You must always be puzzled by mental illness. The thing I would dread most, if I became mentally ill, would be your adopting a common-sense attitude; that you could take it for granted that I was deluded.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, to Maureen O’Connor Drury
The public performance of mental illness has cost Sinéad O’Connor dearly—largely because no one is puzzled by it. Over the years, well-meaning chroniclers have patronized O’Connor’s torments. (A representative Los Angeles Times headline: “Don’t Let the Drama Around Sinéad O’Connor Eclipse Her Art.”)
The best known “drama around Sinéad” unfolded in October 1992, when the singer protested child abuse in the Catholic church by ripping up an image of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live.
As a rising star of striking talent and promise, the young singer faced gaslighting on a grand scale. “People do use the fact that I’ve got an illness to beat me up,” O’Connor once said, “often for perfectly sane things I’ve done.”
More than a decade passed before she received official diagnoses: bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. To have a mental disorder you don’t understand, O’Connor said, means “you end up burning your bridges a bit so you end up a bit isolated.” Dr. Phil managed to exploit that vulnerability to insinuate, in a televised shrink session with O’Connor, that the Pope’s photo represented personal daddy issues.
“[T]hey treat me like a dancing bear,” O’Connor told one interviewer.
You know I love to make music, but my head got wrecked by the business.
“Sinéad’s Perplexing Protest,” the Washington Post called the 1992 SNL segment. Then the Post went on about O’Connor’s “confusing intellectual influences.” O’Connor had inserted the phrase “child abuse” (she sang the phrase twice) in Bob Marley’s song “War” before tearing up the Pope pic. It was arguably the most powerful piece of performance art of the 1990s, and all the more powerful coming from a resident of a Catholic country.
Plenty of people in privileged positions had some knowledge of the abuse in the Catholic church. Its international history was enabled by secular laws in the United States as well. But the most socially vulnerable kids bore the brunt of the torment. There would be harsh consequences for O’Connor’s “perplexing” urge to stand up for them. Joe Pesci castigated O’Connor on SNL’s next episode. The Anti-Defamation League condemned her. One group brought a steamroller to Chrysalis Records in New York City to crush her CDs.
But public tension wasn’t new to her. In 1991, she won a Grammy and refused it—pointing to the materialism and inequality the awards perpetuated. And O’Connor would keep speaking—for Palestinians, for Black artists, for Black Lives Matter. For abortion rights. For dying veterans. She collaborated with Mary J. Blige to confront the commercial exploitation of girls. And she challenged North Carolina when the state restricted gender-nonconforming and trans people’s restroom use. O’Connor has long spoken up for the role of art in amplifying suppressed voices.
O’Connor has also talked of the filicidal aspects of war. Bob Guccione Jr. of Spin asked if the 1991 Bush/Cheney Liberation of Kuwait came across not so much as a victory for freedom as “a celebration that we beat the s–t out of somebody.” O’Connor replied:
That’s what we’ve been made into. We’re quite willing for our own sons to be killed for that reason. We think that that’s a good thing. We don’t question. We don’t say: Well, why is my son in Kuwait? We say: My son’s in Kuwait, isn’t it great? That’s abuse of children.
War as child abuse. O’Connor called it—displaying a lucidity very few others have attained.
‘Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.
– Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 2
O’Connor released “Famine” in 1994 (on Universal Mother) and 1995 (as a single). By explaining the potato famine’s role in the violent suppression of Irish culture, “Famine” reclaims what Howard Zinn called people’s history. And by including the howls of wolves, the song channels a community of beings who’ve been banished from Ireland forever.
The key wolf hater was Cromwell, whose government paid bounties to English wolf stalkers in Ireland. (Arming the Irish people was out of the question.) Wolfhounds, used to ruthlessly pursue their canid ancestors, were coveted by European elites, but Cromwell had restricted the commerce in wolfhounds in 1652.
Around the same time, Cromwell’s soldiers extirpated the Irish Catholics east of the River Shannon. Irish people were ordered “to Hell or to Connaught!” as Paul Vallely recounted, describing the ethnic cleansing:
By the end of 1656 four fifths of the Irish land was in Protestant hands. When Catholics fought back, in guerrilla groups numbering some 30,000, Cromwell’s generals forcibly evicted civilians who were thought to be helping the resisters and systematically burned the area’s crops and killed all livestock. Famine followed, exacerbated by bubonic plague. Three years on, a fifth of the population had died.
An Irish person caught eating anything other than a potato could be shot dead. O’Connor sang:
There was no “famine”;
See, Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes.
All of the other food—meat, fish, vegetables—were shipped out of the country under armed guard to England, while the Irish people starved.
Irish Catholics who survived into the 1700s weren’t allowed to vote, become lawyers or teachers or public officials, or attend universities, as Noel Ignatiev told interviewer Danny Postel. The Irish people had no inheritance rights. Ignatiev quoted an 18th-century Anglo-Irish Protestant judge who said “the law presupposes no such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.”
A string of infallible Popes controlled Irish education. The first British one was the 12th-century Adrian IV. As O’Connor explained, reading from Jack O’Brien’s British Brutality In Ireland, Adrian’s papal documents declared the “rude and ignorant people” of Ireland subject to Roman Catholic jurisdiction. This laid the groundwork for the British to eventually starve the Irish people while priests said it was God’s will that they paid their British landlords. When the English paid the Irish people to stop teaching their children their own language, the transmission of culture stopped—a deprivation that O’Connor calls the very worst of abuses.
Before conversations about epigenetics became fashionable, O’Connor sang:
See we’re like a child that’s been battered,
Has to drive itself out of its head because it’s frightened.
Still feels all the painful feelings,
But they lose contact with the memory.
O’Connor’s art has the deep kind of empathy that’s informed by personal torments. A child can’t heal, O’Connor sang, without the ability to recover memories and grieve what was lost. Neither can a people.
Look at all our old men in the pubs, look at all our young people on drugs.
O’Connor regarded the prevalence of child abuse in Ireland as the result of its people having been forced into servitude on their own territory, starved, stripped of their language and their collective memory—all enabled by church leaders.
And yet O’Connor, who is something of a religious polyglot, retained complicated feelings about Catholicism: “If I felt I was in the position to criticize, well then, I must feel I can do a better job.” O’Connor’s ordination as a Catholic priest by the Latin Tridentine Church was controversial, and could be considered one persona the singer adopted in a continuing series; but that would understate its meaning. “Growing up, when I was a kid we all used to pretend to say masses,” she recalled in 2019. She’d wanted to work in hospice settings and the sex-segregated priesthood prevented it. “The only people who got to work with dying people were priests and there was no point in me doing that because I was a woman,” she declared. “I would’ve been in there at 14, with my singing voice. I would have brought that to them.”
As for Ireland’s wolves, their songs are forever silenced. The last wolf was reportedly hunted down in 1786 for killing farmed sheep in County Carlow.
Rise in Power
In January 2022, Sinéad O’Connor tweeted that her 17-year-old child Shane died after slipping away from Tallaght Hospital. The teen was under the supervision of health care assistants after having made two suicide attempts in the previous week. O’Connor grieved openly, asking: “May he rest in peace and may no one follow his example. My baby. I love you so much.”
Shane was named after Shane MacGowan. The former Pogues singer tweeted:
Sinead you have always been there for me and for so many people, you have been a comfort & a soul who is not afraid to feel the pain of the suffering. You have always tried to heal & help. I pray that you can be comforted & find strength, healing & peace in your own sorrow & loss.
He was a beautiful boy and I loved him. I pray that he can be at peace and also be able to stay connected with you. Love Shane
One reader responded:
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat Sinead O’Connor.
Ireland’s National Review Panel investigates deaths and abuse of children in need of assistance. Since the panel began its work in 2009 (not counting this year’s figures), 132 children and youths have died while in care or known to child protection services. The panel has pointed to the overloading of care workers as a factor. Nearly a quarter of the deaths have been suicides, mostly between ages 15 and 17.
O’Connor understands how this crisis arose as no one else does. She told the world about it, and the world has yet to fully hear her. May she indeed be comforted and find strength, healing, and peace, and may it never be taken for granted that she was deluded.
1. Written by John Reynolds, Sinéad O’Connor, Tim Simenon, and David Clayton, and including a sample of “Eleanor Rigby” by Lennon and McCartney.↑
2. Reading by Sinéad O’Connor on the Irish famine (London, 1994; published via YouTube by Erik Petermann in July 2011). ↑