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Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters: She Fought Sex Abuse & Racism, Was Ally to LGBTQ Community & Palestinians

  •   17 min reads
Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters: She Fought Sex Abuse & Racism, Was Ally to LGBTQ Community & Palestinians

Part 2 of our extended interview about groundbreaking Irish musician and activist Sinéad O’Connor looks in more detail at her life and legacy after her tragic death at the age of 56. Known for ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV to protest systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, O’Connor was also an ally to LGBTQ communities, an opponent of police brutality on some of her earliest records, a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, and marched for abortion rights decades before it was legalized in Ireland. We are joined by Jamie Manson, president of advocacy group Catholics for Choice, and Allyson McCabe, music journalist and author of the recent bookWhy Sinéad O’Connor Matters.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Part 2 of our remembrance of the remarkable life and legacy of the groundbreaking Irish singer, songwriter and political activist Sinéad O’Connor. She died last week at the age of 56.

In one of her most notable acts of protest, in 1992, she performed Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, then proceeded to rip up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV, declaring, quote, “Fight the real enemy.” The move, a protest against systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, of which she was a survivor, provoked widespread uproar. The Associate Press reported after she died, “The SNL moment stunned David Clohessy, a key early member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. In his 30s at the time, he had only recently recalled the repressed memories of the abuse he suffered. He found O’Connor’s act deeply moving. It was something he and other survivors never thought possible,” unquote. “We were all just deeply convinced,” though, he continued, “that we would go to our graves without ever seeing any public acknowledgment of the horror and without any kind of validation whatsoever.” Clohessy said. He went on, “That’s what made her words so very powerful.”

For more, we’re continuing our conversation with two guests: Jamie Manson, president for Catholics for Choice, and Allyson McCabe, a music journalist and author of the book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, which was published in May. She has a new piece out with Vulture titled “Sinéad O’Connor Was Always a Protest Singer.”

Allyson, I want to continue on that moment and how important it was for her personally and politically in the world. Can you talk about that particular photograph of Pope John Paul II that she ripped up? The physical photograph had hung on the wall of her house — is that right? — where she would be abused by her deeply religious mother. Can you take it from there?

ALLYSON McCABE: Thank you. Yes. To clarify, Sinéad was not a survivor of clergy abuse. She was a survivor of abuse at the hands of her devoutly religious mother. And the photograph was a souvenir from the pope’s 1979 visit to Ireland. And Sinéad’s mother died when Sinéad was in her teens, actually on the way to Mass. She got into a fatal car accident. And Sinéad hung on to that photograph, because, for her, it was a symbol, as she said, of lies, liars and abuse. And what she meant by that, as your other guest mentioned, is to destroy it wasn’t to attack the faith or to attack the pope, but it was to attack, really, the hypocrisy of an institution that would protect predators and silence survivors. You know, I think, for her, that was really the key.

And so, she was really at the height of her fame. Now, this was all during a monoculture, where, you know, the whole world would be watching TV at the same time looking at the same thing. So she knew there would be an opportunity here to really make that statement. And actually, afterwards, her publicist at the time said, “You know, I can’t fix this for you.” And her response was “Good.” You know, and I think that really tells you a lot about where her thinking was, that she knew she had this moment to make this big statement, and she was going to take that moment and was not at all thinking about the impact on her career.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allyson, you interviewed Sinéad back in 2021 for an NPR profile after her memoir, Rememberings, came out. What was it like when you met her back then? Why did you decide to write the book?

ALLYSON McCABE: So, I had actually met her, you know, before the profile came out. So my piece came out the day that her book came out. I had already been deep into this reexamination, again, of her music and her statements over the years. And that happened — I actually had seen a pair of videos by another artist, Fiona Apple, talking about Sinéad O’Connor. And it really got me thinking about this rise that happened so quickly and this fall that happened so quickly.

And then, as I started to sort of reexamine why that happened, I realized that the deeper I got into learning about Sinéad, I was also learning about the culture. So, in the segment, we talked about Joe Pesci appearing the following week and making that heinous statement. But I also noticed that he didn’t get booed. He didn’t get canceled. What happened was the audience laughed, and they applauded. You know, so, for me, the point wasn’t just that Pesci was a misogynist; the point was that the culture was misogynist. And that’s why those lines landed the way that they did. So, the deeper I got into that, I realized I wasn’t just looking at Sinéad. I was looking at the culture. And looking at the culture, I also had to think about my own relationship to that as a journalist.

So, by the time I sat with Sinéad for that interview, I already had all of that context and background. I already knew there was a much bigger story here than I could possibly do in a radio profile, which, realistically, is roughly five minutes long. I had been prepared to meet somebody who I wasn’t even sure if she would show up. You know, there’s been so much misreporting on Sinéad O’Connor, you know, so much misreporting on her mental health. Yet it’s been used to discredit her. It has been used to weaponize her. I didn’t know even if she would show up or what she would say. What I encountered was a woman who was on time and on point, and not evasive, and very generous and answering all of the questions that I had. And the biggest challenge in doing that piece was getting everything she told me into like the five-minute frame that I had on the air. So I knew there was a book, and that’s why I continued to stay with the story.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Jamie Manson into this conversation, president of Catholics for Choice. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston said that her actions on SNL, you know, ripping up the pope’s picture, were a “gesture of hate” and “neo-anti-Catholicism.” Law would later resign for covering up abuse in the Catholic Church.

And I wanted to read from The New York Times: “At the age of 14, Sinéad O’Connor was sent to live at An Grianán Training Centre in Dublin, which was run by the Order of Our Lady of Charity. It had formerly been a Magdalene Laundry, a facility where a [so-called] 'fallen woman' might spend her entire life washing the dirty laundry of the surrounding community.” Can you tell us about this aspect of her life and who she was raised by and being in this laundry?

JAMIE MANSON: Yeah. I think Cardinal Law’s statement is so interesting, to call it an act of hate, because what I think, in fact, it was is a story and an act of love and fear. And I think that her love for the church was so profound. That’s what motivated her. And I don’t think you can discount how scary it is to confront the church in a very public, graphic way. And what motivated that is, I think, exactly what she saw in those Magdalene Laundries. Those were places of punishment for women. I often like to say there were no Magdalene Laundries for men. They were for women, and very often they were for young women who had got pregnant out of wedlock, with absolutely no accountability, of course, for the boy who got them pregnant.

And so, she saw the crushing misogyny of the church and the sexual shame it created. And she understood, as a prophet does — you know, they see what’s happening in the present, and they read those signs of the present, and they understand that there are profound future ramifications for this. And it’s so important to understand that we don’t even — we didn’t even begin to know the extent of clergy sex abuse in the world, and she could see that then. And she knew that John Paul II was the person who created those theologies, who developed those theologies, that created the idea that abortion is murder and that women can never be equal to men, and the idea that children are there for the sexual gratification of men. You know, the Catholic Church is a profound, radical patriarchy. She understood that, and she spoke about it at a time when no one was ready to hear it. And she risked everything to speak that truth, and she could not not speak that truth, no matter what risk it took.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But yet, despite that, that highly patriarchal institution, she continued to maintain her Catholicism and her lifelong spiritual quest. How do you reconcile that, and also then her decision to convert to Islam?

JAMIE MANSON: I think she was on a profound spiritual journey. I really relate to her as a girl. I also fell deeply in love with the church and felt God was calling me to the priesthood. And she, in 1999, was ordained a Catholic priest by, you know, a rite of the Catholic Church that had broken away. And so, for her, it was all a journey. She was in love with God. And she thought that religion was the greatest enemy of God. And I think that that was her vocation, was trying to understand what God was calling her to in any given moment. And that led her to all sorts of religious expression. But this is, at her core, a love story, I think, with God and with the Holy Spirit and with justice. You know, her sense of justice was profoundly formed by her faith. And I hope that is an enduring part of her legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to — more deeply into that conversion, Allyson McCabe. You have Sinéad O’Connor, an ally with the LGBTQ communities. You have her marching for abortion rights long before abortion was legalized in Ireland. And then you have her converting to Islam and starting to use the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat in 2018, alongside her name Sinéad O’Connor. She spoke out for Palestinian rights, respecting the Palestinian civil society call for BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, once saying, “on a human level, nobody with any sanity, including myself, would have anything but sympathy for the Palestinian plight. There’s not a sane person on earth who in any way sanctions what … the Israeli authorities are doing,” she said. Can you talk about that transition point in her life?

ALLYSON McCABE: Well, we didn’t discuss her reversion at length, but I would say this. What I tried to do was consider it in the context of, you know, many male musicians, many of her counterparts, including Bob Dylan. You know, the Beatles and others had also experienced religious traditions other than the ones they were born into. You know, they also took spiritual journeys that led them to different places. And really, it wasn’t seen as as controversial as those that Sinéad took. So I just found that kind of interesting, that, once again, we saw a sort of double standard there, just as we saw a double standard where when she, after the period of the '90s, made music in all different kinds of genres, right? When male musicians do that, genius. You know, when she does it, it's considered like she can’t decide. She’s veering unpredictably from genre to genre.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Allyson, I’d like to ask you: When you were writing the book, Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, what most surprised you in terms of her life story that you think readers should know about?

ALLYSON McCABE: I think that, early on, the most surprising thing was that she continued, long after she stopped making chart hits, to make music. And then, the second thing that surprised me is how much that music was really part of this lifelong fight against injustice, that it was something that she never abandoned.

You know, throughout all the various changes in her life — you know, who she married, who she unmarried, you know, what religious tradition she was following, all of these things — people got kind of fixated on these nonstop sort of tabloid headlines that were just noise. And I don’t think that was accidental. I think that noise was there because that’s what kind of like people — that’s sort of how the media sort of often responds to things, is, like, “Let’s go for the shocking thing. Let’s go for the” — you know, we call it “clickbait” now, but even before that had a name. And I think that was because what she was doing was really powerful. And I think, in some ways, it was suppressed.

So, I think, for me, what was surprising was the degree to which that happened, not just accidentally, but kind of understanding and looking at the ways that people covered her and her story after SNL, you know, and then what she was actually — lining that up with what she was actually trying to do with her music during these various points. And so, for me, you know, I think that I’ve often heard her described as “fearless.” And I wouldn’t really say that. I would say that she was afraid. But what bravery is is about being afraid and doing it anyhow, and doing it anyhow because it’s worth it, because we need to create a space where people can talk and people can listen. And I think if we’re able to talk and listen to each other, that’s how change gets done.

And if I could, I just — I’m thinking back now to one of her songs from 1994, which is a song called “Famine.” And in “Famine,” she talks about her experience, connecting it to the experience of the Irish people. And she says, “If there ever is gonna be healing / There has to be remembering / Then grieving / So then there can be forgiving / There has to be knowledge and understanding.” To me, it’s just such a profound reflection of what she was really all about.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering, Allyson McCabe, if you can talk about her solidarity, way before, to say the least, the killing of George Floyd, with the Black community around issues of police violence, most famously her song “Black Boys on Mopeds,” about the 1983 death of the 21-year-old Black man Colin Roach in police custody in London.

SINÉAD O’CONNOR: [singing] I’ve said this before now
You said I was childish and you’ll say it now
Remember what I told you
If they hated me they will hate you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving

AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, even what she had in her shaved head, the solidarity with Public Enemy —

ALLYSON McCABE: Well, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and understanding who gets marginalized and who doesn’t.

ALLYSON McCABE: Yeah, her antiracism was there from the start, even before. You’re talking about the '89 Grammys, but, you know, on her first tour in America, which was coinciding with the release of The Lion and the Cobra, her first album in ’87, you know, she's seeking out and putting — spotlighting local rap and hip-hop artists on every date on the tour. So, one was — I grew up in Philadelphia. One was nearby in Trenton at a place called City Gardens. Her opening act was MC Lyte, who was roughly 16 years old at that time. So, that was something that she was committed to early on.

The '89 Grammys was her first primetime television appearance in the U.S. She had been on David Letterman. But this was primetime, again, at a time when everybody was watching the Grammys. And she was up for Best Female Rock Vocalist, female. That category has sort of shifted a little bit, but that was what it was called at that time. And she was going to come on and perform her single “Mandinka.” But that year was the first year that the Recording Academy was going to present an award for rap, but they weren't going to televise that presentation, citing limited airtime. She called BS on that, OK? Because at that point where rap was, record executives, you know, and people who were sort of the gatekeepers in the industry really saw rap as either dangerously subversive or a passing fad, but it was something that was popular, so popular, they couldn’t really ignore it, you know, at all. And so they decided to, again, give the award but not televise the award. In response, some of the nominees boycott the ceremony.

She showed up to do the performance for — you know, again, she’s up for Best Female Rock Vocalist — and decides that, “Look, I shaved my head because I didn’t want you to pay attention to my appearance, but you are paying attention to my appearance. So let me then convey a message.” And she wore Public Enemy’s logo, which Chuck D has described as — it’s a Black man in the crosshairs of a gun — as the Black man in America. She wore that in the side of her hair.

She also wore her infant son’s sleepsuit tied around her waist, because the record executives told her not to — she became pregnant during the sort of the time that she was making that album with — she was in a relationship with the drummer in her band. And they pressured her to not have the child. She decided to have the child and wore his sleepsuit around her waist. You know, that was another middle finger, in a way, to the recording industry, you know, and the pressures that they placed on women. So, it was like there were a lot of symbols going on. That was also true during the SNL performance. But for now, let’s go to this thing about what was happening at the Grammys.

You know, she repeatedly called out MTV for censoring Black artists by not playing music videos that Black artists made. And it wasn’t just — it wasn’t just rap and hip-hop. You know, for a long time, MTV wouldn’t get behind, for example, Whitney Houston, who was not a rap or hip-hop artist. It wasn’t until her music was at the top of the radio charts that they couldn’t really ignore it anymore, and they got behind Whitney Houston. So, Sinéad was always calling this out, when she accepted awards, when she sat with press. She wasn’t talking about promoting her album; she was talking about these issues.

I think I want to put this in context to say she was an antiracist, but it isn’t to say, “Isn’t it wonderful that this white woman was doing all of this stuff?” It’s to say how not wonderful it is that there weren’t many other people also talking about this stuff at the same time, OK? Because racism, like homophobia and sexism and all kinds of injustice, they’re all everybody’s problem. And if we’re not all talking about it, that’s a problem, too.

AMY GOODMAN: A tweet from Chuck D last week: “Rest In Beats and PowEr Sinead O Connor who always Brought The Noise,” he said. And then, reading from one of the remembrances of her, “As her star rose even higher, so did the scrutiny. When O’Connor withdrew from a 1990 appearance on [Saturday Night Live] after learning that the comedian Andrew Dice Clay was scheduled to host, The Diceman, known for his misogynistic and homophobic routines, performed a skit poking fun at the 'bald chick.' After O’Connor declined to have the national anthem played before a show at New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center, Frank Sinatra said she must be 'one stupid broad' and threatened to 'kick her ass.'”

The piece went on to say, “Politicians organized protests against O’Connor. DJs refused to play her records. O’Connor was widely accused of censorship when it was she who was being censored. She was also criticized for being 'anti-American' and ungrateful for the success she had achieved. Still, that fall she swept the MTV Video Music Awards with wins for Best Female Music Video and Best Post-Modern Music Video, and even bested Madonna for Video of the Year.” I was just reading from your article, Allyson McCabe, that incredible history.

ALLYSON McCABE: Yeah, I mean, I was shocked myself. So, I mean, when I first read about all this, this is why I came to the conclusion that this was, you know, a much bigger story than something I could tell in five minutes. You know, I’m not even sure that in my book I was able to tell it all. But I tried. You know, I tried to do that to really honor what she was about, you know, at her core. And again, it wasn’t about the tabloid stuff. That’s just — that is noise. You know, it’s really about this.

And remember that the part you’re talking about now happens before 1992, before SNL, so she already has this resistance that’s building. I think she’s aware of that resistance. And I think that that also explains why after she had this huge album with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got in 1990, she followed in '92 with an album of show tunes and standards. You know, that's not really the move that one would make if they’re thinking, “I want to, you know, maintain that commercial success at the top of the charts.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Manson, it was not only around the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but Sinéad was out there decades before Ireland legalized abortion for abortion rights, an ally of the LGBTQ community. Talk about how she was received among Catholics.

JAMIE MANSON: I think that she was received the way a prophet is always received: They’re not understood in their time. And I’m just so interested to see all the people that are suddenly coming out and praising her, because they’re people that probably would not support her in the present moment. And I think it’s easy to praise her posthumously, you know, but at that time, what she did was profoundly lonely.

And I have some personal experience at Catholics for Choice. We did an action at the Basilica in which we were projecting facts about abortion and the fact that so many Catholic women — one in four abortion patients in the U.S. — has an abortion. And we have a church that refuses to acknowledge that and continues to call abortion murder, while women who are having abortions are sitting in their very pews.

And so, what Sinéad shows us is that she’s a woman of profound hope. She keeps speaking and keeps speaking, you know, and having conversations that are not welcome within the walls of the church. But you have to keep speaking out, whether it’s about LGBTQ rights, whether it’s about women’s equality, abortion rights. These are all issues where the church has pervasive power globally and is causing profound harm. And that harm continues to this moment. And so, it continues to be lonely to speak out about that. And so I hope that she will energize — her memory will energize people to keep speaking out and to keep making these changes, because the church, again, has the power that she understood that they have.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Allyson McCabe, if you can talk about the death by suicide of her son, Shane, and the effect it had on her, clearly, to the end of her life, dealing with desperation and horror at what had taken her son?

ALLYSON McCABE: I would just say that anybody who is a parent, myself included, I just can’t imagine a bigger loss than losing one’s child, under any circumstances. You know, I just feel that — I know they were very close. You know, people have put up a lot of photographs. Beyond just the physical resemblance, they were very close.

And I think that I had come to see her as such a survivor, that even though she was dealing with this profound loss, there was a part of me that, you know, really thought maybe she would — I’m not going to say “be OK,” but I’m going to say “pull through it,” the way she had pulled through so many other hardships in her life. And I knew that she — you know, she had the music from the Outlander theme that had come out, and she was making new music on an album. And she had recently returned to the platform formerly known as Twitter. And, you know, I just thought she was reemerging into public life. And I just — you know, I think that was one of the reasons that I was so caught off guard, you know, to learn of her death. But I just — you know, I don’t really know what to say, aside from, you know, I hope that she has found Shane, and I hope that she has found peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Allyson McCabe, we want to thank you so much for being with us, music journalist, author of —

ALLYSON McCABE: Thank you for having me on.

AMY GOODMAN: — the book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters. We’ll also link to your piece in Vulture. And Jamie Manson, thanks so much for joining us, president of Catholics for Choice.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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