Queer Icon Sinead O’Connor Has Died at the Age of 56

“There was no therapy when I was growing up, so the reason I got into music group was therapy, which’s why it was such a shock for me to become a pop star, because that’s not what I wanted,” Sinead O’Connor says in the opening minutes of her 2021 Showtime documentary, Nothing Compares. “I just wanted to scream.”

Now, after 56 years of screaming, sometimes literally and sometimes silently, after a wild and controversial and fascinating life during which she was consistently willing to scream what nobody else was willing to even say — Sinead O’Connor has died. (She also has gone by the name Shuhada Sadaqat since her 2018 conversion to Islam.) Her family announced her death in an official statement, and the cause of death has not been disclosed.

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - FEBRUARY 01: Singer-songwriter Sinead O'Connor performs on stage at Vogue Theatre on February 01, 2020 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

Singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor performs on stage at Vogue Theatre on February 01, 2020 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

Sinead O’Connor’s life is impossible to summarize or to even try and summarize. Every narrative thread doubles back on itself. Her journey through this dimension has been a journey —  her romantic relationships, her spirituality, her mental health, her career, her political activism.

The most popular story of her life is one that begins with her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, which earned her first Grammy nomination, and ramps up with second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which contained her first big hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (written by Prince), and essentially ends in October of 1992, the night she ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. The response to this political action was near-universal outrage, and it overshadowed the reason she’d done so in the first place: to protest the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and the Church’s lack of action around it. Like so many progressive and valid points made by misunderstood women of the ’90s, it should hit different now.

To O’Connor, that was hardly the end of her story, that was a return to the one she’d wanted to tell all along. Because, again, being a pop star wasn’t her dream. In 2021 she told The New York Times: “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant. But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”

“But the overreaction to O’Connor was not just about whether she was right or wrong,” writes Amanda Hess in that same profile. “It was about the kinds of provocations we accept from women in music.”

Sinead O’Connor’s disinterest in mainstream popularity perhaps was part of what enabled her to come out as a lesbian in Curve Magazine in 2000, which was not a popular time to do so. She appeared on the magazine’s cover, next to the words “Sinead Comes Out,” telling readers:

“I’m a lesbian… although I haven’t been very open about that and throughout most of my life I’ve gone out with blokes because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a lesbian. But I actually am a lesbian… I don’t think I necessarily paved the way for anyone, but other people paved the way for me.”

By the time she spoke to Entertainment Weekly about her sexuality in 2005, she’d landed somewhere else: “I’m three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay. I lean a bit more towards the hairy blokes.”

In a 2014 interview with PrideSource, she said she believed that “if you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with someone, and I don’t think it would matter what they were… I don’t believe in labels of any kind, put it that way. If I fall in love with someone, I wouldn’t give a shit if they were a man or a woman.”

Sinead was married to four different men in her life and had four children. In her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, she describes herself as specifically not a lesbian or a heterosexual, but asexual.

In many ways, however, Sinead’s personal affiliation with a queer identify was only part of the reason she became a queer icon. Look at her! Her shaved head, her genderqueer presentation, her Doc Martens and her leather jackets and her ripped-up jeans. Listen: her unapologetic activism, her nerviness, her angst, her fight, her courage, her struggles with trauma and despair, her constant quest for self-discovery.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 22: 31st Annual Grammy Awards. Broadcast February 22, 1989. Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California. Pictured performing is Sinead O'Connor. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

31st Annual Grammy Awards. Broadcast February 22, 1989. Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

O’Connor eventually would release ten albums as well as participating in numerous collaborative recordings, tribute performances and tracks for charitable causes. Her favorite collaboration was “Dagger Through My Heart,” which she did for a Dolly Parton tribute record. She toured throughout the country and overseas. Her songs appeared in movies like Albert Nobbs and In the Name of the Father.

Ultimately, her last offering to the world was a new version of “The Skye Boat Song,” which debuted as the opening title sequence for the seventh season of “Outlander,” in February 2023.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 06: Sinead O'Connor attends the "Albert Nobbs" soundtrack release party at Palihouse Holloway on January 6, 2012 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

Sinead O’Connor attends the “Albert Nobbs” soundtrack release party at Palihouse Holloway on January 6, 2012 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

In 2022, her 17-year-old son, Shane, died by suicide, after which time O’Connor, who had long struggled with her mental and physical health and had spent six years in and out of mental health facilities, hospitalized herself for suicidal ideations. She also cancelled the release of what would’ve been her final studio album and her final tour.

Her friends described her to The New York Times as “a naturally loving person” and a “generous soul” who “wears her heart on her sleeve.”

An artwork featuring Sinead O'Connor at the Hard Rock Cafe in Dublin. The Irish singer best known for her hit single Nothing Compares 2 U, has died aged 56. Picture date: Wednesday July 26, 2023. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

An artwork featuring Sinead O’Connor at the Hard Rock Cafe in Dublin. The Irish singer best known for her hit single Nothing Compares 2 U, has died aged 56. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

I saw her live only once, at Lilith Fair in suburban Detroit in 1998. She performed at dusk, as the side-stages were closing and everyone was settling in on the lawn for the night ahead, stoned or buzzed or high on life on our blankets. When she started playing Nothing Compares 2 U, the restless crowd’s attention was finally and absolutely focused. The way she sang was so raw, the song was so sad, and we all knew it, we’d all heard her sing it and we’d heard Prince sing it and that night we all sang it together. I said nothing can take away these blues. ‘Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you.

16-3-1988 Amsterdam, Netherlands.Irish singer Sinead O'Connor performs at Paradiso. Copyright Paul Bergen

Copyright Paul Bergen

“I’m not a pop star,” she wrote in Rememberings. “I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then.”

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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9 Comments

  1. what a devastating loss. sinead o’connor is my favourite singer, and i’ve always admired how she continued to stand up for what she believed in, even when everyone hated her for it. but she was right, and i hope she’s found peace.

    “whatever it may bring, i will live by my own policies. i will sleep with a clear conscience, i will sleep in peace”

  2. As a queer pre teen in the late 90s grappling with myself in the context of a conservative faith community Sinead felt like a beacon of what could be possible, to inhabit myself and my world. I Do Not Want was one of the first CDs I bought with my own (babysitting!) money.

    I associate her music with my late father who admired her voice and feeling and strength of belief. He took me and my best friends to Lilith Fair in 1998 (sadly not a venue she played) and I mostly remember 1. All the middle aged women there were very impressed that a middle-aged white guy took his newly 13-year-old and her twin friends to this festivalI, 2. It was the first time I had seen people drunk or high (cf my conservative Christian community), 3. There were so many cool queer or queer-adjacent adult women it felt like a promise of a future and 4. When Paula Cole sang her hit we self-righteous dorks screamed “say a little prayer for MEEEE.”

    I just listened to some old Sinead songs I loved as a teen and it always amazes me the capacity music has (more then other art forms, for me) to conjure a particular place and time and feeling. I know Sinead experienced a lot of pain and turmoil, but it’s so sad she is gone so young and I mostly think about her three kids and wish them peace and strength via her own music.

  3. I’m so saddened by this news. It’s like hearing that a dear friend from college that I lost touch with unexpectedly died. Her music was such a part of the soundtrack of my college years and early 20s.

    I don’t remember exactly how I discovered her music but I fell in love with her first album – playing the cassette tape in my dorm room over and over. I was kind of shocked when Nothing Compares 2 U came out and was such a hit – I didn’t usually discover artists before they went big.

    Sending so much love to her family and all those hurt by this loss.

  4. Damn. Thank you for this tribute. What an absolute punk. I didn’t really know anything about her before, expect for her song “In This Heart” which my college a cappella group would always sing at the final concert of the year the recognize the group’s graduating seniors. I have cried so much to that song and the singer who sang it.

    Thank you.

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