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Sinead O’Connor Was A Rebel With A Cause

Sinead O'Connor singing at a recent UFC fight
Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I sought out Sinead O’Connor singing “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” on Tuesday. I’ve done that fairly often through the years, but it had been a while. My favorite version of the tune, a very literal breakup chronicle with a whisper-to-a-scream arrangement, is from her September 1990 debut on Saturday Night Live. Her performance hit me like a train while it first aired, and, my god, does it still. I’m not much of a spiritual or religious guy, but watching it yet again I found myself clenching my fists, sure as ever that she’s proof of a higher power.

So the following day's news that O’Connor, 56, had died was about as tough to take as a celebrity death could be. Not that I or any of her millions of devotees could be too surprised by her passing so young. No cause of death has been released, but she has been very public for a long time about her battles with mental illnesses, and sadness and personal tragedy have had her address for some time. After last year’s death by suicide of her teenage son, Shane Lunny, she was hospitalized reportedly to keep her from hurting herself. She cancelled long-planned tours, and had recently made public statements about no longer finding life worth living.

I’m the grandson of four Irish immigrants. I have always loved that O'Connor was from Dublin and thought it was cooler than anybody not in my family would that she was named after Sinead de Valera, wife of Eamon de Valera, an Irish rebel leader during the fight for Irish independence who later became president of the free Republic of Ireland. My middle name is Eamon, also in tribute. (My second-favorite song of O’Connor’s is her version, backed by the Chieftains, of “The Foggy Dew,” a rebel song about the 1916 Easter Rising that de Valera helped lead.) In my head I’ve gotten more Irish with every passing year, which partially explains my becoming increasingly worshipful of O’Connor over time. I even was OK with her reggae turn and got weak all over when watching her 2020 cover of “Run” from Northern Ireland’s Snow Patrol live on Irish television, a tune and band I never would have given a thought to without her validation.

But O’Connor was worthy of utter reverence for reasons beyond cultural ties or even her otherworldly musical gifts. O’Connor's most memorable performance came in October 1992 during her second SNL appearance, when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to make people notice the abuse of children by the Catholic Church. It’s hard to process now, given all that’s come out since O'Connor's papal smear (and continues to come out), but even into the 1990s calling attention to the church's heinousness was considered heretical. History will be far kinder to O'Connor than the entertainment industry and general public were at the time. She destroyed her career in however many seconds it took to rip up the pope's portrait. I occasionally also seek out videos of Kris Kristofferson, a grizzled crooner decked out in biker leathers, shielding Sinead, a wee-little Gaelic angel, from a hateful Madison Square Garden mob a couple of weeks after her televised act of clerical disobedience.

O'Connor never got an SNL invite or played arenas again. Related or not, the Catholic Church has lost nearly all of its cultural relevance in Ireland in the years since O’Connor threw it all away to take a righteous stand. Again, I’m not much of a spiritual or religious guy, but hell if that ain’t the stuff of saints.

I'm going to go listen to her sing "Last Day of Our Acquaintance" now. RIP, Sinead.

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