Among the tens of thousands of hours of television I’ve surely watched, the instant of Sinead O’Connor’s ripping up a photo of the pope live on TV as she declared, “Fight the real enemy,” stands out most strongly, most starkly among all the moments and non-moments. It was a: “Yes! Somebody actually said it! Snuck through the barricades and said a true thing you’re not supposed to say at such heights.” Because, for many of us, to survive the ordeal of Catholic indoctrination is to be consigned to a life of undoing it, unmaking the toxic shame the experience can impose. It’s called euphemistically “Catholic guilt”; however, I think “shame” is more precise and descriptive in this case. Guilt is the regret you feel after you do something you feel bad about. Shame, on the other hand, is when you feel that your *self* is wrong, bad, mutant, defective. This latter condition, in my experience, is something that Catholicism can indeed encourage, as it suggests that any life not defined by martyrdom is insufficient and incapable of erasing the stain that the entirely mythical “fall” (actually an expulsion) from Eden somehow engendered in us.
Sinead O’Connor’s rage at the Catholic church was rooted in the hard-core material reality of the church’s role in major systems of oppression and abuse within Ireland and she grew up within the landscape of wreckage which that oppression and abuse wrought. Considering the church’s role in the unfathomable devastations of colonialism, after the mass, paranoid sadism of the Inquisition, after the years of protecting child abusers, of oppressing women, and considering the church’s demented enterprise of terrorizing defenseless children with the mythology of eternal burning in hell and predation by the devil, Sinead O’Connor’s radical gesture on Saturday Night Live made perfect sense to me, and I observed it as a moment of vindication. For that I thank her. Few people operating at her level of stature in mass culture demonstrate such courage and vision. With her, we felt less alone.
And, of course, that boldness and vision is most powerfully present in how she sang. She released her voice and one could picture the melting of church doors, buckling under its force. Here are two clips from 2014 of Sinead singing with singer and songwriter John Grant. In the first one, from Irish television, she sings with her daughter, Róisín Waters. In the second John Grant song, “Glacier,” she accompanies him in concert on this song dedicated to Grant’s “gay brothers and sisters in Russia” suffering under Putin. Sinead remained righteous and unapologetic despite the traumas she suffered and throughout her battles with bipolar disorder. Listening to her sing harmony with her daughter, animated and joyous, I cried at the loss of her.