There was shock and great sadness in the music industry with the announcement of the death of Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor. The controversial performer was found at her home in Herne Hill, South London on Wednesday 26 July, with police reporting that she was “unresponsive” and “pronounced dead at the scene”, although they did later confirm that her death is not being treated as suspicious.
London Inner South Coroner’s Court said no medical cause of death was given and an autopsy will be conducted, with the results set to take “several weeks”, after which a decision will be made with regard to an possible subsequent inquest.
Best known for the song Nothing Compares 2 U, which she released back in 1990 and which brought her worldwide fame, she was named artist of the year and took home the Brit Award for international female solo artist, over the following 12 months. Then in 1992 she shocked the world by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the US TV show Saturday Night Live.
She converted to Islam in 2018, and changed her name to Shuhada’ Sadaqat, but continued to perform under her birth name.
In January 2022, her 17-year-old son Shane was found dead causing the Dublin performer to cancel all live performances for the rest of 2022 due to her “continuing grief”,which remained with her to her own death.
The O’Connor family announced the news of her death “with great sadness” and added that her “family and friends are devastated.”
Gift from a nun
Born Sinead Marie Bernadette O’Connor in the affluent Glenageary suburb of Dublin, in December 1966, her childhood was a difficult one, although her rebellious nature was mainly driven by resentment at the abuse she suffered as a child.
In her teens she was placed into one of what was known as the notorious Magdalene laundries, originally set up to incarcerate young girls deemed to be promiscuous. It was in this institute that a nun bought her a guitar and set her up with a music teacher, and so began a remarkable music career.
The incredible incident where she tore up an image of Pope John Paul II on live television occurred after performing Bob Marley’s War, and she looked at the camera and said “fight the real enemy”, a protest against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Her actions resulted in her being banned for life by broadcaster NBC and sparked protests against her throughout the US. When asked about it nearly 30 years later in an interview with the New York Times she was still unapologetic, saying: “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant.”
Fighting the establishment
With her skinhead look she was one of pop music’s most recognisable figures of the nineties, even rejecting attempts by her record company to change her punk look and become more girly. Typically her response was to say: “What they were describing was actually their mistresses; I pointed that out to them which they didn’t take terribly well.”
Tributes poured in from many directions. Belfast film-maker Kathryn Ferguson was one of the last few people to speak to the singer as she had been working on a documentary film about O’Connor, titled Nothing Compares, which was set to be released on 29 July.
She said she was “devastated” by the news, and adding: “Our film really, for me, it was a love letter to Sinéad. She is one of the most radical, incredible musicians that we’ve had and we were very, very lucky to have had her.”
Alison Moyet described O’Connor as having an “astounding presence” and a voice that “cracked stone with force by increment”. She went on to say: “She was as beautiful as any girl around and never traded on that card. I loved that about her.”
Annie Lennox called her “fierce and fragile… impulsive, bold and beautiful… with an incredible voice.” Before saying: “May the angels hold you in their tender arms and give you rest”.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar said her music “was loved around the world and her talent was unmatched”, while Irish President Michael D Higgins praised the singer’s “authenticity” before making a strong statement: “What Ireland has lost at such a relatively young age is one of our greatest and most gifted composers, songwriters and performers of recent decades, one who had a unique talent and extraordinary connection with her audience, all of whom held such love and warmth for her.”
Never fully appreciated
In total O’Connor released 10 studio albums between 1987 and 2014, but her mental health was always a concern. In November 2015, after recovering from a hysterectomy, she posted a message on Facebook announcing she was staying at a hotel and contemplating suicide, which caused panic for her army of fans, but fortunately she was found safe and well.
The immensely talented musician found a way to deal with her demons, but never got the credit she fully deserved.