Sinéad O’Connor, Irish singer and political activist, dead at 56 | CBC News

Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish singer who rose to fame in the 1990s with a hit recording of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U and became known for her outspoken political activism and mental health struggles, has died at 56.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time,” the singer’s family said in a statement reported Wednesday by the BBC and RTE.

Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar paid tribute to the singer on social media, calling her talent “unmatched.”

“Condolences to her family, her friends and all who loved her music,” he wrote. 

Recognizable by her shaved head and elfin features, O’Connor began her career singing on the streets of Dublin and soon rose to international fame. She was a star from her 1987 debut album The Lion and the Cobra and became a sensation in 1990 with her cover of Prince’s ballad Nothing Compares 2 U, a seething, shattering performance that topped charts from Europe to Australia and was heightened by a promotional video featuring the grey-eyed O’Connor in intense close-up. 

Nothing Compares 2 U received three Grammy nominations and was the featured track off her acclaimed album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Rolling Stone named her artist of the year in 1991.

“She proved that a recording artist could refuse to compromise and still connect with millions of listeners hungry for music of substance,” the magazine declared.

Music often overshadowed by politics, personal life

She was a lifelong non-conformist — she would say that she shaved her head in response to record executives pressuring her to be conventionally glamorous — but her political and cultural stances and troubled private life often overshadowed her music.

She feuded with Frank Sinatra over her refusal to allow the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner at one of her shows and accused Prince of physically threatening her. In 1989, she declared her support for the Irish Republican Army, a statement she retracted a year later. Around the same time, she skipped the Grammy ceremony, saying it was too commercialized.

A critic of the Catholic Church well before allegations of sexual abuse were widely reported, O’Connor made headlines in October 1992 when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while appearing live on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and denounced the church as the enemy.

O’Connor, who alleged that her mother was abusive, had taken the photo from her mother’s home after she died, the singer wrote in an essay from her 2021 memoir Rememberings that was published by Rolling Stone.

“My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope,” she wrote. “It represented lies and liars and abuse. The type of people who kept these things were devils like my mother.”

The following week, Joe Pesci hosted Saturday Night Live, held up a repaired photo of the Pope and said that if he had been on the show with O’Connor, he “would have gave her such a smack.” Days later, she appeared at an all-star tribute for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden and was immediately booed.

She was supposed to sing Dylan’s I Believe in You, but switched to an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s War, which she had sung on Saturday Night Live.

A man speaks to a young woman while they are on a performance stage.
Kris Kristofferson comforts Sinead O’Connor after she was booed off stage during the Bob Dylan anniversary concert at New York Madison Square Garden, on Oct. 17, 1992. (Ron Frehm/The Associated Press)

Although consoled and encouraged on stage by her friend Kris Kristofferson, she left and broke down, and her performance was kept off the concert CD. (Years later, Kristofferson recorded Sister Sinead, for which he wrote “And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t/But so was Picasso and so were the saints.”)

During a 2010 interview with CBC’s Mark Kelley, O’Connor said she didn’t remember a lot about the aftermath of the SNL episode but recalled a mixed reaction in North America to her criticism of the Catholic Church.

“We knew in Ireland 10 years before anyone in Canada or America knew,” she said, referring to the church in Ireland taking out a liability insurance policy in the late 1980s to protect itself against claims of clerical sexual abuse.

“So I understand that, at the time I made that gesture, it was an abhorrent idea to suggest that a priest could be sexually molesting a child.

“It’s not about do I feel vindicated, or you or me or anybody bloody else,” she said. “It’s about these poor children who actually went through the violence and horror that we can’t even begin to imagine. And if we care actually about it we should make it our business to study what did they go through.”

WATCH | ‘I knew there would be an aftermath’ to SNL moment, O’Connor told CBC:

Sinéad O’Connor on fighting ‘the real enemy’ and tearing photo of pope

In 1992, Sinéad O’Connor tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while appearing live on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and denounced the church. ‘It’s about the victims,’ the late Irish singer and outspoken political activist told CBC’s Mark Kelley in 2010 after Pope Benedict XVI issued an apology to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.

In 1999, O’Connor caused uproar in Ireland when she became a priestess of the breakaway Latin Tridentine Church — a position that was not recognized by the mainstream Catholic Church. For many years, she called for a full investigation into the extent of the church’s role in concealing child abuse by clergy.

In 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI apologized to Ireland to atone for decades of abuse, O’Connor condemned the apology for not going far enough and called for Catholics to boycott mass until there was a full investigation into the Vatican’s role, which by 2018 was making international headlines.

“People assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation,” she wrote in the Washington Post in 2010.

O’Connor announced in 2018 that she had converted to Islam and would be adopting the name Shuhada’ Davitt, later Shuhada Sadaqat — although she continued to use Sinéad O’Connor professionally.

‘Music saved me’

O’Connor was born on Dec. 8, 1966. She had a difficult childhood, with a mother she alleged was abusive and encouraged her to shoplift.

As a teenager, she spent time in a church-sponsored institution for girls, where she said she washed priests’ clothes for no wages. But a nun gave O’Connor her first guitar, and soon she sang and performed on the streets of Dublin, her influences ranging from Dylan to Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Her performance with a local band caught the eye of a small record label, and, in 1987, O’Connor released The Lion and the Cobra, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and featured the hit Mandinka, driven by a hard-rock guitar riff and O’Connor’s piercing vocals. O’Connor, then 20 and pregnant, co-produced the album.

“I suppose I’ve got to say that music saved me,” she said in an interview with the Independent newspaper in 2013. “I didn’t have any other abilities, and there was no learning support for girls like me, not in Ireland at that time. It was either jail or music. I got lucky.”

A singer in headscarf sings in front of a mic on stage.
O’Connor performs on stage at Akvarium Klub in Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 9, 2019. (Marton Monus/MTI/The Associated Press)

O’Connor’s other musical credits included the albums Universal Mother and Faith and Courage, a cover of Cole Porter’s You Do Something to Me, from the AIDS fundraising album Red Hot + Blue, and backing vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Blood of Eden. She received eight Grammy nominations throughout her career and in 1991 won for best alternative musical performance.

O’Connor announced she was retiring from music in 2003, but continued to record new material. Her most recent album was I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, released in 2014, and she sang the theme song for Season 7 of Outlander.

The singer married four times. Her union to drug counsellor Barry Herridge, in 2011, lasted just 16 days. O’Connor had four children: Jake, with her husband John Reynolds; Roisin, with John Waters; her late son Shane, with Donal Lunny; and Yeshua Bonadio, with Frank Bonadio.

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