Sinéad O’Connor: A Radical Voice Who Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Sinéad O’Connor’s passing at the age of 56 has been a huge shock. It has provoked an outpouring of love for her. Sinéad will be remembered for her artistic work and her astonishing voice; as a remarkable person on so many levels.

She has been a significant figure in Irish society ever since she first emerged to prominence in the late 1980s. She never shied away from commenting on political matters. She was radical in a way that very few Irish creative artists are. During the X case in 1992, a process that shook Irish society to its core, she was a clear and unapologetic advocate for abortion rights.

Her trenchant criticism of the Catholic Church long predated the revelations that hit Irish society in the 1990s like a tsunami. An institution that was a pillar of the Southern Irish state established in 1923, was brutally exposed as one where the systematic sexual abuse of children was widespread at every level. We know now that there are hundreds of thousands of victims of the Catholic Church’s hold on Irish society.

The sickening hypocrisy of the political establishment around Sinéad’s passing sticks in everyone’s throat. It stands in stark contrast to their brutal campaign to ensure the survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes, to take just one ongoing example, get as little financial compensation as possible. Everyone knows where Sinéad would stand on this!

Other Irish rock stars have long reconciled themselves to the political establishment and capitalism. Some, notably Bono, are comfortable playing the role of modern day court jester for politicians who have the blood of millions on their hands. Sinéad never took this route. We won’t see Sinéad in pictures with the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair or Vladimir Putin.

She consistently sided with the marginalised and oppressed. Those whose lives bore the brutal brunt of capitalism. In her early career she used her platform to expose racism in both the music industry and society. Whether to protest against the decision of the Grammy Awards to not recognise rap and hip-hop as legitimate art forms. Or, to her use of her platform to assist the families of Black people in Britain whose loved ones had died at the hands of the police. She continued with this throughout her career, more recently in her support for the Palestinians’ struggle.

Sinéad embraced the anti-imperialist Irish musical tradition and was vocal against state oppression and discrimination in the North, unlike some contemporaries. But she could also be critical of the IRA’s campaign; she attended the march in solidarity with the children killed by the IRA’s Warrington bomb in 1993, for example.

In 2022 she lost her son Shane who died by suicide. This event highlighted the woeful state of child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Sinéad was vocal about her experiences with the health care system. CAMHS services have been deliberately underfunded by successive Southern governments, at colossal human cost. The continued brutal indifference of the state towards children and adolescents who need mental healthcare exemplifies the society that Sinéad fought against all her life.

Sinéad was an artist first and foremost. Her interventions, always controversial, have been vindicated by events. In a society dominated by an endless succession of dreary gombeens, some more dangerous than others, but all greedy to their core, whose priority at all times is to fill their own pockets and get their cash into an off-shore account as quickly as possible, she was a spark and a flame.

She embodied the possibility of an alternative to that society. A society whose contradictions are sharpening, as record numbers of ordinary people are made homeless. Her quip that she made 10 million pounds across her career and gave half of it away stands in contrast to the greed that motivates the Irish landlord class. Where U2 and others employed accountants and tax advisers to ensure they kept their wealth safe from taxation, Sinéad gave, on her own account, half of hers away. She didn’t ‘fit in’ in more ways than one, and Irish society is all the better for it. More recently she is reported to have donated a huge amount of her clothing to a charity assisting trans youth.

Many will mourn Sinéad’s passing and the loss of what she still had to contribute. Her status within Irish culture is assured. She left an indelible mark on Ireland and the world. We will not see her like again.