Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor (born 8 December 1966) is an Irish singer-songwriter. She rose to fame in the late 1980s with her debut album The Lion and the Cobra and achieved worldwide success in 1990 with a cover of the song “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
Since then, she has regularly courted controversy with her outspokenness, shorn head, and views on religion, women’s rights, war and her own sexuality, while still maintaining a singing career.
Her body of work includes a number of collaborations with other artists and appearances at charity fundraising concerts, in addition to her own solo albums.
Sinéad O’Connor was born in Glenageary in County Dublin and was named after Sinéad de Valera, wife of Irish President Éamon de Valera and mother of the doctor presiding over the delivery, and Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. She is the middle of five children, sister to Joseph, Eimear, John, and Eoin. Joseph O’Connor is a novelist.
Her parents are Sean O’Connor, a structural engineer later turned barrister, and Marie O’Connor. The couple married young and had a troubled relationship, separating when Sinéad was eight. The three eldest children went to live with their mother, where O’Connor claims they were subjected to frequent physical abuse. Her song “Fire on Babylon” is about the effects of her own child abuse, and she has consistently advocated on behalf of abused children. Sean O’Connor’s efforts to secure custody of his children in a country which routinely gave custody to the mother and prohibited divorce motivated him to become chairman of the Divorce Action Group and a prominent public spokesman. At one point, he even debated his own wife on the subject on a radio show.
In 1979, O’Connor left her mother and went to live with her father and his new wife. However, her shoplifting and truancy led to her being placed in a Magdalene Asylum at age 15, the Grianán Training Centre run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. In some ways, she thrived there, especially in writing and music, but she also chafed under the imposed conformity. Unruly students there were sometimes sent to sleep in the adjoining nursing home, an experience of which she later commented, “I have never – and probably will never – experience such panic and terror and agony over anything.”
One of the volunteers at Grianan was the sister of Paul Byrne, drummer for the band In Tua Nua, who heard O’Connor singing “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand. She recorded a song with them called “Take My Hand” but they felt that at 15, she was too young to join the band.
In 1983, her father sent her to Newtown School, an exclusive Quaker boarding school in Waterford, an institution with a much more permissive atmosphere than Grianan. With the help and encouragement of her Irish language teacher, Joseph Falvey, she recorded a four-song demo, with two covers and two of her own songs which later appeared on her first album.
Through an ad she placed in Hot Press in mid-1984, she met Columb Farrelly. Together they recruited a few other members and formed a band called Ton Ton Macoute, named for the ruthless Tonton Macoute, the Haitian secret police. However, a 1991 biography incorrectly claimed this name refers to Haitian zombies. The band moved to Waterford briefly while O’Connor attended Newtown, but she soon dropped out of school and followed them to Dublin, where their performances received positive reviews. Their sound was inspired by Farrelly’s interest in witchcraft, mysticism, and world music, though most observers thought O’Connor’s singing and stage presence was the band’s driving force.
On 10 February 1985, O’Connor’s mother was killed in a car accident, which despite their strained relationship devastated her. Soon afterward she left the band, which stayed together despite O’Connor’s statements to the contrary in later interviews, and moved to London.
O’Connor’s time as singer for Ton Ton Macoute brought her to the attention of the music industry, and she was eventually signed by Ensign Records. She also acquired an experienced manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, former head of U2’s Mother Records. Soon after she was signed, she embarked on her first major project, providing the vocals for the song “Heroine”, which she cowrote with U2’s guitarist The Edge for the soundtrack to the film Captive. O’Ceallaigh, who had been fired by U2 for complaining about them in an interview, was outspoken with his comments about music and politics, and O’Connor began to adopt the same habits; she defended the actions of the IRA and said U2’s music was “bombastic”.
Things were contentious in the studio as well. She was paired with veteran producer Mick Glossop, whom she later publicly derided. They had differing visions regarding her debut album and four months of recordings were scrapped. During this time she became pregnant by her session drummer John Reynolds (who went on to drum with the band Transvision Vamp). Thanks largely to O’Ceallaigh’s persuasion, the record company allowed O’Connor, 20 years old and by then seven months pregnant, to produce her own album.
The Lion and the Cobra was not embraced by the pop mainstream on a large-scale basis, but the album did eventually hit gold record status and earned a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nomination. The single “Mandinka” was a big college radio hit, and “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” received both college and urban play in a remixed form that featured rapper MC Lyte. In her first US network television appearance, O’Connor sang “Mandinka” on Late Night with David Letterman in 1988. The single “Troy” was also released as a single in the UK and Ireland. A club mix of “Troy” would become a major US dance hit in 2002.
O’Connor’s first two albums (1987’s The Lion and the Cobra and 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) gained considerable attention and mostly positive reviews. She was praised for her voice and her original songs. She was also noted for her appearance: her trademark shaved head, often angry expression, and sometimes shapeless or unusual clothing.
In 1989 O’Connor joined The The frontman Matt Johnson as a guest vocalist on the band’s album Mind Bomb, which spawned the duet “Kingdom of Rain.”
The album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got featured Marco Pirroni and Kevin Mooney, of Adam and the Ants fame, and contained her international breakthrough hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a song written by Prince and originally recorded and released by a side project of his, The Family. Aided by a memorable and well received video by John Maybury which consisted almost solely of O’Connor’s face as she performed the song, it became a massive international hit, reaching #1 in several countries. In Ireland it hit the top spot in July 1990 and remained there for 11 weeks; it is the eighth most successful single of the decade there. It had similar success in the UK, charting at #1 for 4 weeks, and in Germany (#1 for 11 weeks). In Australia, it reached #1 on the Top 100. It also claimed the #1 spot on the Hot 100 chart in the USA. She also received Grammy nominations including Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She eventually won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance, but boycotted the award show.
Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee remixed the album’s next single, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for a 12-inch that was coupled with the Celtic funk of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.” Pre-dating but included on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was also “Jump in the River,” which originally appeared on the Married to the Mob soundtrack; the 12-inch version of the single had included a remix featuring performance artist Karen Finley. Also in 1990, O’Connor starred in a small independent Irish movie Hush-a-Bye Baby directed in Derry by Margo Harkin.
In 1990, she joined many other guests for former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’ massive performance of The Wall in Berlin. (In 1996, she would guest on Broken China, a solo album by Richard Wright of Pink Floyd.) In 1991, her take on Elton John’s “Sacrifice” was acclaimed as one of the best efforts on the tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.
In 1990, she contributed a cover of “You Do Something to Me” to the Cole Porter tribute/AIDS fundraising album Red Hot + Blue produced by the Red Hot Organization. This was followed by the release of Am I Not Your Girl?, an album of standards and torch songs that she had listened to while growing up. Also in 1992, she contributed backing vocals on the track “Come Talk To Me”, and shared vocals on the single “Blood of Eden” from the studio album Us by Peter Gabriel.
Also in 1990, she was criticized after she announced that she would not perform if the United States national anthem was played before one of her concerts. Frank Sinatra threatened to “kick her ass”. After receiving 4 Grammy Award nominations she withdrew her name from consideration.
After spending nine years dividing her time between London and Los Angeles, O’Connor returned to her home town of Dublin in late 1992 to live near her sister and focus on raising her son Jake, then six years old. She spent the following months studying Bel Canto singing with teacher Frank Merriman at the Parnell School of Music. In an interview with The Guardian published 3 May 1993 she reported that her singing lessons with Merriman were the only therapy she was receiving, describing Merriman as “the most amazing teacher in the universe.”
The 1993 soundtrack to the film In the Name of the Father featured “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart,” with significant contributions from U2 frontman Bono.
The more conventional Universal Mother (1994) did not succeed in restoring her mass appeal. She toured with Lollapalooza in 1995, but dropped out when she became pregnant. The Gospel Oak EP followed in 1997, and featured songs based in an acoustic setting. It too, did not recapture previous album successes.
In 1994, she appeared in A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who, also known as Daltrey Sings Townshend. This was a two-night concert at Carnegie Hall produced by Roger Daltrey of The Who in celebration of his 50th birthday. A CD and a VHS video of the concert were issued in 1994, followed by a DVD in 1998.
She appeared in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy in 1997, playing the Virgin Mary.
Faith and Courage was released in 2000, including the single “No Man’s Woman,” and featured contributions from Wyclef Jean of the Fugees and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. On the eve of its release, O’Connor came out as a lesbian, and then retracted the statement.
Her 2002 album, Sean-Nós Nua, marked a departure in that O’Connor interpreted or, in her own words, “sexed up” traditional Irish folk songs, including several in the Irish language. In Sean-Nós Nua, she covered a well-known Canadian folk song, Peggy Gordon, interpreted as a song of lesbian, rather than heterosexual, love. In her documentary, Song of Hearts Desire, she stated that her inspiration for the song was her friend, a lesbian who sang the song to lament the loss of her partner.
In 2003, she contributed a track to the Dolly Parton tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman, a cover of Parton’s “Dagger Through the Heart”. That same year, she released a double album, She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty. The album contained one disc of demos and previously unreleased tracks and one disc of a live concert recording. Directly after the album’s release, O’Connor announced her retirement from music. Collaborations, a compilation album of guest appearances, was released in 2005 – featuring tracks recorded with Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, Jah Wobble, Terry Hall, Moby, Bomb The Bass, The Edge, U2, and The The.
Ultimately, after a brief period of inactivity and a bout with fibromyalgia, her retirement proved to be short-lived – O’Connor stated in an interview with Harp that she only intended to retire from making mainstream pop/rock music, and after dealing with her fibromyalgia, chose to move into other musical styles. The reggae album Throw Down Your Arms appeared in late 2005 and was greeted with positive reviews. It was based on the Rastafarian culture and lifestyle, O’Connor having spent time in Jamaica in 2004. She performed the single “Throw Down Your Arms” on The Late Late Show in November. She also made comments critical of the war in Iraq and the role played in it by Ireland’s Shannon Airport.
On 8 November 2006, O’Connor performed seven songs from her upcoming album Theology at The Sugar Club in Dublin. Thirty fans were given the opportunity to win pairs of tickets to attend along with music industry critics. The performance was released in 2008 as Live in The Sugar Club CD/DVD sold exclusively on her website.
O’Connor released two songs from her album Theology to download for free from her official website: “If You Had a Vineyard” and “Jeremiah (Something Beautiful)”. The album, a collection of covered and original Rastafari spiritual songs, was released in June 2007. The first single from the album, the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber classic “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, was released on 30 April 2007 to promote the album, O’Connor toured extensively in Europe and North America. She also appeared on two tracks of the new Ian Brown album The World Is Yours, including the anti-war single “Illegal Attacks”.
She toured Europe during 2008 and 2009, performing mainly Theology material in an intimate, acoustic setting. She also performed “Troy” live for the first time since 1990, along with “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Dark I Am Yet Lovely” as part of the Night of the Proms concert series in Antwerp, Belgium.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was reissued in 2009 with an accompanying bonus disc containing B-sides and previously unreleased material.
In January 2010, O’Connor performed a duet with R&B singer Mary J. Blige produced by former A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad entitled “This Is To Mother You”. The proceeds of the song’s sales were donated to the organization GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services).
O’Connor announced she was working with Marco Pirroni and John Reynolds on recording a new album, described as “a guitar based electric album (..) with songs about love”. She is currently demoing songs with plans to release the material in early 2011.
Saturday Night Live performance:
On 3 October 1992, O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live as a musical guest. She sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War”, which she intended as a protest over the sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, by changing the lyric “racism” to “child abuse.” She then presented a photo of Pope John Paul II to the camera while singing the word “evil”, after which she tore the photo into pieces, said “Fight the real enemy,” and threw the pieces towards the camera.
Saturday Night Live had no foreknowledge of O’Connor’s plan. NBC had declined to rebroadcast the sequence, instead showing footage from the dress rehearsal where O’Connor holds a photo of an African child before bowing and leaving the stage. However, on 24 April 2010, MSNBC aired the full clip during an interview with O’Connor on The Rachel Maddow Show. The dress rehearsal version is also used for 60-minute syndicated rebroadcasts (seen on Comedy Central and E! Entertainment Television). The original episode is available on volume four of the SNL DVD special Saturday Night Live – 25 Years of Music, with an introduction by show creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels about the incident.
As part of SNL’s apology to the audience, during his opening monologue the following week, host Joe Pesci held up the photo, explaining that he had taped it back together, which gained applause. Pesci also said that if it had been his show, “I would have gave her such a smack.” On the Christopher Walken/Arrested Development episode that followed the Joe Pesci episode, former cast member Jan Hooks cameoed as O’Connor and tried to apologize for her actions, which also spoofed Irish stereotypes such as beer festivals and leprechauns. This was not O’Connor’s first ‘set-to’ with Saturday Night Live; earlier she had refused to appear on a show hosted by “misogynistic” comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Rather, she had agreed to appear on a later episode hosted by Kyle MacLachlan.
Two weeks after the incident, she was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden.
In a 2002 interview with Salon.com, when asked if she would change anything about the SNL appearance, she replied, “Hell, no!” In 2010, TV Guide Network listed the incident at #24 on their list of 25 Biggest TV Blunders.
On 12 October 2002, journalist/columnist Jake Tapper wrote for Salon.com that “Sinead was Right” and expressed support for her action.
On Madonna’s next appearance on SNL (on an episode hosted by Harvey Keitel), after singing “Bad Girl”, she held up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco and, saying “fight the real enemy,” tore it up. Madonna also roundly attacked O’Connor in the press for the incident, telling the Irish Times: “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” She added, “If she is against the Roman Catholic Church and she has a problem with them, I think she should talk about it.” The New York Times called it “professional jealousy” and wrote that: “After Madonna had herself gowned, harnessed, strapped down and fully stripped to promote her album Erotica and her book Sex, O’Connor stole the spotlight with one photograph of a fully clothed man. But the other vilification that descended on O’Connor showed she had struck a nerve.” Bob Guccione, Jr. in a 1993 SPIN editorial was adamant in his defense of O’Connor, writing, “…Madonna savaged her in the press, obviously to fuel publicity for Sex and sales of her new album, Erotica …. But when the Sinead controversy threatened to siphon some of the attention from the impending release of Sex, Madonna conveniently found religion again…” In November 1991, a year prior to the incident, O’Connor had told Spin Magazine: “Madonna is probably the hugest role model for women in America. There’s a woman who people look up to as being a woman who campaigns for women’s rights. A woman who in an abusive way towards me, said that I look like I had a run in with a lawnmower and that I was about as sexy as a Venetian blind. Now there’s the woman that America looks up to as being a campaigner for women, slagging off another woman…”
In the late 1990s, Bishop Michael Cox of the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church (an Independent Catholic group not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church) ordained Sinéad as a priest. The Roman Catholic Church considers ordination of women to be invalid or impossible, and asserts that a person attempting the sacrament of ordination upon a woman incurs latae sententiae excommunication. The bishop had contacted her to offer ordination following her appearance on the RTÉ’s Late Late Show, during which she told the presenter, Gay Byrne, that had she not been a singer, she would have wished to have been a Catholic priest. After her ordination, she indicated that she wished to be called Mother Bernadette Mary.
While she initially chose her bald look as a statement against the traditional view of women, years later O’Connor said she had tried to grow her hair back but after being asked if she was Enya, shaved it off again. “I don’t feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I’m an old lady, I’m going to have it.”
She has been married three times. Her first marriage was to music producer John Reynolds, who co-produced several of her albums, including Universal Mother. They have one child together. They split up on good terms and continue to work together. Her second marriage was to journalist Nicholas Sommerlad in 2002. O’Connor married long time friend and collaborator Steve Cooney in 2010.
O’Connor also previously dated Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis; the band’s song “I Could Have Lied” was reportedly written about his sudden break up with O’Connor. However, in recent times she has claimed that they never dated, and that they were merely friends.
In a 2000 interview in Curve, O’Connor outed herself as a lesbian, “I’m a dyke … although I haven’t been very open about that and throughout most of my life I’ve gone out with blokes because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a big lesbian mule. But I actually am a dyke.” However, soon after in an interview in The Independent, she stated, “I believe it was overcompensating of me to declare myself a lesbian. It was not a publicity stunt. I was trying to make someone else feel better. And have subsequently caused pain for myself. I am not in a box of any description.” In a magazine article and in a programme on RTÉ (Ryan Confidential, broadcast on RTÉ on 29 May 2003), she stated that while most of her sexual relationships had been with men, she has had three relationships with women. In a May 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly, she stated, “I’m three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay. I lean a bit more towards the hairy blokes”.
She has four children: a son, Jake Reynolds, by her first husband; a daughter, Brigidine Róisíne Waters, born early 1996, by The Irish Times columnist John Waters; another son, Shane, born 6 March 2004, whose father is Irish folk musician and record producer Dónal Lunny; and her fourth child, Yeshua Francis Neil, born on 19 December 2006 whose father is her former partner Frank Bonadio. O’Connor formally announced to Paul Martin in the Irish Daily Mirror that the two had broken up as of the weekend of 17 February 2007, citing difficulties between Bonadio and his former wife, singer Mary Coughlan.
On an 4 October 2007 broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, O’Connor disclosed that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years earlier, and had attempted suicide on her 33rd birthday.
In a July 2007 interview with Christianity Today, O’Connor stated that she considers herself a Christian and that she believes in core Christian concepts about the Trinity and Jesus Christ. She said, “I think God saves everybody whether they want to be saved or not. So when we die, we’re all going home… I don’t think God judges anybody. He loves everybody equally”. She also expressed a belief in pantheism, viewing the physical universe as a body with divine “energy”. In an October 2002 interview with Salon.com, she credited her Christian faith in giving her the strength to live through and then overcome her child abuse.
On 26 March 2010, O’Connor appeared on Anderson Cooper 360° to speak out about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland. On 28 March 2010, she had an opinion piece published in the Sunday Edition of the Washington Post where she wrote about the Catholic sex abuse scandal and her time in a Magdalene laundry as a teenager. She wrote an article for the Sunday Independent newspaper of 17 July 2011 in response to the sexual abuse scandal in Cloyne diocese in which she described the Vatican as “a nest of devils”. She wrote that an alternative church might have to be established because “Christ is being murdered by liars” in the Vatican.
Open letter to Miley Cyrus:
O’Connor published an open letter, on her own website, to pop singer Miley Cyrus on October 2, 2013 in which she warns Cyrus of the treatment of women in the music industry and the role that sexuality plays in this context. O’Connor states:
The message you keep sending is that its somehow cool to be prostituted.. its so not cool Miley.. its dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. we aren’t merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers.. that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career.
Fellow female musician Amanda Palmer responded with her own open letter that was published on Palmer’s blog. After Palmer states that O’Connor continues to be an important influence since her teenage years, Palmer then addresses where O’Connor is “off target” in her correspondence to Cyrus. Palmer explains that she wrote the letter en route to a benefit performance for the Girls Rock Dallas group that seeks to empower young female musicians in Dallas, US, and a subsequent video was published of a tribute cover version that she included in the performance, whereby she blends “Nothing Compares 2 U” with Cyrus’s song “Wrecking Ball”.
O’Connor is a pacifist and, as such, she supports Ireland’s tradition of neutrality in foreign wars.