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Why Sinéad O'Connor's legacy is deeper than her music


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O'Connor's death last week at the age of 56 came as a shock to fans worldwide.

In the days since, an outpouring of love from fans and fellow artists has painted a fuller picture of O'Connor's legacy on music-and on Irish culture and politics.

Jeffrey Brown looks at O'Connor's impact for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: She was known for her powerful voice and outspoken stances. And it began with the music.


Jeffrey Brown: Sinéad O'Connor's 1990 rendition of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" became a number one hit. And the album it appeared on, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," won the 1991 Grammy Award for best alternative Music performance.

O'Connor boycotted that awards ceremony, criticizing its commercialism. But that was nothing compared to the uproar in 1992 after she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II…

Sinéad O'Connor, Musician: Fight the real enemy.

Jeffrey Brown: … during her appearance on "Saturday Night Live" to criticize child abuse in the church.

In 2018, O'Connor publicly announced her conversion to Islam. Since her death, fellow musicians have paid tribute to O'Connor through her music.

Alanis Morissette sang the 1987 song "Mandinka" with the Foo Fighters over the weekend. And Brandi Carlile sang "Nothing Compares 2 U" at a Pink concert.

Meanwhile, O'Connor continues to mourned in her home country of Ireland, where the mayor of Dublin said he hopes to stage a tribute concert soon.

And joining me now is Una Mullally. She's a columnist for The Irish Times in Dublin.

Thanks for joining us.

So, the reaction, especially in Ireland, clearly goes beyond the music. How do you explain what you have seen since Sinéad O'Connor's death?

Una Mullally, The Irish Times: It's quite hard to explain what's been happening in Ireland.

The loss is being felt really profoundly. For people in Ireland, I think Sinéad O'Connor goes beyond music. As you say, she's more of a cultural figure. She looms very large in the Irish psyche, in terms of her activism, her politics, her actions.

And so the loss is being felt really profoundly. It's almost as though it's a large political figure or even a spiritual figure who's been lost. So, there have been vigils and gatherings. And people are extraordinarily upset. I don't think I could really think of another person that this has happened with, in my lifetime anyway.

Jeffrey Brown: You have written that, in Ireland, she was a revolutionary figure. She was also a very controversial figure. What did you mean by revolutionary?

Una Mullally: I think, because of the context that she came from, and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in Ireland, when the moral authority of the Catholic Church was still quite strong, she really preempted an awful lot of that collapse with her actions on "Saturday Night Live" and with her constant attempts to highlight issues of child abuse and childhood trauma.

She equated the entire social psyche of Ireland to that of an abused child and was trying to somehow remedy that through asking to be listened to, to speaking out against these various spiritual ills, and also through her music.

So, in that way, she inspired an awful lot of people as well, who didn't necessarily have the bravery — have the bravery in quite an oppressive society to speak out against various authorities and not be afraid to get in trouble. And she repeatedly questioned this lever of shame that is constantly pulled in Irish society and sought to unseat that or at least make it disjointed.

So, that — those kinds of actions were and remain revolutionary. And an awful lot has changed that in Irish society that has really vindicated her.

Jeffrey Brown: And that outcry that hit, the controversy, did she ever get past it? Did people, the ones who were upset with her, did they forgive her?

Una Mullally: I'm not sure she was asking for their forgiveness. I think she was asking for more of a seismic shift in our society.

Her career continued very successfully in Ireland and Europe. Her albums were lauded. Her tours were always sold out. She was very highly regarded. Her memoir in 2021 was a bestseller here. There was a documentary out about her last year that packed cinemas.

So, the — that kind of torpedoing of her career really only occurred in America for different cultural reasons, with regards to America being a more puritanical place, I guess, and more — has a tendency to kind of go the full length with controversies and really silence people in that way.

The Irish context was quite different, because she was speaking to so many people who ultimately supported her point of view.

Jeffrey Brown: What about the music, and especially her voice? I mean, what — when you think about it, what so captured you and so many others?

Una Mullally: I think there's so many different things about her voice and her music. I mean, her voice is singular.

Anita Baker once described it as cavernous. And I think that's a really good description. She sung in her own accent at a time when a lot of Irish rock and pop acts gravitated towards this mid-Atlantic twang. And there was an awful lot about Ireland and specifically about Dublin in her songs.

And so she was capturing not just the emotional landscape, but the literal landscape in her music as well. And that voice is undeniable. So, she had that. And — but what she was channeling was something really authentic. And I think it's her creative integrity that really remains.

Jeffrey Brown: I understand you met and you interviewed her a number of — several times. What was she like in that context? And did you see changes over the years?

Una Mullally: I have always found her to be extraordinarily sweet, a very down-to-earth, chilled-out, very cool, very, very funny person, massive sense of humor, but also fragile.

And she was very vocal about her own struggles with mental health because of the context that she came from, because of the things she experienced throughout her life and indeed throughout her career.

Jeffrey Brown: You have written about now there being a deep collective grief, you called it, in Ireland.

How would you assess her legacy? What do you think it will be?

Una Mullally: I think that's something people are struggling with, because I think that there's a tendency to isolate cultural figures and icons as if they're people from afar.

I think what people are kind of trying to grapple with is, how do we diffuse her stance and the things she stood for within ourselves? And she didn't just demand to be heard, but to be listened to. And I think that there's an awful lot that artists in particular, but also women, also the LGBTQ+ community, all of the people who felt like they didn't necessarily fit in or were living in opposition to society, how can you actually create your own pathway, and how can you kind of get support for that and not be ostracized or criticized?

And I think people are thinking quite deeply about those lessons that she gave, particularly because of how Ireland has changed so much.

Jeffrey Brown: The life and legacy of Sinéad O'Connor.

Una Mullally of The Irish Times, thank you very much.

Una Mullally: Thank you.

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