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Pain and Loss Shaped Sinéad O’Connor’s Life — and Music

The cause of death has been revealed for the ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ artist

spinner image sinead o'connor smiles while standing in front of a microphone stand as she performs mencap's little noise sessions at saint john-at-hackney in london
Samir Hussein/Getty Images

The Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, known for her shaved head, rebelliousness and beautiful vocals, died on July 26 at age 56. She was a haunting and haunted figure, the evocative voice behind the smash 1990 hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the complicated iconoclast who famously ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992 to protest the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church.

In a statement released to the BBC and the Irish public broadcaster RTE, her family said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”

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The London Inner South Coroner's Court confirmed on Jan. 9, 2024, that O'Connor died of natural causes, according to People magazine. The coroner has ceased their involvement in the singer's death.

In recent years she converted to Islam (2018) and started using the name Shuhada Sadaqat offstage; wrote a poignant memoir called Rememberings (2021); and experienced the death of her son Shane, 17, from suicide (2022). Devastated, she tweeted that there was “no point living without him” and was hospitalized. A few weeks ago, she posted again about Shane’s death: “Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.”

She certainly bore her share of pain, and then some, throughout her life. Hers wasn’t a happy childhood. She describes in her memoir her father’s leaving the family when she was 9. When she and her siblings cried, her physically and emotionally abusive mother — who would lose custody of her five kids — became angry and left the children alone in a hut behind their house late into the night. “That is when I officially lost my mind and also became afraid of the size of the sky,” O’Connor wrote.

As a teen, after being repeatedly caught stealing, she was sent to a Dublin’s An Grianan Training Centre, a reformatory school that was once one of the Magdalene laundries where girls deemed promiscuous were sent to labor.

spinner image sinead o'connor smiling in a black and white portrait in 1990
Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns

But it was there that she discovered the guitar and embraced music as a creative and emotional outlet. She moved to London, teamed up with U2’s former manager, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, and found fame relatively quickly after she released her first album, The Lion and the Cobra (1987), which included the rocking song “Mandinka” and the ballad “Troy,” and earned her a Grammy nomination. Her follow-up album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, included her iconic Grammy-winning cover of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Its unforgettable accompanying video featured a close up of O’Connor’s lovely, anguished-looking face as she sang.

Always the rebel, though, she risked ending her stellar career by igniting various controversies, most famously when she ripped up the photo of the pope after singing an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War.”

O’Connor also experienced many other difficulties, with diagnoses of bipolar disorder (she later suggested this was a misdiagnosis) and fibromyalgia, among other challenges; she attempted suicide in 1999, while caught up in a custody battle with the father of her daughter Roisin (she had three other children, with different fathers).

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She continued to produce new music through the years, though no album would match the popularity of her earlier work.

Tributes poured in after the announcement of her death, including from Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who praised the singer’s “fearless commitment to the important issues ... no matter how uncomfortable those truths may have been.”

Many obituaries describe her as “a contradictory figure”: a gifted musician who was both a unrepentant fighter and achingly vulnerable.

“She is just an incredibly complex individual and she should never be judged,” Irish producer David Holmes told The New York Times in a 2021 profile. “She doesn’t go out of her way to try and hurt anyone. She’s just Sinead, and she wears her heart on her sleeve.”

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