One night, late, during the last years of the Troubles, I was driving from the North into the Republic, along country roads and through dark villages, with “The Lion and the Cobra,” Sinead O’Connor’s debut album, blasting on the car stereo. I was singing, fired up by the thrilling energy of “Mandinka,” when I became aware of flashing blue lights.
I stopped, turned the music off, wound down the window and began to say that I knew I had been speeding and I was sorry. The policeman interrupted. It was not that; I had sped through a checkpoint on the border. Had I not seen the soldiers?
On Wednesday, Ms. O’Connor’s body was found in a London apartment. She was 56. Impossible and yet so terribly believable. She had danced on the edge of the dark all her life.
Auden wrote of Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Cruel Ireland hurt Ms. O’Connor into song. She called Ireland a theocracy. She was furious that in a country that had supposedly fought for and won its freedom, women and children were so silenced and disempowered. She understood and had experienced pain, neglect and injustice and sang for those who also knew these things.
How glorious it was in the grim 1980s to see Ms. O’Connor onstage, bald, wearing a tutu and Doc Martens, flaunting her pregnant belly. How liberating to hear that unearthly voice of a punk angel, swooping and soaring, ferocious one moment, sweetly tender the next. She was always utterly herself.
“Black Boys on Mopeds,” her poignant ballad about hypocrisy, police violence and racism, will always remind me of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in that era when I worked in a rape crisis center and it seemed Margaret Thatcher would be the British prime minister forever.
In 1992, Ms. O’Connor tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II during an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” and people said she’d ruined her career. She said it had set her in the direction she had always wanted it to go. She was a protest singer, she explained, not a pop star. Kris Kristofferson stood by her and wrote a riposte to her critics: “Maybe she’s crazy, maybe she ain’t, but so was Picasso, and so were the saints.”
On Thursday she was on the front pages of all the Irish newspapers. I have been surprised by how stricken I am. Others have said the same. “Devastated” is the word most used.
On Wednesday night I watched videos of Ms. O’Connor performing and read some of the tributes on social media. Two stood out for me. One quoted the Yeats poem that inspired her extraordinary “Troy”: “What could have made her peaceful with a mind/That nobleness made simple as a fire. … Why, what could she have done, being what she is?/Was there another Troy for her to burn?”
Another was from Women’s Aid Ireland: “Thank you Sinéad. For your fearless voice and courageous light. You truly challenged an Ireland, and a world, that stifled women, children and anyone who didn’t conform.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s president, spoke of her “fearless commitment” to exposing uncomfortable truths. Ireland is bereft. We feel that she was ours. But there is the same dawning realization that came after the death of Seamus Heaney in 2013; Ms. O’Connor was not Ireland’s alone, nor is the loss.
A couple of days before she died, I was sorting through some papers and found the tickets I had bought for my daughter, Caitlin, and me to see Ms. O’Connor perform at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. I bought the tickets as Caitlin’s Christmas present in 2019. There were two pairs of tickets in the drawer, because Caitlin had the same idea for my present.
The show should have been in June 2020, but lockdown got in the way. We were hoping the tour would be rescheduled. Friends who saw her in Dublin talked about what superb form she was in, how amazing it was to hear her sing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the audience singing with her. They said you could see her delight as she realized they were singing it to her.
I met her once, briefly. She was with a brave and eloquent man who was a survivor of clerical abuse. She stood beside him, tiny in a big brown duffle coat. She smiled at me, the big, dazzling eyes alight.
Susan McKay is the author, most recently, of “Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground.”
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