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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Brigit Flynn

Sinéad O'Connor: Universal Mother

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

This essay was originally published on my new Substack Newsletter, where I will share my future writings and announcements. Please subscribe to my Substack Newsletter here.

Oh, what a summer. The planet burns, the oceans boil, and cities swelter for weeks on end. 2023 will perhaps be remembered as the year the climate emergency upended the human world so profoundly that no one could miss its implications. Still, in the midst of this we received the heartbreaking news that Irish singer/songwriter, activist and visionary poet Sinéad O’Connor died last week at 56 years old. The cause has not been identified, but the police announced that there was nothing suspicious about her death. She had been profoundly grieving her son’s death last year, saying on social media that she had been “in the bardo” ever since. But she was also moving forward. A well-received new documentary about her, “Nothing Compares,” was released in 2022. She recently announced that she was working on a new album, planning a tour next year, and considering a film of her bestselling memoir from 2021, Rememberings.

No one was ready for her to leave.

The US and international media offered an outpouring of tributes from fellow musicians, artists and activists on Sinéad O’Connor’s enormous talent as a singer/songwriter, her unstinting intelligence, and her boundless courage as an activist. Reading the Irish press, it’s clear Ireland has been in shock. At a large tear-filled gathering outside Dublin City Hall, the Irish Times reported that many women held signs with one of O’Connor’s banner protests, “Fight the Real Enemy.” One Irishwoman said, “She was spot on with so much of what she said but there was a lot of sadness attached to her as well. The outpouring of grief has been amazing and there has been a sad pall all week with everyone thinking of her. I walk a lot and I’ve been listening to my radio constantly and crying.”

Irish newspapers, radio, television and major sports events all honored Sinéad. The country’s President, its Taoiseach or Prime Minister, politicians, famous musicians and writers all wrote and spoke and posted online about her extraordinary gifts and impact on Ireland and the world. There has, also, been a reckoning of what was done to her for decades. Róisín Ingle, columnist and producer of the Irish Times Women’s Podcast wrote, “She pointed at things most people were not ready to acknowledge, commanding that we not look away. And instead of being celebrated, she was mocked or dismissed or derided for far too long.”

From the beginning Sinéad O’Connor was a protest singer. She spoke and acted on the truth of women’s commodification in popular music. She shaved her head, dressed as she wished, protested governments and major institutions. She will always be known for her radical protest act on live television in 1992, when she was 26 years old and suddenly an international pop star after her single “Nothing Compares to U.” I wrote about that moment in The Light of Ordinary Days, in a chapter reckoning with the Catholic Church:

In late 1992, the Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor took the stage on Saturday Night Live in New York City and sang a plaintive acapella rendition of Bob Marley’s song “War” about social justice and racism, adding lines to include child abuse. Then she raised a photograph of Pope John Paul II, held it before the camera, and ripped it to pieces, proclaiming, “Fight the real enemy.” Her act horrified the world, wounding her life and her international career. Even I, who had long before left Catholicism, found it shocking. Only months later, the mass graves of over a hundred women who had died at the Catholic Magdalene Asylum in Dublin were exhumed. The teenaged girls and women were there because they had become pregnant out of wedlock, or had sex, or misbehaved in some way, and for their sins had been sentenced by the Church to live and work in the Magdalene Laundries. Some of them had lived their entire lives as unpaid workers of the church—that is, as slaves. Many of their deaths had never been reported to authorities. It was their bones that were exhumed at the Magdalen Asylem in Dublin. The Catholic priest and institutional schools sexual abuse scandals followed. Sinéad O’Connor’s point had been to raise awareness about the abuse of children within the Church. One could talk now about her tactics. But about the facts, she had been right.

After that astonishing and highly visible protest with its gorgeous performance (see link below), O’Connor was effectively disappeared for years or decades from much of the major music scene. She was, simply, before her time.

All of us who knew her work are in shock this week. I spent this morning listening, or re-listening, to her CD Universal Mother, which she released in 1994, two years after the SNL event. The cover art for the album is a painting done by herself after a healing session. The album was a hit in Ireland and Europe, though at the time O’Connor did not want to return to America and did not tour here. I discovered the CD in 1995, at 36 years old, when a feminist poet friend, Sandia Belgrade, played me one of its key songs, “Famine.”

Famine. As it happened I was just then in the throes of understanding that my soul was calling me to do something radically new, as if the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s last line from “The Archiac Torso of Apollo”—You must change your life—was jumping from the page and grabbing me by the throat. I had spent years reckoning with my own wounded past and old traumas, but I had come to see that I would not be able to make any sort of life until I also reckoned with the Irish ghosts I felt traipsing through my blood. I had to go to Ireland. I had to see who and where I’d come from. I had to understand why as a teenager when I asked the reasons my grandparents left Ireland my father told me, “Hell, they wanted a future. The potato had failed. They had nothing.”

The potato had failed. That was about all I knew about it then. But in 1995 as I was planning a long journey to Ireland the following year, I was learning. And Sinéad O’Connor’s “Famine” ripped it all open. Like all brilliant artists, she showed how all the stories are connected, from the individual to the collective—her wounds from childhood abuse, my own, Ireland’s poverty and powerlessness due to being ruled by an empire, the long tentacles of collective and individual trauma. Listening to the song I didn’t know whether to dance or weep, and many times I did both. She began:

Okay, I want to talk about Ireland Specifically I want to talk about the "famine" About the fact that there never really was one There was no "famine

In rap song cum R&B ballad cum dance tune cum history lesson, Sinéad O’Connor gave us a song that is one her best, breaking our hearts, making us sway and move to the beat, and showing her multi-layered genius. Really you have to hear it, particularly the version from Universal Mother, and there is a link at the end of this article. Its many echoes, with music from “Fiddler on the Roof” to a riff from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” to trumpet notes from Miles Davis, grab you and startle you and move you from Ireland to Eastern Europe to America and back to Ireland—linking it all.

See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes All of the other food Meat fish vegetables Were shipped out of the country under armed guard To England while the Irish people starved And then on the middle of all this They gave us money not to teach our children Irish And so we lost our history And this is what I think is still hurting me…

“Famine” is a protest song, which in the end is the music O’Connor most wanted to make. Throughout her long career she wrote and sang in her gorgeous, otherworldly, ethereal, aching and furious voice about racism, sexism, child abuse, church hypocrisy, poverty. She also, very beautifully, sang about love, gratitude and healing. In Universal Mother she embodied her belief that the most radical music bares the soul and essence of the artist. In “Famine” we learn that what happens to a country happens individually, one by one, to its people—and remains in their descendants. I would go on to learn that my great-grandparents in the west of Ireland had barely survived the Famine of 1845-1850—tellingly called by the Irish An Gorta Mor, or the “Great Hunger.” I would learn that the great mass of native Irish relied almost exclusively on the potato as a subsistence crop in British-colonized Ireland of the 19th century. I would be told by a scholarly cousin that an unknown number of our great-grandparents’ children likely died of starvation and illness in the family cottage where my grandfather grew up. How famine mass graves linger in the countryside. How the ravages had long claws, how in one of our family’s small villages they lost more than two-thirds of their people in five years due to deaths and emigration.

Here is how the truth-teller Sinéad O’Connor saw it:

See we're like a child that's been battered Has to drive itself out of it's head because it's frightened Still feels all the painful feelings But they lose contact with the memory And this leads to massive self-destruction Alcoholism drug addiction All desperate attempts at running And in it's worst form Becomes actual killing

In 1994, her last line referred to the horrific violence of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which would finally come to an end the following year with the Good Friday Agreement. Still, with the song’s musical echoes and international references, she reminds us that these issues are broad and wide. Today there are few people in the world who do not suffer from some form of collective or ancestral trauma—and as the planet burns and war wages and mass shootings triple by the year we are only making more.

When “Famine” first came into my life, Sinéad O’Connor provided me a light, and a path. As she sang of her pain, I knew it was our pain, that it was my pain. And that there was a way through. She was a forerunner and visionary, telling all of us:

And if there ever is gonna be healing There has to be remembering And then grieving So that there then can be forgiving There has to be knowledge and understanding.

Like a sage laying out the stages of healing, she said it was possible to look at the truth, to feel and howl my own wounds, and the wounds of my ancestors, and to come to another place. At 36 years old I listened in wonder to this Irish bard singing my soul, singing her own soul, singing the Irish truth. This morning, listening to the song several times, tears welling, there it was all again. That it is not only possible to break the silence, to move through shame, to say what is true—but it is the only healing act that will lead to real change. What is that old saying? The truth shall set you free.

But we've lost contact with our history See we used to worship God as a mother We're suffering from post traumatic stress disorder Look at all our old men in the pubs Look at all our young people on drugs We used to worship God as a mother Now look at what we're doing to each other…

Thank you Sinéad for healing me, borrowing a line from another lush song of gratitude you gave us from Universal Mother (“Thank You For Hearing Me” is linked below). You told me, you told us, that our suffering is universal, and so is the path of recovery and reconciliation. And so is the Great Mother who births us all. As you wrote in “All Babies”:

All babies are born saying God's name Over and over, all born singing God's name All babies are flown from the universe From there they're lifted by the hands of angels God gives them the stars to use as ladders She hears their calls, She is mother and father…

Thank you. God is mother and father, but as you knew well Sinéad, there are endless incantations to the universal father, and you named the first CD you released after the SNL uproar: Universal Mother. Let’s say truth, about it all, you told us, and continued to tell us all your life.

Sinéad O’Connor lived fully—a life of the body and of the spirit. She married four different men, and mothered and raised four children. She became a priest for a time in the Irish Orthodox Church and wore a collar. She converted to Islam in her last years, saying it was the faith that gave her access to her own intimate relationship with the great unity that was God. And she was unflinchingly honest. She spoke straightforwardly about her wounds and demons, and the lifelong challenge of dealing with childhood PTSD. Like many artistic geniuses before her, she was wounded, and sometimes broke. She was heartbroken and profanity-laden, real and messy with all the things that PTSD brings to people. And she was brilliant. Wildly brave. She stared directly at the hungry ghosts. And she was a healer.

And if there ever is gonna be healing There has to be remembering And then grieving So that there then can be forgiving There has to be knowledge and understanding…

Society often hates and reviles the truth tellers. They make us uncomfortable. And when they are brilliant and beautiful and loud and messy and truly use their voice, we are even more angry because it is hard not to look away, not to hear.

And when they are gone, we weep.

Article on Dublin City Hall gathering for Sinéad O’Connor, The Irish Times, July 30, 2023.

Article by Róisín Ingle, The Irish Times, July 29, 2023.

All lyrics quoted by Sinéad O’Connor, Universal Mother, Chrysalis / EMI Records, 1994.

Listen to FAMINE from Universal Mother

Listen to ALL BABIES from Universal Mother

Watch Thank You for Hearing Me originally from Universal Mother, sung by Sinéad O’Connor live on Irish televsion, May 29, 2020.

Watch Sinéad O’Connor on SNL, singing “War” by Bob Marley, 1992.

(Note: there are excellent videos of “Famine,” but none carry the echoes and fine tuning of the Universal Mother version.)


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