Sinead O'Connor in the Netherlands, circa 1989.
With her emotional delivery and confessional songs, Sinéad O'Connor has sold millions of albums. Brazenly outspoken, she was unlike any woman in pop music before her; sporting a shaven head and formless clothing, Sinead O'Connor seemed to symbolically repudiate the stereotypical female pop star's image. An unwed mother who's spiritually inclined but anticlerical, she has startled —and at times baffled —the media and fans with her provocative statements and gestures.
The third of four children of an engineer father and a dressmaker mother, O'Connor spent a difficult childhood in conservative Dublin; she later claimed abuse by her mother (killed in a 1985 car wreck), to whom she was greatly, if ambivalently, devoted. Torn by her parents' separation when she was eight, O'Connor was expelled from Catholic schools, arrested for shoplifting, and sent to reform and boarding schools. At 15, singing Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" at a wedding, she was discovered by Paul Byrne, the drummer for In Tua Nua, a band affiliated with U2. She cowrote In Tua Nua's first single, "Take My Hand," and began singing Dylan covers in coffeehouses. Fleeing boarding school at 16, she then studied voice and piano at Dublin's College of Music. She supported herself by waitressing and delivering "kiss-o-grams" in a French maid costume.
Moving to London in the early '80s at the behest of Ensign Records, O'Connor collaborated with U2 guitarist the Edge on a film soundtrack (The Captive, 1986) while preparing her debut album. The first tapes of that project were scrapped because O'Connor despised the Celtic-derived production. She self-produced The Lion and the Cobra (its title taken from Psalm 91), which ranged from orchestral rock to folk to dance pop. The album sold well (#36, 1988), but with O'Connor's celebrity came controversy.
By then the mother of a son by her drummer, John Reynolds, O'Connor shocked the press by attacking U2 (calling the band's music "bombastic") and defending the IRA. She married Reynolds in 1988, but tumult continued with her firing of manager Fachtna O'Ceallaigh. The #1-selling I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got and its Prince-written single, "Nothing Compares 2 U" (#1, 1990), raised O'Connor's profile even higher. (In 1991 she would allege that Prince had physically threatened her.) Critics applauded her emotionally charged music (inspired by her separation from Reynolds), but British tabloids attacked her romance with black singer Hugh Harris and savaged her politics. Frank Sinatra assailed her refusal, at a 1990 New Jersey concert, to perform if the hall played "The Star-Spangled Banner," and that same year O'Connor canceled a Saturday Night Live appearance in protest against what she perceived as host Andrew "Dice" Clay's misogyny. Nominated for four Grammy Awards, she withdrew from the competition and aligned herself in interviews with rap rebels N.W.A and Ice-T. That year, she also contributed to Red Hot + Blue, a Cole Porter tribute album to benefit AIDS charities. (Her previous outside projects had included the B side of a single by Colourfield and vocals for 1988's Stay Awake, an album of Disney film music.)
O'Connor's next studio outing, Am I Not Your Girl?, was a surprise; it was a collection of torch songs associated with such singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Controversy continued throughout 1992, though: She tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II in an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and two weeks later she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden. Also in 1992 the English rock paper Melody Maker reported O'Connor's imminent retirement from music; her publicist clarified that the singer was merely tired of "promoting" her career, but would in fact return to Dublin to study opera.
In 1993 O'Connor, who had appeared in a 1989 Irish film, Hush-a-Bye Baby, played Ophelia in Hamlet at Dublin's Project Arts Centre. She also toured with the WOMAD festival, organized by Peter Gabriel, with whom she was briefly romantically linked. She returned to the studio in 1994 and produced Universal Mother (#36, 1994), which mixed spoken-word political pronouncements with soft ballads and hip-hop–influenced compositions. The understated Gospel Oak EP (#128) followed in 1997, the same year as her performance as the Virgin Mary in the Neil Jordan film The Butcher Boy. O'Connor then signed to Atlantic Records, in 2000 releasing Faith and Courage, a critically acclaimed mixture of traditional Celtic sounds with modern beats recorded with producers Brian Eno, Wyclef Jean, and Dave Stewart.
O'Connor's personal life continued to interest the tabloids: A 1999 custody battle for her young daughter ended when she agreed to joint custody with the father, Dublin journalist John Waters. Upon the release of Faith and Courage, the singer declared to various interviewers she was a lesbian, though subsequent comments were contradictory, at times declaring her love for men while claiming to be celibate. And while praising both Buddhism and the Rastafarian religions, O'Connor was ordained as a priest by a Roman Catholic splinter group called the Latin Tridentine Church, taking the clerical name Mother Bernadette Maria.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).