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25 years on, here's why Sinead O'Connor deserves praise for ripping up a photo of the Pope

“She spoke truth to power at a time when it was unfashionable and paid a hefty price for it.”


THIS WEEK MARKED the 25th anniversary of Sinead O’Connor’s now iconic performance on Saturday Night Live in which she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II and defiantly declared, “Fight the real enemy.”

The singer was performing a stark acapella rendition of Bob Marley’s War when she produced a photo of the Vatican leader and shred it into tiny pieces while staring straight down the camera. The studio audience greeted the singer with deathly silence and the provocation made headline news the next day with the New York Daily News labelling her a “holy terror”.

The fallout was swift. Students from University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, called on NBC to apologise for rebroadcasting it and called it an act of religious intolerance. The following week, Joe Pesci appeared on Saturday Night Live and condemned the incident and said that had it happened on his watch, he would have given her “such a smack”.

A few weeks later, O’Connor was part of a start-studded lineup paying tribute to Bob Dylan. After being brought to the stage by Kris Kristofferson, she was drowned out by sustained jeers and boos.

Per a New York Times report at the time:

She walked on stage to mixed applause and boos, the result of her tearing up a picture of the Pope when she performed on “Saturday Night Live.” She stared at the crowd, silently, twice signaling the band to stop when it began playing “I Believe in You” while the audience noise continued.

She ended up performing War once more and reportedly left the stage in tears.

A few weeks after her appearance on Saturday Night Live, O’Connor defended her actions and issued a powerful open letter in which she linked the abuse she experienced as a child to the influence exerted by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

It must be acknowledged what was done to us so we can forgive and be free. If the truth remains hidden then the brutality under which I grew up will continue for thousands of Irish children. And I must by any means necessary WITHOUT the use of violence prevent that happening because I am a Christian.
The Catholic Church have controlled us by controlling education. Through their teachings on sexuality, marriage, birth control and abortion. And most spectacularly through the lies they taught us with their history books.

In June 1993, she reiterated that the gesture was intended to highlight abuses facilitated and ignored by the Catholic Church. “I tore up the Pope’s picture to draw attention to the issue of child abuse that the Vatican ignores,” she told The Guardian in response to claims that she did it for publicity.

The same article notes that record sales in the United States “virtually ground to a halt” following the Pope incident.

Sinead R Stone Source: Rolling Stone

A quarter of a century and countless shocking revelations later, Sinead O’Connor has been largely vindicated. Looking back on her statements, it’s hard to see what was so controversial. In fact, her comments read fairly reasonably in light of what we now know.

But her outburst came at a time when the widespread nature of abuse in the Catholic Church had yet to be widely acknowledged. After all, it was seven years before Mary Raftery’s groundbreaking States of Fear was broadcast and a decade before the Boston Globe published their Spotlight investigation into abuses perpetrated by the Catholic Church.

Many accused her of religious intolerance, failing to recognise that she was criticising an institution as opposed to a faith. She was the subject of countless op-eds and talk radio debates, and ended up leaving the United States the following year to settle back home in Dublin.

An appearance on RTÉ’s Kenny Live in December 1992 indicated that she was somewhat shaken by the backlash. At the end of the interview, which focused on child abuse, she thanked Pat Kenny for simply being “nice” to her.

In the years since, Sinead O’Connor has endured her fair share of ups and downs. She has struggled with her mental health, often very publicly, and has had every facet of her life closely scrutinised in the press.

She has also been dismissed time and time again as a “crazy bitch”. Indeed, she once placed an ad in the Irish Examiner pleading with Irish media to leave her alone and outlined how “it’s become a national pastime treating Sinead O’Connor like a crazy bitch”.

There was an element of this after her appearance on Saturday Night Live. “That Sinead O’Connor. She’s a bit… mad.”

Looking back, however, it’s clear that she was simply ahead of her time and sharing truths that the world was neither ready to accept nor acknowledge, particularly when the messenger was a bolshy 25-year-old woman.

Sinead O’Connor spoke truth to power at a time when it was unfashionable and paid a hefty price for it, both professionally and emotionally.

On this anniversary, let’s take a moment to applaud her courage and willingness to put everything on the line in the name of calling out a Pope the New Yorker has since described as “the single figure most responsible” for ignoring child sexual abuse within the Church.

To Sinead. One of our best.

Source: Cerridwen/YouTube

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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