Sinéad O’Connor obituary: ‘Proud to be a troublemaker’

O’Connor ‘truly challenged an Ireland, and a world, that stifled women, children and anyone who didn’t conform’

Born: December 8th, 1966

Died: July 26th, 2023

Sinéad O’Connor was one of Ireland’s most eclectic, admired and confrontational rock/pop songwriters and vocalists. Revered by her legion of loyal fans, kept at arm’s length by a cautious music industry, and viewed initially with scepticism by the media, her career proper began in the mid-1980s with a band called Ton Ton Macoute.

Her voice and her striking stage presence caught the attention of the wider music industry, and she soon signed to London-based Ensign Records. By 1987, she had released her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, which was an immediate commercial success, and which set the tone for the remainder of her career and fiercely activist life with themes of social oppression, sexuality, religion and resolute independence.


She died on July 26th, 2023 at the age of 56. President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to her, noting that Ireland had lost “one of our greatest and most gifted composers, songwriters and performers of recent decades”. On Twitter, Women’s Aid Ireland said O’Connor “truly challenged an Ireland, and a world, that stifled women, children and anyone who didn’t conform”.

Sinéad O’Connor was born in the Cascia House Nursing Home, Pembroke Road, Dublin, on December 8th, 1966, the daughter of John O’Connor, structural engineer, and Marie O’Grady (1939-1985). She was the third of five children – her siblings were Joseph, Eimear, John and Eoin.

In 1976, her parents separated, and in 1979 she left her mother to live with her father. At the age of 15, for repeated bouts of shoplifting and truancy, O’Connor was placed for 18 months in the Grianán Training Centre, which was located on the grounds of the High Park Magdalene laundry, off Collins Avenue, Dublin.

During her time there, she met the sister of Paul Byrne, the drummer of Dublin band In Tua Nua, who were searching for a lead vocalist. She was invited by them to record the song Take My Hand (which she co-wrote) but was considered too young to join on a permanent basis.

In 1984, O’Connor placed an ad in Hot Press magazine and through this she met Colm Farrelly, who pieced together the band Ton Ton Macoute. Her performances with them led to her acquiring an experienced music industry manager, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh (the former head of U2’s Mother Records imprint), and signing to Ensign Records. Her debut high-profile music work was singing the song Heroine (which she co-wrote with U2’s Edge) for the soundtrack to the 1986 Anglo-French film, Captive.

Her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, attained gold status and received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The hit singles from the album, Mandinka, Troy, and I Want Your (Hands on Me), further advanced her commercial success. Of O’Connor’s voice on Mandinka, music writer Max Bell wrote “her scruff of the neck grabbing confidence makes you forget completely that you’ve no idea what a mandinka is”.

In the same year, she gave birth to her first child, Jake Reynolds.

In 1990, O’Connor released her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Among the album’s highlights was a rendition of the Prince song, Nothing Compares 2 U, which through the decades has remained not only the definitive version but also a signature work of vulnerability. For O’Connor, the album’s commercial success was a poisoned chalice, and some would view her third album, 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl? (a record of cover versions and standards that she had grown up listening to) as a deliberate attempt to skew the success of her previous album.

In October of that year, she appeared in the US programme Saturday Night Live (SNL), where she was expected to sing a solo version of the Bob Marley song, War. At the close of the song, she held up a picture of Pope John Paul II, ripped it into pieces, said “fight the real enemy”, and threw the torn paper towards the camera. The show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, ordered that the “applause” sign not be held up in front of the live audience. “The air went out of the studio,” he later said.

“I don’t do anything in order to cause trouble,” O’Connor said to NME in 1991. “It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble. I’m proud to be a troublemaker.” In her 2021 autobiography, Rememberings, O’Connor said of her SNL appearance, “Everyone wants to be a pop star... But I am a protest singer. I just had to get stuff off my chest, I had no desire for fame.”

In 1994, she released her fourth album, Universal Mother, which (in 2005) she said to Mojo magazine was her first attempt “to try to expose what was really underneath a lot of the anger... George Michael told me he loved that record, but could only listen to it once because it was so painful”.

In 1995, she toured as part of Lollapalooza festival, but left when she became pregnant with her first and only daughter, Róisín. For the remainder of the 1990s, she continued to contribute to various music projects, as well as appearing in Neil Jordan’s 1997 film, The Butcher Boy, as the Virgin Mary.

Throughout the 2000s O’Connor released four albums (2000’s Faith and Courage, 2002’s Sean-Nós Nua, 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms, and 2007’s Theology) each of which showcased her singular vision and creative eclecticism. In 2004, she gave birth to her third child, Shane, and in 2006 her fourth, Yeshua.

She returned to releasing music in 2012 with How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?, and that album’s follow-up in 2014, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. Each record was received positively. Rolling Stone said the former contained “empathy, wit and beauty”, while the Los Angeles Times reviewed the latter as a “funny, convincing, unembarrassed collection”.

No new music emerged from O’Connor in the interim, and live shows were also a rarity – one of her final live shows was at the Cork Jazz Festival in October 2019. She occasionally took to social media but wisely retreated, while her physical and mental health issues became more apparent throughout the past 10 years. Her work as a musician and songwriter may have diminished but her fervent activism never waned.

In August 2018 she requested (via an open letter) to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church; two months later, she converted to Islam, describing it in a tweet as “the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey. All scripture study leads to Islam. Which makes all other scriptures redundant.”

Following the death of her son, Shane, in January 2022, O’Connor kept a low profile. Her final public appearance was in March of 2023 when she accepted the Irish Classic Album award (for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) at the RTÉ Choice Music Prize event in Vicar Street, Dublin. She dedicated the award to “each and every member of Ireland’s refugee community”.

Sinéad O’Connor is survived by her four siblings Joseph, Eimear, John and Eoin, her daughter, Róisín, and her sons Jake and Yeshua. Another son, Shane, predeceased her in January 2022.