Promises to the Holy Spirit :: Sinéad O’Connor (1966-2023)

“His answers are always silent. It took me a while to come to grips with that. I thought the silence meant He didn’t care. So I’d scream more until I was all screamed out and could only be silent myself. I thought you were supposed to hear His voice like in all the stories. I found out the fact is that He can’t speak because He’s crying so much Himself. Who can speak when they’re weeping?” —Sinéad O’Connor, Rememberings

What does it mean to really listen to the Holy Spirit? To take up your cross and faithfully follow? What does it take to pass through the eye of the needle? Sinéad O’Connor knew. When she was growing up as a young abused girl in Dublin, she made a promise to follow the call of the Holy Spirit. It was not the spirit of organized religion or particular dogma, but rather a force that dwelled within, a force she would later come to say was music itself. In this space, she took refuge, and in return she found her voice, a one of a kind sound capable of soaring or low murmurs, of great power and holy sensitivity. And though O’Connor has died at the shockingly young age of 56, the music she leaves behind continues to challenge, prod, and implore on behalf of the wronged. It didn’t matter if O’Connor was offering post-punk, folk-rock, roots reggae, big band jazz, or electronic pop—she always maintained the stance of a protest singer, a role she viewed as spiritual in nature, a role more often than not put her at odds with an industry and culture unaccustomed to witnessing such bravery and solidarity.  

Writing in her 2021 memoir Rememberings, O’Connor details how she ended up at Grianán Training Centre, a Magdalene asylum for troubled girls when she was only 14. She hated it, of course, and was prone to rebellious escape attempts. But it ended up being a site of salvation, after all. There, a nun named Sister Margaret took note of O’Connor’s creative attributes and gifted her a guitar and a Bob Dylan songbook. As she began writing her own nascent compositions, she started to associate with members of local groups like The Waterboys and In Tua Nua, quickly joining up with a local group called Ton Ton Macoute. O’Connor’s voice shocked those around her, its profound resonance and its striking character. That voice earned the attention of Ensign Records, which signed her, and attracted a manager, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh—who’d helped helm U2’s sort lived Mother Records subsidiary—who introduced O’Connor to dub and reggae music, a crucial link in her artistic development.

Listening to one of O’Connor’s earliest commercial recording, “Heroine,” a 1986 collaboration with The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr., it’s strange to imagine a young singer sounding so possessed. But it was her 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra that properly introduced O’Connor—that voice sounding practically feral on songs like “Mandika” and the harrowing “Troy.” The album established her as a strident new force in music—earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal. She attended the awards to perform “Mandika” with the logo of Public Enemy painted on the side of her head—a call-out of the institution’s racist stances against rap music.

But it was 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got that turned her into a bonafide pop star. From the James Brown “Funky Drummer”-sampling “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” to the haunting protest ballad “Black Boys on Mopeds,” the record showcases O’Connor’s evolving sensibilities. It includes her monumental cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a tender and vulnerable reading accompanied by an iconic John Maybury-directed video, that took O’Connor to top of the charts.

O’Connor took fitfully to her status as a commercial concern in the music industry from the very start. She refused to attend that year’s Grammy Awards, refusing to partake in the “false and materialistic values” of the music industry. And when it came time to follow I Do Not Want, she decided it would be with an album of standards, Am I Not Your Girl? It was a promotional stop for this album that took her to the SNL stage in 1992, where she performed a hallowed version of Bob Marley’s “War” and, to conclude, infamously shredded a photo of Pope John Paul II in protest of the Catholic church’s obscured history of sexual abuse. It’s difficult to overstate the firestorm of controversy this generated. On one hand, it’s a shame that this single action is what O’Connor is best remembered, often in reductive terms. But on the other, it speaks to the righteous tension that roiled in O’Connor, a seemingly blasphemous act motivated by her genuine love, by a desire to address the hurt and damage done in the name of God. It was an intimately personal protest too; the photo she tore was her late mother’s—an object that symbolized torment under the guise of faith.

Consequently, the records sold less, but that was OK. O’Connor was certain she’s followed the right path. “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career,” she writes in Rememberings, “and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track,” she writes Rememberings. From then on, O’Connor was free to keep exploring. Highlights include 1994’s Universal Mother, a stunning collection of folk-rock and trip-hop that came out of her studies of the bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” vocal tradition. Tellingly, the album includes a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” a song for another music industry misfit, Kurt Cobain, whose birthday fell only a few months after her own.

In 2000, she teamed with a wide cast of producers including Adrian Sherwood, Brian Eno, Wyclef Jean, and others for Faith & Courage, a quixotic collection of electronic pop and spiritually expansive, New Age-tinged material. In 2005, she teamed with Sly and Robbie for Throw Down Your Arms, a ganja smoke-clouded black horse entry in her catalog that finds her focusing exclusively on roots reggae—complete with a second disc of dubs. Though not currently available on streaming sites, it remains one of the strongest, most direct albums in her catalog, a cross-cultural exchange that stretched back to the records Ó Ceallaigh had played her in those early days. And O’Connor remained restless. In 2014, she returned with a collection of more straightforward pop, 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, the final album released during her life.

Though her time on Earth was beset by tragedy—her son Shane took his own life in January of 2022—her story is not one that should be measured only by its pains. Instead, perhaps we can look at O’Connor as a beacon of survival, and look to her courage as an example worth following. She leaves behind a collection of songs that testify to that bravery, humanity, and spiritual openness. Like her stylistically diverse discography, her faith journey took many twists and turns: she was ordained a priest in the breakaway Catholic sect known as the Latin Tridentine Church in 1999, and converted to Islam 2018, rechristening herself Shuhada’ Sadaqat. The Spirit continued to whisper to O’Connor, and she continued to listen for its hushed urgings. When that still small voice spoke in her heart, she listened, even if the voice that spoke was a silent one. She heeded the call, consequences be damned, a prophet misunderstood in her home. The voice within powering the voice singing out into a damaged world, calling for the reconciliation to come. | j woodbury

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