I Will Rise and I Will Return: The Lucidity of Sinéad O’Connor

Image of Sinead O'Conner.

Photo (unmodified): Bryan Ledgard; CC by 2.20.

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

Sinéad O’Connor has died, aged 56, after a long struggle with mental torments that many took for granted. A well-meaning headline writer for the Los Angeles Times offered the representative sample “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 interminable gaslighting. “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.”

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 O’Connor

“Sinéad’s Perplexing Protest,” the Washington Post called the 1992 SNL segment before rambling on about O’Connor’s “confusing intellectual influences.” O’Connor had inserted the phrase “child abuse” (twice) in Bob Marley’s song “War” before tearing up the Pope’s image. 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. Abuse was enabled by secular laws in the United States as well. 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.

This came a year after she won a 1991 Grammy and refused it on account of the materialism and inequality the awards perpetuated. And O’Connor would keep speaking. For Palestinians. For Black Lives Matter. For abortion rights. For dying veterans. She collaborated with Mary J. Blige to confront the commercial exploitation of girls, and challenged North Carolina for restricting gender-expansive and trans people’s restroom use. O’Connor stood 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 few have attained.

Stolen Lands

‘Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.”

– Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 2

O’Connor first released “Famine” in 1994, on the album Universal Mother. By explaining starvation’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 harks back to Cromwell’s bounties to the English wolf stalkers in Ireland. (Arming the Irish people was out of the question.) Cromwell also ensured a steady supply of wolfhounds to chase down their canid ancestors.

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.”

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—was shipped out of the country under armed guard to England, while the Irish people starved.”

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.

“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.”

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—with the encouragement of a string of Roman Catholic popes and priests who declared it God’s will.

As for Ireland’s wolves, their songs are forever silenced.

Rise in Power

In January 2022, Sinéad O’Connor announced that her 17-year-old child Shane died after slipping away from Tallaght Hospital.

“May he rest in peace and may no one follow his example. My baby. I love you so much.”

The teen was under the supervision of health care assistants after having made two suicide attempts in the previous week.

Ireland’s National Review Panel investigates deaths of children in need of assistance. Since the panel debuted in 2009 more than 150 children and youths have died while in care or known to care services. Nearly a quarter of the deaths have been suicides, mostly between ages 15 and 17. The panel has pointed to overloaded employees as a factor.

But O’Connor knew how this crisis took shape. She told us.

Eighteen months after Shane’s death, on Wednesday the 26th of July 2023, Sinéad O’Connor left us. “She was beautiful, brilliant,” wrote Jeffrey St. Clair, “and one of the bravest people I’ve ever encountered.”

Rise in power, Sinéad. May no one ever again take it for granted that you were deluded.


“Famine” was written by John Reynolds, Sinéad O’Connor, Tim Simenon, and David Clayton, and includes a sample of “Eleanor Rigby” by Lennon and McCartney.

This memorial is abridged and updated from an earlier piece written during O’Connor’s lifetime.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.