Sinéad O’Connor, the troubled Irish singer-songwriter, died in July at age fifty-six. No cause of death has been announced, but it is fair to note that at times she both predicted and welcomed her own demise. Her son Shane committed suicide in 2022. Not long after, she vowed, “I’ve decided to follow my son. There is no point living without him. Everything I touch, I ruin. I only stayed for him. And now he’s gone. I’ve destroyed my family. My kids don’t want to know me.” (After Shane’s death, O’Connor still had three other living children, by three fathers, and troubled relationships with all of them.) When she later reported to a hospital for psychiatric treatment, she persisted, “I am lost without my kid and I hate myself. Hospital will help a while. But I’m going to find Shane. This is just a delay.” So it proved.
Her passing occasioned varied responses. Media outlets offered up the panegyrics accorded pop stars who have achieved number-one singles. Detractors dismissed her as having done nothing in her life but cover a Prince song and rip up a picture of John Paul II on live television. Feminists hailed her as an icon, a gifted musician who refused to sexualize herself for record company lucre. People who grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s listened to her music again. Before she drifts out of public consciousness, O’Connor’s life deserves consideration by Christians, indeed by all those who look with worry to our post-Christian future.
O’Connor had a difficult childhood. Her father, a lawyer and advocate for the legalization of divorce in Ireland (which did not come about until 1996), left Sinéad’s mother and remarried abroad; her mother was physically and emotionally abusive to the children of the man who had left her. Sinéad was “rescued” by and lived with her father briefly, before a series of shoplifting offenses landed her in a reform school run by the Order of Our Lady of Charity. A nun by the name of Sr. Margaret gave Sinéad a guitar and lessons, a deed for which lovers of music will remain grateful. Nevertheless, O’Connor called the school “Dickensian” and said that the nuns’ practice of sending disobedient children to sleep in the attached nursing home among the dying and demented caused “panic and terror and agony.”
O’Connor decided early on that she hated the Catholic Church, in part because of her experience at the reform school, in part because her mother was Catholic. She sought her answers elsewhere. She threw herself into that teenage world in which music means everything. In 1987, at the age of twenty, she released her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, which made her famous. Not only had she written the songs, but she had also sung, played guitar, arranged, mixed, and produced the record while in the final stages of pregnancy with her first child. She married the child’s father in 1989, but the couple separated later that year, whereupon O’Connor aborted their second child. She wrote a song about her aborted daughter called “My Special Child.” Not every artist on MTV can claim to have killed the person who inspired her most recent single.
Think about my little girl
Her yellow skin and her dark curls
And how her father’s heart was frozen
I spoke to her and I said:
“You won’t regret the mother you have chosen.”
I lied. Where’s she tonight?
This kind of honest but utterly blind grappling with her life is what makes O’Connor’s songs extraordinary—at once defiant and repentant, vulnerable and belligerent. One critic described her music as “an open wound spinning at 33 1/3.” Her life was accurately represented by her lyrics. She married three more times; none of these marriages lasted so long as a year. She bore three more children and aborted another.
Besides music and marriages and fame and fortune, she experimented with many things that promise contentment to modern people: drugs (she admitted she was stoned for much of her life); feminism; her own version of Catholicism (she said she wanted to be ordained a priest, and a group called the Latin Tridentine Church ordained her “Mother Bernadette Marie” in 1999); psychotherapy; pharmaceutical psychiatry; the airing of her dirty laundry on social media; and Islam (she converted, taking the name Shuhada' Sadaqat, in 2018). And yet the wound never closed.
More than any other pop icon before or since, O’Connor embodied injury by and estrangement from the Catholic Church; it was part of the basis of her appeal. She tore up the picture of John Paul II on an episode of Saturday Night Live after performing the Bob Marley song “War,” and since her death she has been lauded by critics of the Church for declaring the Church her enemy. Her life is worth examination by Christians who see the need of reconciling the Church’s alienated children.
Some who are wounded by the Church (or anyone else) never find consolation. It may be said that nothing is sufficient: For anyone as broken as O’Connor was, there is no hope of redemption. But if this is correct, then the gospel we bear from Christ has nothing to offer the troubled. Or it may be said that the Catholic Church messed up so badly in Ireland that it can never offer consolation to the Irish. But in O’Connor’s case, it seems clear that the loss of Catholic strictures exacerbated the trouble. Catholicism teaches, for instance, the indissolubility of marriage, and if O’Connor’s father had cared for her mother instead of abandoning her and their children, perhaps much suffering would have been avoided. Likewise with O’Connor’s own marriages. She appears to have believed—from her repeated attempts—that marriage was a good worth having. In her 2000 song “No Man’s Woman” (the video for which features a woman abandoning a man at the altar), she pivots from proclaiming her superiority to marriage to confessing that she is afraid to marry because she has been hurt in the past:
I don’t want to be no man’s woman
I’ve other work I want to get done
I haven’t traveled this far to become
No man’s woman
No man’s woman
’Cause I’m tired of it
And I’m so scared of it
That I’ll never trust again
’Cause a man can fake you
Take your soul and make you
Miserable in so much pain.
The fear and pain of abandonment are what marriage is meant to banish. But how may Christians open people’s ears to this message in an age in which marriage is so debased, its permanence denied in the name of freedom, and the Church’s authority itself so diminished? And how are we to heal people who appear too wounded to bear the demands that marriage, like Christian morality in general, imposes on our frail selves?
The cross offers to transform our suffering into a sacrifice from which the world can benefit. If we do not transform our suffering, we will transmit it to the people around us, as O’Connor felt she had (“Everything I touch, I ruin”). The Christian way of not returning evil for evil, of not succumbing to hatred, of abiding with family and spouse, of cultivating faith and hope in place of fear: These are the things the world needs. And surely the contemplative tradition within Christianity—which treats it as our happiness to behold the divine, and our sins as occlusions that impede our vision—urges true self-knowledge, which in turn has its earthly uses. O’Connor tried out various self-diagnoses, corresponding to various therapies: art, self-expression, drugs, boutique spirituality. All proved insufficient. If we do not understand our suffering, we will be unable to turn it to good. I believe that O’Connor truly lamented child abuse in the Church. But by declaring war on John Paul II, she made herself an icon of ineffective protest, of a case for change rendered unintelligible by anger. She antagonized viewers of SNL and got herself booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute. It is not clear that she made herself a credible advocate for abused children or eased the suffering of any young Sinéads.
The title of O’Connor’s first album is a reference to Psalm 91:
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
O’Connor went astray from this protection and was not able to overcome the lion and the cobra. I fear that without a form of Christian practice in the public square, many more will tread her sorrowful path.
John Byron Kuhner owns Bookmarx Books, an independent bookshop in Steubenville, Ohio.