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Irish singer-songwriter, Sinéad O’Connor (1966-2023), was in an institution as a teenager.

Sinéad O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland. She was the third of five children born to Marie and John O’Connor. When Sinéad’s parents separated in 1975 her father was awarded custody of all the children. But Sinéad and her younger brother returned to live with their mother after about six months.

Sinéad lived with her mother from the age of nine until she was thirteen. Her mother was often violent, insisting the girl remove all her clothes before beating her with a carpet sweeper.

One day, a button was missing from Sinéad’s dress:

And we were supposed to go away for the weekend to my mother’s friend’s house. I got beaten up naked again and my mother took the light bulb from my room and locked me in and went away with the others (O’Connor, 29).

Sinéad did not eat that whole weekend and was subsequently hospitalised because of pains in her stomach.

She locked me under the stairs a lot too (O’Connor, 29).

After an incident in which Marie put Sinéad into the passenger seat of a car and “deliberately smashed into a car that was coming the other way” (O’Connor, 31), Sinéad rang her mother’s doctor and Marie was hospitalised. Sinéad returned to live with her father.

His house is kind of chaotic. It’s like there’s three families: my father’s, my stepmother’s and the one they made together…There are only four well-behaved people: my sister, my five-year-old half brother, my youngest stepsister, and my stepmother. The rest of us, including my father, are completely out of order (O’Connor, 47).

When she was a child, Sinéad became “addicted to stealing” (O’Connor, 44), acquiring that habit from her mother.

My mother herself is addicted to stealing. Has been for as long as I can remember. When the collection plate is passed around at Mass, she takes money out of it rather than putting money in. When the new traffic circle was made at Avondale Road, she drove down in the night with trowels and black rubbish bags to steal the just-planted baby bushes (O’Connor, 43).

When Sinead was fourteen, she was caught stealing a pair of gold shoes for a friend to wear to a concert. She was then sent to the An Grianán Training Centre, once a notorious Magdalene laundry. She later wrote that the experience overall was a positive one, particularly because Sister Margaret loved her.

Specifically she loved me because I was rebellious. She knew I had a good heart. Now that I have grown I think she saw in me the girl that she would like to have been had she not been herself a slave of the theocracy (O’Connor, Irish Post).

However, Sinéad did not escape being punished at An Grianán; she was once left to spend the night in the hospice run by the institution because she had run away to go busking. This was an effective deterrent as she never tried running away again. Sinéad also witnessed the nuns treating other girls cruelly.

Sinéad left Ireland for London in 1985. She describes it as the “best day of my life” (O’Connor, 65). In London, she performed for Ensign Records and based on her demonstrations, signed her first record contract on 5 August 1985.

After Nigel Grainge from Ensign suggested Sinéad “start dressing like a girl” (O’Connor, 111) and let her hair grow, she went to a barber and had her head shaved.

Sinéad released her first album, The Lion and the Cobra in 1987. She recorded the album while pregnant with her son, Jake. Her next release, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, became her most successful album. It includes her popular cover of the Prince song, Nothing Compares 2 U.

Sinéad attracted controversy because of her unconventional presentation and criticisms of the music industry.  In 1992, she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live after singing an a cappella version of Bob’s Marley’s War. Sinéad had removed the photograph from her mother’s bedroom after she died in 1985.

My intention had been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope. It represented lies and liars and abuse. The type of people who kept these things were devils like my mother. I never knew when or where or how I would destroy it, but destroy it I would when the right moment came… (O’Connor, 177).

Total stunned silence in the audience. And when I walk backstage, literally not a human being is in sight. All doors have closed. Everyone has vanished. Including my own manager, who locks himself in his room for three days and unplugs his phone (O’Connor, 179).

Many say her subsequent pariah status adversely affected Sinéad’s mainstream career. However, she continued recording and performing.

But for some, Sinéad has always been a hero. This includes  Kathryn Ferguson, who directed the 2022 documentary about her titled Nothing Compares. 

Sinéad went through a difficult time after a hysterectomy. In 2016, She spent an extended period being cared for at St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin.

‘Rememberings’ [her memoir] is partly dedicated to St Patrick’s. She calls the hospital her second home. “Thank God I spent a lot of the last six years there, because otherwise I wouldn’t be alive.” Most of the time, she was on an open ward, learning about her mental health. “I’m 10% bipolar, apparently, 40% complex traumatic stress and the rest is borderline personality disorder” (Hattenstone).

Sinéad has a long-standing interest in religion and spirituality. She was ordained in 1999, becoming Mother Bernadette Mary during a ceremony convened by a dissident church. Then in 2018 she  changed her formal name to Shuhada Sadquat when she “reverted” to Islam.

I’ve done only one holy thing in my life and that was sing. Only the business of music is so unholy. After a while they begin to clash. You just can’t work right because you’re in the wrong environment… My spirit isn’t suited for the business of music. Not for anything, really. Other than making songs and performing them. Which is my love. Performing, I mean. Born for that. Yes, sir (O’Connor, 278-279).

Sinéad O’Connor died 26 July 2023, eighteen months after the death of her seventeen-year-old son, Shane. Tributes to O’Connor include the following from Irish President Michael Higgins:

“To those of us who had the privilege of knowing her, one couldn’t but always be struck by the depth of her fearless commitment to the important issues which she brought to public attention, no matter how uncomfortable those truths may have been” (Burns).


Blake, Meredith. “Making the radical case for Sinead O’Connor: She was right all along.” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2022.,protest%20against%20the%20Catholic%20Church.

Burns, Sarah. “Sinéad O’Connor, acclaimed Dublin singer, dies aged 56.” The Irish Times, 26 July 2023. 

Hattenstone, Simon. “Sinéad O’Connor: I’ll always be a bit crazy, but that’s OK’.” The Guardian, 29 May 2021.

Jonze, Tim. “Sinead O’connor interview: I deserve to be a priest. Music is a priesthood’.” The Observer, 27 July 2014.

O’Connor, Sinéad. “An open letter from Sinead O’Connor on the Magdalene Laundries report.” The Irish Post, 8 February 2013.

O’Connor, Sinéad. Rememberings. Dublin, Ireland: Sandycove, 2021.

Power, Ed. “’She was deemed mad and unpredictable’: The day Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Life.” Independent, 3 October 2022.

Rory Carroll. “Sinéad O’Connor dies aged 56. The Guardian, 27 July 2023.


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