Trailblazing singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor dead at age 56

The Irish icon was one of the most singular — and most misunderstood — voices of her generation.

Sinéad O’Connor has died at age 56. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sinéad O’Connor has died at age 56. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sinéad O’Connor, one of the greatest and most misunderstood voices of her generation, has died. The Irish singer-songwriter, who became a college-rock darling at age 20 with The Lion and the Cobra and an unlikely MTV pop star in 1990, thanks to her stunning cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and its starkly powerful music video, was 56.

Her death was announced Wednesday in a statement sent to Irish media by her family, which read: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.” No cause of death was given.

Sinéad Marie Bernadette O'Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Dec. 8, 1966. She was the third of five children, and her upbringing was traumatic, as chronicled in her heartbreaking 2021 autobiography Rememberings. Her parents divorced when she was age 8, and in the memoir, she alleged that her mother had physically abused her for years. At age 15, she was sent to a Magdalene asylum, An Grianán Training Centre, run by the Order of Our Lady of Charity, as punishment for rebellious behavior that included shoplifting and expulsion from her Catholic school for truancy. It was during O'Connor's stay at the reformatory that her creative talents flourished, when she was discovered by one of the volunteers there, Paul Byrne of the band In Tua Nua. The teenage O’Connor co-wrote and recorded one song with In Tua Nua, “Take My Hand,” and upon her release from the asylum, began performing in Dublin coffeehouses and delivering singing telegrams.

O’Connor first became an alt-rock sensation with the release of 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra, which received widespread college radio play for “Mandinka” and the MC Lyte remix of “I Want Your (Hands on Me)”; achieved gold status; and was nominated for a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy. But it was her second album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, which made her a superstar, albeit a very reluctant one. Her raw and passionate version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince had originally written for his protégés the Family, went to No. 1 in 22 different countries, and its John Maybury-directed video, which consisted mainly of steady, extreme closeups on the singer’s distinctively shaven-headed visage, was in heavy MTV rotation for months. O'Connor later revealed that her tears in the clip were real, sparked by the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard/All died when you went away,” which triggered thoughts of her mother, who had died in a car accident when O’Connor was 18. The iconic and compelling clip later won Video of the Year, Best Female Video, and Best Post-Modern Video at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards.

O’Connor was clearly uncomfortable with her sudden mega-fame. When she was nominated at 1991 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Short-Form Music Video, and Best Alternative Music Performance (the latter of which she won), she boycotted the ceremony, explaining in an open letter that the Recording Academy acknowledges “mostly the commercial side of art. They respect mostly material gain, since that is the main reason for their existence. And they have created a great respect among artists for material gain — by honoring us and exalting us when we achieve it, ignoring for the most part those of us who have not.”

O’Connor also later claimed that her one meeting with Prince during this era ended in violence, telling the Norwegian television station NRK in 2014 that she’d been involved in a “punch-up” at his home. “We didn’t get along at all. … He summoned me to his house, and he’s very foolish to do this with an Irishwoman,” she recalled. “He told me he didn’t like me saying bad words in my interviews, so I told him to f*** off. … He got quite violent. I actually had to escape out of his house at like 5 o’clock in the morning. He really packed a punch. Bigger than mine.” That same year, when asked how she felt about Prince in a Yahoo Entertainment interview, she was less forthcoming, tersely answering, “I don’t feel anything. He’s not part of my psyche.”

While Rememberings and the 2022 documentary Nothing Compares made a strong case that O’Connor paved the way for strong female artists of the mid-'90s like Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Tori Amos, and Alanis Morissette, in 1990, she was a divisive and misunderstood figure, due to her political outspokenness and rejection of stereotypical femininity and male-gaze objectification, with her bald head, baggy clothes and righteous anger.

“Here you have a hot woman, which isn't actually me — it is me, but I don't really look like that. I'm not going to go around trying to look like that,” she told Yahoo Entertainment in 2014. “You don't have to be naked on a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer. You can be very, very sexy without actually taking any of your clothes off or twerking.” O’Connor was obviously alluding to Miley Cyrus’s video “Wrecking Ball,” which bore some similarity to “Nothing Compares 2 U” and had caused O’Connor to pen a damning open letter to Cyrus, telling her: “The message you keep sending is that it's somehow cool to be prostituted. … It's so not cool, Miley… it's dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality.”

Sinead O'Connor in 1990. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Sinead O'Connor in 1990. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images) (Michael Putland via Getty Images)

As O’Connor’s star rose, she caught flak in 1990 — even from Frank Sinatra, who threatened to “kick her ass” — when she refused to perform in New Jersey if the national anthem was played before her concert. That same year, she pulled out of a scheduled Saturday Night Live appearance, after she found out that comedian Andrew Dice Clay would be the guest host that week. When she eventually performed on SNL in October 1992, the backlash surrounding her came to a fever pitch, after she sang an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley's “War,” declared, “Fight the real enemy!” and ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II (which had belonged to her late mother).

O’Connor was protesting the Pope’s failure to address child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, but few viewers grasped her message, and the fallout was intense. NBC received more than 4,400 complaint calls after O’Connor’s performance, and the following week on SNL, Joe Pesci, the host, who was raised Catholic, said that if it had been his show, “I would have gave her such a smack.” O’Connor did have some high-profile supporters — like Kris Kristofferson, who told her, “Don't let the bastards get you down,” when she was nearly booed off the Madison Square Garden stage at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary concert two weeks after the SNL scandal — but her image and her mental health never quite recovered.

“It was like a canceling,” Nothing Compares director Kathryn Ferguson told Yahoo Entertainment in 2022, recalling how O’Connor received multiple death threats and how critics even hired a steamroller to crush her CDs, tapes, and records in Times Square in ’92. “I would say that she's one of the first female superstars that was really canceled, which is harrowing when you look back on it. … How people thought they could talk about her and mock her is way more disturbing than anything she did." However, O’Connor never apologized for the shocking stunt. In Rememberings, she wrote, “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the Pope's photo derailed my career. I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career, and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track. I had to make my living performing live again. And that's what I was born for. I wasn't born to be a pop star. … Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.”

O’Connor eventually converted to Islam in 2018 and changed her name to Shuhada' Sadaqat (previously Magda Davitt), and she came under fire again in 2019, when she tweeted that she no longer wanted to “spend time with white people,” blasting them as “disgusting.” She later backtracked on those inflammatory remarks, telling her Twitter followers that she had been “angry and unwell” as well as “triggered as a result of Islamophobia” at the time. She apologized for “hurt caused.”

O’Connor continued to make critically acclaimed, if less commercially successful, music, releasing 10 albums over the course of her career, the most recent being 2014’s I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss. But her struggles with mental issues escalated. In 2007, she told Oprah Winfrey that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had attempted suicide on her 33rd birthday, although she later said she’d received three “second opinions” and was told that she was not bipolar after all. She was reportedly also diagnosed with complex PTSD, borderline personality disorder and agoraphobia. In 2015, she blamed her hospital's refusal to administer hormonal replacement therapy after her hysterectomy for her mental health problems, saying she was “flung into surgical menopause” and “became very suicidal.” In 2016, she entered rehab for cannabis addiction.

In 2017, O’Connor uploaded a 12-minute Facebook video expressing suicidal thoughts after losing custody of her then 13-year-old son, Shane. The alarming post prompted the talk show personality Dr. Phil to reach out to her for an interview, and she accepted his invitation because she wanted to “destigmatize mental illness.” But her experience on the show was not a pleasant one. In a 2019 interview with The Irish Independent, she put Dr. Phil on blast, claiming that he had abandoned her after his promise of help. “After the interview, I never saw him again, and I am bringing proceedings against the facility he sent me to, from the trauma I went through there. He was like the Wizard of Oz,” she said. Sinead’s son Shane died in an apparent suicide in 2022, at age 17, after which the singer posted a series of tweets seemingly threatening to take her own life and was hospitalized.

In June 2021, O’Connor claimed she was quitting music for good. “This is to announce my retirement from touring and from working in the record business. I've gotten older and I'm tired. So it's time for me to hang up my nipple tassels, having truly given my all,” she tweeted, saying that her planned 2022 studio album, the now-chillingly titled No Veteran Dies Alone, would be her last and that she would not do any promotion or touring for it. She retracted that statement five days later, but No Veteran Dies Alone has yet to be released. O’Connor’s final issued recording before her death was a new version of “The Skye Boat Song,” the theme for the science-fiction series Outlander, in February 2023.

O'Connor, who was married four times, is survived by her sons, Jake Reynolds and Yeshua Bonadio; her daughter, Brigidine Roisin Waters; and one grandson.

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