The Parting Glass – celebrating Sinéad O’Connor’s music, radicalism and rebellion


“She sang for her causes first, not her career. She was a rebel and she sang rebel songs.”

Paul Breen offers a tribute to the late, great Sinead O’Connor

She was the damaged girl with the beautiful voice who fought causes and seemed full of contradictions. She was an Irish woman, a female artist who found her way even to the top of men’s music collections.

When she sang, she lulled you in, leaning into songs with a shy whisper and gasp of breath, before sweeping you up, absorbing you into lyrics that she poured her whole heart into. She swept you up and away from where you were with the power of a first kiss. You got the feeling too that when it came to first kisses, powerful introductions and unrepeatable memorable moments, Sinead O’Connor was champion of the world. Her every song seemed almost an Olympian feat, golden moments in a country that hasn’t always won much.

Not in the days when her world began anyway, before the Celtic Tiger, peace in the North and a new generation of Irish that could hold their heads higher, run faster and hold their own in the world without any of the baggage of superstition, nostalgia, will to destruction or guilt.

Sinead’s early years might have been spent in Dublin, seventy miles from British army watchtowers and cratered roads, but she lived in Ireland’s borderlands all the same. The border between what was and what is now, like in some paraphrased version of a Townes Van Zandt song about Buckskin Stallions; lyrics nobody can ever quite understand unless you’ve lived the song. To understand Sinead O’Connor you have to understand the place she came from, the Ireland that existed on that border of a different kind. One without watchtowers or men with blackened faces in military uniforms in the physical sense.

This was an Ireland on the cusp of transition, a shift from abused mother to independent woman. Actually, Sinead might say fuck to that definition. Abused human being. A collective of human beings caught up in a physical and psychological hangover of historical abuse. A divorce gone wrong, a tragedy borne out of the partition of Ireland, a tragedy on all sides. Those born in the half century after partition carried a great historical weight on their shoulders. They bore the psychological scars of seeing great dreams and ideals turn sour in each of the two states that Britain oversaw the formation of in the 1920s. To live, to exist, to survive, to make sense of their world, the people born into this time had to confront history. And paradoxically in making sense of it, they realised the senselessness of it all.

Sinead confronted the big issues not just in Irish history but those across the water too and those on a global scale as well. She held a prescient sense of injustice. She was never scared to speak a truth to power, whether to priests, politicians or police. Three years before Stephen Lawrence died on the streets of south London, she sang of Black Boys on Mopeds. She sang that as lyrically and as painfully as she sang about The Famine, of which she said there was none, calling it a genocide instead. On stage, she famously ripped up a picture of the Pope. That act of being protestant against a still-powerful church damaged her career. They, whoever was against such protestations, painted her in age-old tropes. The madwoman, the hyper-sexualised eccentric female. The petulant child, when in fact she was one of the few grown-ups in a room where too many people weren’t ready to do adult conversation.

You were supposed to keep your head down and whatever you say, say nothing, especially if you were a woman. Today though, the Catholic Church’s institutional abuse has been exposed. The racism of the Met Police too. Elsewhere, then-Prime-Minister Tony Blair apologised for the Irish Famine a century and a half after it happened. By comparison, it only took David Cameron four decades to say that Bloody Sunday was wrong.

Maybe the injustice of such events were part of the reason why Sinead wrote rebel songs when the likes of Bono preached a blame-laden peace and love that could’ve been straight out of the colonial master’s playbook. Like most people with love, with empathy, with humanity in their hearts, I’m sure Sinead wept for the people who died in Enniskillen’s Remembrance Sunday bombing or the senseless slaughter in Warrington, but she didn’t jump on the bandwagon, knowing there’d be a warmer reception for that than a song about shootings in Sean Graham’s bookmakers. She didn’t pick any one thing out, this one incident as being the only one, without context, that blazed out of nowhere into the agenda-ridden news headlines. Though just one small shaven-headed girl standing up to injustice in the world, she saw the bigger picture. She sang for her causes first, not her career.

She was a rebel and she sang rebel songs. Not weepy-eyed ones about lorry-loads of volunteers approaching border towns on New Year’s Eve. If she’d written that one, the ballad of Sean South, maybe she’d have made it truck-loads to rhyme with fuck-loads somewhere. Sinead’s songs were rebellious in a different way. She didn’t script heroines who dream of happy endings. She’d grown up in a land where heroin stole the finest male voice of his generation far too soon, in the tragic ballad of Phil Lynott’s life. The reality of the Irish state post-independence beat the romance out of her, not the British. Her Cathleen Ni Houlihan figure in This is a Rebel Song sees England not as the enemy but the source of unrequited equality. When Britain raised a parting glass to Ireland, they left a messed-up, half-formed state that Sinead was a product of. Partition was a divorce where the former landlord kept the bathroom in a state of leasehold, with a septic tank of sectarianism bubbling underneath.

But despite all that was rotten in the world around her, Sinead made beautiful music. She fought her causes to the end and left songs that transcend divisions. For me, her finest album is one that a friend introduced me to about a decade ago – one that’s titled Sean-Nós Nua, a ‘new, old-style’ studio album composed of traditional songs. These include stories of soldiers, sailors, dead singers, husbands, wives, lovers, rivers, and haunted shorelines. She takes the dead and gives them life again, as in her rendition of Molly Malone. For those minutes the mysterious Molly’s not some childhood song or statue in a Dublin side-street. She’s alive, alive-oh, with cries reincarnated in the voice of a girl also destined to die in a fever.

Added to her stories, there’s one about Lord Franklin, sometimes known as Lady Franklin’s Lament in which Sinead takes on the grieving voice of a famous explorer’s widow. ‘A boy’s song,’ she says of that track in the midst of singing it. But she takes that tune and makes it hers, causing hypothermic shivers when she breathes life into frozen landscapes. She imbues the song with a dreamlike quality, treating every word as a sacred fish on an Eskimo’s spear, making every line of the song hers and the listener’s. She takes you on a musical submersible into a Northwest passage that there’s no going through alive. And all the while you’re conscious that she’s got a sense of heading towards more than Canada on the other side.

She’s taking a boy’s song and she’s making it a human song, a story of life, death, memory and grief. And that’s only one of a dozen more, each song distinctive as an apostle, expressed and interpreted in Sinead’s own inimitable way right down to the last fada and apostrophe.

Like all of Sinead’s music, there’s a raw beauty to this album that couldn’t really be perfected. Because even if you could make it better, you’d be losing the essential spirit of what it was, music made for the moment. It’s got the feel of a night in a pub that you happen to pop into, when there’s a traditional band somewhere in the middle of the room. They’re playing the ancestral music of these western Atlantic islands for the craic, for the telling and preserving of stories. And you see, you hear, you feel a universal truth in every song. Single words erupt into entire episodes of emotion. When Sinead’s at her best, as she is here in the pitch of Sean-Nós Nua, she’s like a boy Maradona let loose in a game of street soccer.   

Maybe if there’s one thing might be changed it’s the order. The Parting Glass, a traditional Scottish goodbye song, is somewhere in the middle of this majestic album. It’s one that has been covered by others like Ed Sheeran and Cara Dillon, but Sinead does it best. And maybe in a perfect world, a perfect album, that’d be the last song, the very last word. Then again, maybe it ought to be the one about Lord Franklin and his mighty crew. Or Molly Malone dying of that fever from which nobody could save her. Whatever, whichever, one thing is for sure.

Sinead O’Connor has made her passage to that place where all of life’s stories end up. She’s gone, like a candle in the wind, but not a royal or Hollywood one we didn’t really know. Maybe she was more like the candle that burns for emigrants in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish President’s house. But then again she might have seen that as just some more sentimental bullshit too. Like so many of her people, she died across the water in a place apart from her, but always an inextricable part of her world and her worldview. 

Similarly, the cause of her death doesn’t define her any more than her causes have died. Maybe there’s only one thing will ever define Sinead, the part of her soul she’s left behind. Her voice. Her stories. Put together, forever inseparable now. I am glad to have been a listener in her story.  

Featured image: Sinéad O’Connor performing at the Ramsbottom Music Festival on Sunday 15th September 2013. Photo credit: Man Alive! under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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