What remains is the sound. That sound is Sinéad O’Connor’s peerless voice, a gift to anyone who ever heard it. O’Connor’s death will suck the air out of the places that her astonishing talent inhabited.
Her death marks a dark day, because O’Connor’s work, and the soul that transmitted that work, is peerless. An artist who was much more than an artist, a cultural behemoth who inhabited a petite human form, a woman whose aura glowed and vibrated when you were in her creative presence, be that watching her on stage, or listening to her records, or hearing her interviews.
She was quiet and loud. Brilliant and bashful. Earnest and mischievous. From her sprang forth the kind of creative lava that seeps and explodes from the tectonic shifting of genius and trauma.
A teenage prodigy, she recorded her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, while pregnant with her first child. Her artistry was her therapy, and she had so much to mine. The songs that emerged initially – Mandinka, Jerusalem, Troy – are still mind-blowing. By the time that album was released, she was just 20.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got followed, catapulting her to an unnerving level of fame, as her cover of Prince’s song Nothing Compares 2 U almost monopolised MTV and radio stations. The songs are pearls on a lengthy chain: The Last Day of Our Acquaintance; Thank You for Hearing Me; No Man’s Woman; 8 Good Reasons; one could go on and on.
To rattle through biography is almost trite, because O’Connor’s meaning supersedes mere linear achievements.
Her defiance was red hot. Shaved head, leather jacket, Doc Marten boots. She had the bravery to be authentic in an inauthentic place, a place that tried to hide people such as her, that attempted to sideline bolshie women, that demeaned female sexuality, and that rejected rebelliousness.
But our real heroes have always been outsiders. And so Ireland embraced her music, but the media was often tumultuous in her wake, a conditional and sometimes patronising love that thrived on what it deemed to be controversy, but what was in fact a life of truth-telling.
Alongside her resilience, there was a tenderness, a lightness, a sense of skittish youthful fun that existed in parallel with an inner turmoil she was vocal about too. “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” she typed in the comments section of her own interview in the New York Times two years ago. Right on.
O’Connor was a deeply spiritual person. Rejecting the cynical lie of holiness that Irish oppression conjured, a universal god remained in her artistry, articulated through her exploration of Rastafarian culture, Christianity and Islam. This state of constant transformation was often seen as confusing. But if O’Connor was searching for something, she was doing so on the artist’s path, where the journey is the point.
She spoke out about things many people did not want to hear said: women’s reproductive rights, the Aids crisis, racism within the music industry, American jingoism. She could have made things easier for herself, but that would not have been a truthful life. She never sold out.
She rejected fame when it kept coming for her, defying everything that glistened with a sheen of inauthenticity, be that the Grammys, the Vatican, the music industry itself, and any conservative context fearful of her wide gaze, one that stared with innocence and revolution.
In my encounters with her over the years, I always noted two primary states: personally sweet, and musically fastidious. At sound checks, she would call for tweaks over and over until she felt things were just right. They had to be, because it wasn’t just her voice that was her instrument, but the microphone she held. Ultimately, she understood what was needed for her to be properly amplified; sonically, politically, spiritually.
In recent years, O’Connor was embraced in new ways. Irish society caught up with her, and people were liberated enough to openly comprehend and appreciate her greatness at scale. O’Connor was right. The love was real.
This new phase for a woman almost always in transition, was driven – as ever – by O’Connor herself, when she wrote her remarkable memoir, Rememberings, in 2021, reclaiming her own narrative in a book full of humour and fantastic prose.
It was especially illuminating to American readers, who saw her as someone who blew up her own success when she took to Saturday Night Live in 1992, singing Bob Marley’s War, and tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul II in protest against the sexual abuse of children. Her words, “fight the real enemy” became a clarion call that still pierces through the decades that followed, and always will. O’Connor rejected the sentiment that this was a misstep. “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career,” she wrote, “and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track”.
Kathryn Ferguson’s 2022 documentary on the singer correctly framed O’Connor as an artist who both fought and superseded patriarchal cynicism and conservative insecurity. The film illuminated the steadfastness of her values, and the magic of her artistry, even as she sometimes reeled personally, mentally and creatively.
When she made what we now realise was her final public appearance in Ireland at Vicar Street in Dublin last March, she accepted a retrospective award for her classic album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. There was no self-praise nor grandstanding. She stood smiling, almost coy, accepting the rapturous thunder of applause, a standing ovation that willed her to feel the love and appreciation. She dedicated the award to each and every member of Ireland’s refugee community.
For many people around the world, but especially in Ireland, she occupied the kind of space that cannot be filled. And how big that space is. It is, as Anita Baker described her voice, cavernous; huge in our cultural cannon; massive in the psyche; fundamental as a marker of inspiration.
As news of her passing began to break, a downpour of rain enveloped the Irish capital. “I’ll remember it,” O’Connor sang on Troy, “Dublin in a rainstorm.” There’s that sound again, everlasting. Nothing compares.