Sinéad review: O’Connor’s life story told with honesty and without pretension

Dignified RTÉ profile of singer, featuring contributions from Imelda May, Christy Moore and more

Sinéad RTÉ documentary

The challenge with any documentary about Sinéad O’Connor is knowing how big a story to tell. O’Connor contained multitudes: she was a chart-topping singer but also an Irish woman standing up to centuries of misogyny, a woman musician operating in a sexist industry and a firebrand who ripped in half a picture of Pope John Paul II on US television. And then she died, with all that music still in her and so much yet to give. Her life is almost too vast and tragic for any one film to explore adequately.

Sinéad, RTÉ's dignified new profile of O’Connor, is alive to these risks and careful not to bite off more than it can process (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm). It is a straightforward retelling of her life and times with astute contributions from Imelda May, Christy Moore, producer David Holmes, film director and DJ Don Letts, playwright and academic Bonnie Greer and others.

It does not tell us anything we did not know already. But it places O’Connor in the context of Ireland in the late-1980s and early-1990s, when Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show was a national pulpit and the Catholic Church was about the collapse from within. “The 1980s was stifling,” says May. “Religion was a huge part of schooling”.

Sinéad RTÉ documentary

Above all, Sinéad celebrates O’Connor’s courage. In one extraordinary scene, she confronts the gay British DJ Kenny Everett on the Late Late about his support for the UK Conservative Party, then in the process of making it illegal for councils in Britain to promote homosexual “rights and issues”.


Everett, a big cheese at the time, is astonished at being questioned by a mere Irish woman. He calls her a “young woman” and threatens to blacklist her (standard practice in the music business, alas). It is a reminder of her bravery – and also a counterpoint to the idea that Ireland in the 1980s was unique in its misogyny. It was everywhere, and O’Connor never free of it.

Musicians remember her fierceness and her talent. “As a singer, I’m wondering how she did that,” says Moore of her ability to pivot from a whisper to a keen. Holmes, who worked with O’Connor in the years before her death in the summer of 2023, recalls her “incredible control of her dynamics”.

The only off-note is when she is compared and contrasted to, of all people, Whitney Houston. Would a documentary about Kurt Cobain talk about him in the context of Lionel Richie? Obviously not, and here is an unfortunate example of women artists being pitted against one another.

Her death is referenced briefly. We are told that her son, Shane, died in January 2022. “Even though Sinéad was this incredibly resilient survivor,” adds Holmes. “I totally believe people can die of a broken heart.”

The most telling contributions are from members of the public interviewed at her funeral in Bray. “She gave voice to women when we didn’t have a voice,” says one.

“Please God Sinéad is at peace at last. I would love to think her suffering is ended,” says another – a dash of empathy and wisdom at the conclusion of a documentary which does not get ahead of itself and tells O’Connor’s story honestly and without pretension.

*An earlier version of this article misstated that Shane O’Connor died in June 2022. Shane O’Connor died in January 2022.