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27th Jul 2023

A look back on the captivating life and career of Sinéad O’Connor

Aisling Keenan

Following her passing at the age of just 56 this week, we look back at the captivating life and career of Sinéad O’Connor

Born on December 8, 1966, in Dublin, O’Connor’s journey was anything but ordinary, filled with soaring successes, daring acts of protest and personal struggles that have shaped her into the fearless artist she was.

From a young age, Sinéad found solace in music, immersing herself in the local Dublin music scene and honing her soulful and powerful voice. Her talent didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1987, she burst onto the global stage with her debut album The Lion and the Cobra.

Famously, she shaved her head as a reaction to the societal expectations of women, saying at one point: “I don’t feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I’m an old lady, I’m going to shave it.”

Critics and fans alike fell in love with her raw emotion and fearless lyrics, but it wasn’t until 1990 that Sinéad reached stratospheric heights with her next album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

It featured her iconic rendition of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, a song that seemed to pierce your soul whenever it played on the radio. It was this song that earned her many awards, including three Grammy nominations and winning the prestigious Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance. Although, in classic Sinéad style, she boycotted the Grammys, refusing to accept her trophy for Best Alternative Album, saying that the awards “acknowledge mostly the commercial side of art”.

Still, her talent and artistry continued to be recognised with accolades such as the World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Song for Fire On Babylon and awards for lifetime achievements in music. These awards were a testament to her enduring impact on the music industry. As the years rolled on, her commercial success might have fluctuated, but her artistic integrity and passion remained. She kept releasing music, and each album was a glimpse into the mind of an artist unafraid of baring her soul to the world.

A rebel with a cause

In one of her more well-known moments, in 1992, during a performance on Saturday Night Live, Sinéad tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II while singing Bob Marley’s War. The reaction was polarising, with some praising her for having the guts to speak out against the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, while others criticised her for being disrespectful.

Despite the backlash, she didn’t back down. She stood firm in her convictions and continued using her platform for good. She became a fierce advocate for various causes, from LGBTQ+ rights to women’s rights and the fight against child abuse.

In 2017, she changed her legal name to Magda Davitt, saying in an interview that she wished to be “free of the patriarchal slave names. Free of the parental curses.” On her conversion to Islam in October 2018, she adopted the name Shuhada, and before in mid-2019 also changing her surname from Davitt to Sadaqat.

Her personal life

Behind the scenes, Sinéad’s life was far from easy. She faced personal struggles, including tumultuous relationships and battles with mental health issues. In O’Connor’s memoir Rememberings, published in 2021, she recounted harrowing details of abuse she experienced as a child, describing her mother as “evil”.

Despite her fame, she was no stranger to heartache and hardship. She was married three times and had four children (Jake Reynolds, born in 1987, Roisin Waters, born in 1995, Shane Lunny, born in 2004, Yeshua Bonadio, born in 2006) from different relationships. 

It was widely known that her children were her anchor, her reason to keep going even during the darkest times. When her son Shane took his own life in January 2022, she was heartbroken, as any mother would be.

O’Connor took to Twitter to express her grief. In her tweets, she emphasised the importance of destigmatising mental health issues and candidly shared her own battles with mental health.

Her final tweet, which referred to her feeling lost in “the bardo” which is a Buddhist term for being between life and death or rebirth, was as heartbreaking as a tweet could be:

She used her voice not only to sing, but also to challenge the status quo and fight for what she believed in. Yes, she had her moments of controversy, but she always used to say that she wasn’t looking for approval. She was simply being true to herself. She once said that her actions weren’t her throwing away her own career, but the careers of those who might have made money from her talent, saying “I didn’t want to be a pop star, I wanted to be a protest singer”.

Sinéad O’Connor might have been unconventional, but she was undeniably authentic. Her life and career have been a rollercoaster of triumphs, activism, and personal struggles.

She made her mark as an award-winning artist with her unique voice and fearless use of her platform to shine a light on important issues, even when it meant facing criticism.

So, here’s to Sinéad O’Connor – the rebel with a cause. May her music and activism continue to touch hearts and inspire change for generations to come.