I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Sinead O’Connor reading her 2021 autobiography, Rememberings. She was found unresponsive in her London flat on July 26 this year at the age of 56. The cause of her death hasn’t been made public, but she often admitted to suicidal feelings, especially after the suicide of the third of her four children, Shane, at the age of 17.
Sinead (I call her by her first name because I don’t want to objectify her) achieved notoriety when, during a Saturday Night Live broadcast in 1992, she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II as a protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She was banned for life by NBC. “This hurts me a lot less than rapes hurt those Irish children,” she writes. Future recording contracts and performances were cancelled (“cancel culture” is nothing new) and there was widespread opprobrium. Devout Catholic Joe Pesci said on Saturday Night Live the following week that he would have given her “such a smack.” It was a life-changing event that some say ended her career, but she describes it as a moment of liberation from the lucrative and exploitative music industry: “I define success by whether I keep the contract I made with the Holy Spirit before I made one with the music business.”
The photograph was taken during the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979, and it was the only photo Sinead’s mother ever had on her bedroom wall. Sinead writes, “My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope. It represented lies and liars and abuse.” In an almost unbearable chapter, she describes the sadistic torture she suffered as a child at the hands of her mother, who died in a car crash on her way to Mass when Sinead was 18. By that time, she had understandably cut off all ties to a mother whom she nevertheless mourned and loved throughout her life.
Given what we now know about Pope John Paul II’s collusion in covering up priestly sexual abuse, that act of tearing up his photograph takes on new meaning, particularly when interpreted in the context of Sinead’s personal story. What if, instead of shock and outrage, Catholics had recognised it for the prophetic gesture that it was?
There is an unflinching honesty to this autobiography, shot through with heartbreaking confessions but also with moments of comic genius that made me laugh out loud, such as her description of the reaction of a Greek barber in London when she asked him to shave her head. Her violent encounter with Prince in his dark, remote home is written like an episode from Dracula, in a way that is both shocking and hilarious. Listen to the audiobook to get the full impact of her dramatic flair.
Honesty isn’t synonymous with factual reportage, and Sinead’s many public outbursts are riddled with contradictions and volte-face claims. Her honesty is that of a person willing to expose herself in all her mental struggles, failures, vulnerabilities and regrets, but also in an unflinching commitment to solidarity with the vulnerable and oppressed. She emerges as a tormented, courageous, chaotic, loving soul adrift in a world that sanctifies conformity, success and denial over truth’s often raw and jagged realities. She writes of her beloved friend John Keogh’s dependence on Class A drugs that, “he’s an innocent. That’s why he can’t bear the world.” It’s hard not to see this as a summing up of her own short, troubled life, with its several husbands, many lovers and four children fathered by different men.
Hers was a restless search for meaning even as she preserved a childlike faith in a God who would not abandon her. She sought guidance from priests and ministers, she discovered sources of wisdom in the cryptic utterances of her Rasta friends, she was ordained a priest in the Independent Catholic Church of Ireland, renaming herself Mother Bernadette Mary. When she embraced Islam in 2018, she adopted the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat, though she retained her birth name for public performances.
Her autobiography is a story of the dark night of the soul without the trappings of conventional piety with which Catholic hagiographers domesticate the saints. Towards the end, after her conversion to Islam, she writes, “I’ve done only one holy thing in my life and that was sing.” Earlier in the book, she tells of how, as a schoolgirl, she went to see a priest to tell him how sinful she was. He listened to her carefully and then asked her what job she wanted to do when she was an adult.
“I told him I liked singing. He said, ‘Ah! Did you know that he who sings prays twice?”’
RIP, beautiful singer, and thank you for the prayers you left us.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.