In the days following the death of Sinéad O’Connor, one image of the Irish singer-songwriter gained particular traction.
The image depicts a 25 year-old Sinéad tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II after singing a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘War’ on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Sinéad later told Time Magazine that she tore up the photo as an act of protest against the institution of the Catholic Church. She viewed it as being responsible for “the destruction of entire races of people and the subsequent existence of domestic and child abuse in every country they went into”.
In the aftermath of her protest, Sinéad was vilified in the US press and alienated by the music industry. Over time, however, public opinion shifted, particularly when revelations about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church became more widespread. Following her death, pictures and videos of Sinéad tearing up the photo were celebrated, retrospective op-eds were published and the moment seemed to encapsulate the late singer’s defiant spirit in an unjust world.
As impactful as the SNL incident was, it captured just one strand of Sinéad’s spirit of activism and advocacy. She was at once bold and outspoken but also steadfast, sincere, unassuming and non-performative. Throughout it all, she remained an unwavering champion for the oppressed, for survivors of Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries, for women, and for the LGBTQ+ community.
Throughout her life, Sinéad’s protest took many forms. In 1990, she appeared on The Late Late Show, Ireland’s most watched television programme, wearing a Dublin AIDS Alliance t-shirt. At the time, the HIV/AIDS crisis received little to no coverage, and with same-sex activity still criminalised, Ireland was a hostile place for LGBTQ+ people.
“At the time ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ reached number one in the UK, Sinead appeared on The Late Late Show sporting blue jeans and a white t-shirt bearing the logo of Dublin AIDS Alliance, now HIV Ireland,” said Stephen O’Hare, HIV Ireland’s current Executive Director.
" ...She was at once bold and outspoken but also steadfast, sincere, unassuming and nonperformative...
“This simple act of solidarity can perhaps be viewed as an inflection point in many people’s understanding of the negative impact of so much fear and prejudice on the community of people living with HIV and why solidarity, not stigma, matters,” he added.
Adam Shanley, the Programme Manager for MPOWER at HIV Ireland recalls how the gesture had a “far-reaching impact on the community of people living with HIV in Ireland”.
Sinéad’s solidarity didn’t end there, however. Dr Erin Nugent, the Community Support Manager for HIV Ireland remembers Sinéad advocating for the community in 2007.
“Sinéad participated in HIV Ireland’s Stamp Out Stigma campaign, reading to camera the words of an African woman living with HIV,” Dr Nugent says. “She used her voice simply as a means to amplify the voice of a marginalised woman of colour in a way that was humble and unique to Sinéad.”
The singer regularly loaned her voice to the marginalised, both in her music and in her presence. Her 1990 song ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ calls out police brutality and institutional racism in the UK. 30 years later, following the murder of George Floyd, she covered ‘Trouble of the World’, a gospel song that entered the mainstream thanks to Mahalia Jackson in 1956. According to her own notes, Sinéad’s cover was intended to be a song of hope, that the world would one day become a “paradise”.
Sinéad’s hopeful activism extended beyond her music. In 2000, with her young daughter in her arms, she was photographed attending the Anti-Nazi League Protest in Dublin. Following her death, this striking photo gained traction on Twitter, along with other stories recalling her support for groups that were being targeted by the far-right. In recent years, when the lives, safety and rights of trans people became talking points on daytime TV, Sinéad stood by the community, and, quite literally, gave trans youth the shirt off her back, without seeking recognition or praise.
In 2017, for instance, she donated her closet and unused makeup to TENI so that it could reach young trans people in need.
“Sinead O’Connor was an incredible ally to the trans and non-binary community and will be dearly missed by so many people,” says Sam Blackansee of TENI. “Her support both through her words and actions contributed to supporting our community. As a junior staff member at the time of the donation and now the Chair of TENI’s Board of Directors I know her impact will not be forgotten.”
Throughout her life, Sinéad remained an ally and an advocate for marginalised groups, and we owe it to her to remember our past and push for a more tolerant future. Sinéad herself put it best in her 1994 rap, ‘Famine’.
“If there ever is gonna be healing, there has to be remembering and then grieving, so that there then can be forgiving.”
Rest in power.