Nós Nua (Old Styles Remade), in which she revisited the folk tunes through which we were educated in 1970s Ireland. Within the album are songs of love, woe, innocence and sorrow. They are curated with exquisite taste, and reinterpreted – now in adulthood in her adult voice – with heightened understanding of their full message.
For the first time, you can hear the passion, coded within the simplest stories. The lesbian ardour for Peggy Gordon; the contempt for American violence in Paddy’s Lament; the tragic banality of Molly Malone’s life and death.
The seeds of Sean-Nós Nua had been sown in 1992, with the release of Scarlet Ribbons as the final song listing of ‘Am I not your girl?’. Hot on the heels of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, Sinéad’s choice to include a children’s song in a basket of adult themes popped.
Scarlet Ribbons caught my heart.
It was a tune made popular in Ireland during the 60s and 70s, either because our parents sang it to us, or the school curriculum embraced it. I can’t remember which.
What I do know is that I recall the song’s every word.
O’Connor’s version is outrageously spare: her voice, followed by a tin whistle one octave higher. Across four verses she tells the tale of a mother reaching in to her child’s bedroom to say goodnight, and experiencing a moment of profound love and connection in this simple act.
If you have even passing knowledge of Sinéad’s relationship with her own abusive mother, you will feel shock as you hear the song unfold, and the performer wither in distress as it reaches its dénouement.
“If I live to be a hundred,
I will never know from where
Came those ribbons, scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons, for…her…hair”
Indeed, this was the song she was scheduled to sing live, without accompaniment, when she appeared on SNL in October, 1992. The afternoon of that performance, she switched it out for a Marley protest song, called War.
Unknown to producers, the twenty-five year old had altered the song’s sixth and seventh verses to directly protest the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse.
Witnessed by a dazed audience whom she fully ignored, she wrapped harsh words in beauty, singing down the barrel of a camera.
“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime which holds all of us through child abuse, yaa; Child abuse, yaa
(And) sub-human bondage has been toppled, utterly destroyed.”
The camera remained rapt in what she had to say. It never cut away.
Her final sung words “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil”, were followed by the most famous tearing of a photograph in the history of television.
O’Connor places a picture of then Pope John Paul II smack in front of the camera, tears it in pieces, while now disdainfully uttering her final words.
“Fight the real enemy”.
In the vacuum that follows she pulls out her in-ear monitors, blows out the atmospheric candles present to dress the TV set, and walks off.
Sinéad O’Connor (1966-2023). RIP