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Emer Nolan Sinéad blew up the image of Irish womanhood like Edna O'Brien had done before her

The English professor says Sinéad’s keens, prayers and cries of pain will always matter so intensely to many people in the country.

FEW IRISH CULTURAL figures other than Sinéad O’Connor could have inspired the sustained collective grief and the tsunami of reminiscences and analysis of the last few days.

Of course, not every serious writer or performer is a rock star as well. O’Connor remained one long after her commercial heyday in the 1980s, even after she went to war with the very idea of being a creature of the entertainment industry.

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Songs like ‘Mandika’ and ‘Troy’ and later ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ were soundtracks to modern Ireland. That a lithe young woman in Doc Marten boots, who looked like she could have stepped out of any Dublin coffee shop or pub, had created such a magnificent clamour and brought the attention of millions internationally to scraps and fragments of Irish culture with which we were all semi-familiar – lines from W.B. Yeats, Gaelic laments or Enya’s Donegal dialect (on The Lion and The Cobra) – seemed like a miracle.


There had been other Irish rock stars: soulful ones like Phil Lynott or Bono, or angry ones like Bob Geldof. But they sang in American accents (even Lynott on ‘Whiskey in the Jar’) and largely conformed in many ways to US or British images of the pop frontman.

sinead-oconnor-and-kate-tempest-performing-on-stage-during-day-three-of-camp-bestival-at-lulworth-castle-in-dorset-sunday-3rd-august-2014-featuring-sinead-oconnor-where-dorset-united-kingdom-w Alamy Stock Photo O'Connor performing on stage during Day Three of Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle in Dorset - Sunday 3rd August 2014 Alamy Stock Photo

O’Connor was not a member of a family group, such as Clannad or the Corrs, or a female singer in front of a band – as for example, Dolores O’Riordan with the Cranberries. She was quintessentially a solo performer. And Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s needed a powerful woman artist to take imaginative stock of the state of the country.

Sinéad blew up the image of Irish womanhood in music in the same style as Edna O’Brien revolutionised it in Irish literature a few decades earlier.

Despite the commercial fiasco of Saturday Night Live and her ripping up the Pope’s picture, during that episode, she anticipated the absolute centrality and inescapability of the theme of child abuse to debate about Irish culture for the next decades.

After that career-defining event, the stark loneliness of her voice intensified. Yet she embarked on a long creative voyage to find another, more authentic route to belonging and collective feeling.

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Arguably, despite such high points as Universal Mother (1994) and Sean-nós Nua (2002), she never found it. She foreswore soft, nostalgic or sentimental images of Ireland – although she was capable of just the ethereal and melancholic tones in which such stereotypes were often packaged during the era of the Celtic Tiger. These were often designed to accompany Ireland’s swerve into secular modernity.

The latter enterprise never appealed to O’Connor. She believed that Irish history meant that its people should be allies of the wretched and exploited populations of the earth. She explored the musical traditions of African-Americans and Rastafarians especially.

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She took seriously the idea that the Irish still suffered from the psychic after-effects of colonialism and cultural dispossession.

‘I see the Irish’, she rapped on the song ‘Famine’ in 1994, ‘as a race like a child that got itself slapped in the face’.

She was more sympathetic to republicanism than most major cultural figures in late twentieth-century southern Ireland. (O’Connor applied to join Sinn Féin in 2014.) Her extraordinary rendition of the 1916 ballad ‘The Foggy Dew’ is one of the most powerful ever recorded. As with Catholicism, her approach was not to disaffiliate herself but to continue to engage with and critique communal traditions from within.


For example, in the late song ‘Take off your Shoes’ (2014) she condemns clerical abusers not from a secular perspective but from the point of view of God. In clerical collar or hijab, she often occupied with relish the position of the religious woman. Her work is haunted not just by her personal losses but by the ghosts and cancelled futures of Irish history.

Perhaps this is why her keens, prayers and cries of pain, the modulations in her music between celestial beauty and raging fury, still matter so intensely to many people in the country.

It is good news for her many admirers that there is unreleased music from O’Connor’s final album still to appear. But one recent vocal performance, a version of the Scottish ballad ‘The Skye Boat Song’ for the opening credits of the TV series Outlander, available on YouTube, is remarkable.

It opens: ‘Sing me a song, of a lass that is gone, Say could that lass be I?’. The original tells the story of the escape into exile of the defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie who carried with him hopes for the survival of Gaelic culture in the Highlands.

O’Connor’s voice retains its clarity and emphatic power, but it sounds as if it is now straitened by decades of pain. She begins unaccompanied and is then joined in the beautiful melody by the backing musicians. Escorted and uplifted, her voice rises defiantly and almost jubilantly for the final note of the chorus: ‘Over the sea to Skye’.

May she have by now found her own Isle of Skye and whatever reunions await her there.

Emer Nolan is Professor of English at Maynooth University.  Her books include Five Irish Women: The Second Republic, 1960-2016.