Sinéad O’Connor: The world loses a powerful voice for justice

July 28, 2023
Sinead O'Connor
Sinéad O'Connor joined an artists' boycott of Israel in 2014 over its occupation of Palestine. Photo: manalive/Flickr - CC By 2.0

Eight hundred years we have been down
The secret of the water sound
Has kept the spirit of a man
Above the pain descending…
Irish Ways and Irish Laws, written by John Gibbs, performed by Sinéad O’Connor.

The world lost a powerful force for justice on July 28, when poet, activist, singer and inspiration to millions, Sinéad O’Connor died at 56.

The outpourings have been far-reaching and heart rending; reminding us all what an incredible human she was in a world still not ready for her.

Earlier this year, after receiving the inaugural award for Classic Irish Album at the RTÉ Choice Music Awards, O’Connor dedicated her album to “each and every member of Ireland’s refugee community”, telling them: “You’re very welcome in Ireland. I love you very much and I wish you happiness.”

O’Connor regarded herself as a protest singer and an activist before a pop star.

In 2014, joining a boycott of Israel she said: “Let’s just say that, on a human level, nobody with any sanity, including myself, would have anything but sympathy for the Palestinian plight. There’s not a sane person on Earth who in any way sanctions what the fuck the Israeli authorities are doing.”

Through her music and through her actions she stood up for the oppressed. Her songs are ballads of resistance and stories of tragedy. She could condense the vapour of wrongdoing into concrete soundings of solidarity. And she was brave.

Perhaps most famously, in 1992, at a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland was synonymous with the Irish state and the Irish spirit, she took them on. In front of the world on Saturday Night Live, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II; a protest against the systemic child sexual abuse conducted under the auspice of the church.

When asked in the hailstorm that followed: “What affect do you think this will have on your career? Are you prepared for the consequences?” She replied: “Look at the alternative.” Her moral vindication came in time; we now know the church engaged in a massive cover-up of sexual abuse, scarring millions.

She was a voice of integrity within the music industry too, boycotting the Grammys so as not “to be part of a world that measures artistic ability by material success”.

She was refreshingly honest about her mental health at a time when it was taboo, powerful in refusing to conform to gender-based norms and empathetic to the nth degree. “I have four children by four different fathers, only one of whom I married, and I married three other men, none of whom are the fathers of my children,” she wrote in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings.

She was ordained as a priest in the Latin Tridentine church in 1999, an independent Catholic church.

In 2004 she went to Jamaica and produced — with Jamaica’s “riddim twins” Sly and Robbie — what I believe to be one of her greatest works, Throw Down Your Arms, interpretations of reggae classics.

“You know, there’s a huge kind of longing, yearning and calling in the music from Ireland and Jamaica, particularly the singing … They have such faith, these people, that God is around and watching and is a living spirit. When you’re around these people you can taste God, is how I would put it,” she said at the time.

In 2018 she converted to Islam, changing her name to Shuhada Sadaqat, keeping Sinéad O’Connor as her performance name.

O’Connor was deeply empathetic, curious and spiritual, untrammelled by societal expectations.

Working tirelessly to change a world that hurts you, and that hurts others, is an act of generosity and O’Connor should be remembered for this as much as for her artistic genius.

…Today the struggle carries on
I wonder will I live so long
To see the gates being opened up
To a people and their freedom.
Irish Ways and Irish Laws, written by John Gibbs, performed by Sinéad O’Connor.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.