27 Jul 2023

Sinead O'Connor: A life of beauty, pain, friction and art

4:09 pm on 27 July 2023
Sinead O'Connor performing in Vancouver in the 1980s.

Sinead O'Connor performing in Vancouver in the 1980s. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan

By David Cohen*

The internet has been awash in tributes to Sinéad O'Connor, the turbulent Irish singer and activist who died suddenly this week aged 56.

As others have noted, however, probably the most poignant words on O'Connor's passing may have already been shared by the artist herself, writing about the death of her son, Shane.

Responding last week to a tweet asking how her life was going, she shared crying face emojis and the hashtag #Lostmy17yrOldSonToSuicidein2022.

"Been living as undead night creature since," she added, describing her third child as the "lamp of my soul".

That last phrase happens to be lifted from a relatively obscure song from the late 1970s by Bob Dylan, to whom O'Connor also dedicated her recent memoir Rememberings.

The elfin singer with the big eyes and even bigger voice was born the third of five children in suburban Dublin to Sean and Marie O'Connor, whose marriage foundered when she was eight. By Sinead's own account, her behavioural health deteriorated along with it.

Eventually she was placed in a residential institution run by nuns. It was here she also discovered the personal possibilities of music.

All this is recounted in her memoir - fabulously amusing in places, angry in many others and bursting with well-chosen detail throughout.

The memoir traces her origins as a diminutive kid who endured frequent beatings from her mother. O'Connor recounts how she subsequently fell into committing petty crime. But she also, by great good fortune, stumbled into music, too.

Diminutive in size, she nonetheless possessed a commanding voice - as pure and supple as a naked Irish flame - which she first began musically exercising on the watch of the nuns.

Musician Sinéad O'Connor performs at the Highline Ballroom on 23 February, 2012 in New York City.

O'Connor performing in New York City in 2012. Photo: Jason Kempin / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

She began thinking of herself as a "protest" singer after discovering Dylan - not his well-known folk recordings from the early 1960s, mind, but the provocatively evangelical Slow Train Coming, which she later described as the best record album "of all time" and the one album that "changed my life".

Among O'Connor's most satisfying cover versions is of a song from the same Dylan recording, 'I Believe in You'.

Her best-known recording of another artist's work, though, will forever be 'Nothing Compares 2 U', the song composed by Prince but actually improved on by O'Connor in what would become her global breakthrough single.

In New Zealand in the early 1990s, it was almost impossible to move sideways without bumping into the atmospheric ballad playing on a nearby radio.

Just as hard to miss over the years was her frequently jagged media profile.

In 1992, she famously ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul ll during an appearance on what was supposed to be a late-night American comedy show. The next decade was studded with sometimes eccentric public antics, theological pronouncements and feuds with other artists.

The music remained generally first-rate, as evidenced in a harmonically powerful, self-penned song such as this from the 2000 album Faith and Courage. Her gorgeous handling of the Irish standards was also something for the ages.

And why not? In a documentary filmed shortly before her struggles finally overwhelmed her this past week, O'Connor said there had been no therapy when she was growing up, "so the reason I got into music was therapy".

* David Cohen is a Wellington journalist and author who writes frequently about music

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm

Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

Community Law

Eating Disorders Association of NZ: 0800 233 269

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Sexual Violence

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334

Male Survivors Aotearoa

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) 022 344 0496

Family Violence

Women's Refuge:(0800 733 843

It's Not OK 0800 456 450

Shine: 0508 744 633

Victim Support: 0800 842 846

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.

Abuse survivors

For urgent help: Safe To Talk 0800044334

For male survivors -

Road Forward Trust, Wellington, contact Richard 0211181043

Better Blokes Auckland, 099902553

The Canterbury Men's Centre, 03 3776747

The Male Room, Nelson 035480403

Male Survivors, Waikato 07 8584112

Male Survivors, Otago 0211064598

For female survivors -

Help Wellington, 048016655

Help, Auckland 09 623 1296.

Help with alcohol and drugs

Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797

Drug Help website

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs