Some candles flicker and some candles fade

Sinéad O’Connor’s lyrics expressed deep emotions and conveyed raw vulnerability. Her powerful, soulful voice — sometimes haunting, sometimes uplifting — brought her songs to life. She wrote about her own life and about the injustices she saw in our world. She was a force of nature, who refused to be crushed.

At the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor said that her record company wanted her to wear high-heel boots, short skirts, and grow her hair long — to be more feminine. Shaving her head was her response. She was a rebel with many causes — and no one was going to tell her how to look. She refused to trade on her beauty.

When Sinéad O’Connor went on US TV in 1992, she tore up a photo of the Pope. She was protesting about the abuses of the Catholic Church. The TV studio was stunned, and she quickly became a hated figure across America.

Two weeks later, when she was performing at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert in New York, she was booed before she could start to sing. She stood defiantly as the booing continued. The band tried to play but she stopped them and sang an a cappella version of the same song she sang on the infamous night on US TV — a version of Bob Marley’s War.

(Did the spectators know anything about Bob Dylan?! Did they not know that he too was once renowned for writing protest songs on, for example, racism, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and the struggle for civil rights in America? He was even called a communist.)

The Pope’s photo itself had a significance that was lost at the time. It belonged to her late mother, who had abused her when she was a child. The tearing of the photo effectively ended Sinéad O’Connor’s superstar pop career. There was no shortage of people condemning her, including celebrities such as Madonna, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Pesci. But that didn’t matter to her because she had envisaged a different future from the one her record company wanted for her. She saw herself as a protest singer. And that’s what she returned to being.

In the tributes after her death this week, I learnt about some of the causes she supported: the treatment of women in the music industry and elsewhere; hip-hop before it became popular (some of her concerts opened with a hip-hop band); divorce and abortions rights; and the rights of Black people, travellers, Palestinians, and refugees.

She seemed to have endeared every marginalised group over the past 30 years. But her life-long fight against injustice wasn’t just for the sake of courting publicity. Massive Attack (who worked with her) said in their tribute, “The fire in her eyes made you understand that her activism was a soulful reflex and not a political gesture.”

In her personal life, Sinéad O’Connor had her share of suffering. She was nineteen when her mother died. More recently, her 17-year-old son took his own life despite being on suicide watch. Her diagnosis of bipolar disorder (later corrected to PTSD) may have contributed to her occasional erratic behaviour.

Although the Catholic church had let her and so many people down, she remained spiritual. Five years ago, she converted to Islam.

Once vilified, she was eventually vindicated when the world learnt about child abuse in the Catholic Church across the world. Sixteen years after she tore up that photo, the Pope acknowledged the suffering of those who had been abused.

At the Bob Dylan concert, Kris Kristofferson came out and comforted Sinéad O’Connor as the crowd booed her. As she stood in front of the booing crowd, he said to her, “Don’t let the bastards get you down”. Later, he penned this poignant song, called Sister Sinéad:

I’m singing this song for my sister Sinéad
Concerning the god awful mess that she made
When she told them her truth just as hard as she could
Her message profoundly was misunderstood

There’s humans entrusted with guarding our gold
And humans in charge of the saving of souls
And humans responded all over the world
Condemning that bald headed brave little girl

And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t
But so was Picasso and so were the saints
And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains
She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame

It’s askin’ for trouble to stick out your neck
In terms of a target a big silhouette
But some candles flicker and some candles fade
And some burn as true as my sister Sinéad

And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t
But so was Picasso and so were the saints
And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains
She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame

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