It was a symbol of O'Connor's own personal history of abuse and the unspoken culture of abuse that still held sway in her home country. In the weeks after her SNL appearance, she released a public letter urging her fellow Irish to pursue truth and reconciliation with the Church:
The only hope for me as an abused child was to look back into my childhood and face some very difficult memories and some desperately painful feelings and a lot of very tricky conversations! I had to have it acknowledged what was done to me so that I could forgive and be free.
So, it has occurred to me that the only hope of recovery for my people is to look back into our history. Face some very difficult truths and some very frightening feelings. 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.
These paragraphs were skimmed over by critics like DeCurtis, who could only make sense of passages about abortion and the Holy Roman Empire.
"It's very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about," a more serene O'Connor reflected in 2002, in an interview with Salon. "But outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood."
The crimes of pedophile priests and sadistic Irish schoolmasters did not begin to unravel in the public eye until several years after O'Connor's protest. The matter is still far from resolved, but at least the broad facts are now available for public consideration. O'Connor should not be considered the central figure in the uncovering of the abuses, but neither can one understate the impact of a major pop star's provocations on her country's eventual willingness to come to terms with its iniquities.
In America, however, the protest effectively ended O'Connor's career. Joe Pesci, hosting SNL the next week, told the crowd,
"She's lucky it wasn't my show. Cause if it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack. I would have grabbed her by her... her eyebrows. I woulda..." (tossing gesture)
He was met with laughter and applause. On October 16, at a tribute concert to Bob Dylan, O'Connor faced a hostile crowd. Defiantly, she asked her band for silence and briefly attempted to reprise her a capella performance of "War." She broke off and fled the stage in a hail of catcalls and boos. Dylan made no statement in her defense.
Around the same time, at a rally in New York, piles of her records, tapes, and CDs were crushed by a steamroller. Protesters declared the United States a "Sinead O'Connor-free zone." Within a year of her SNL protest, O'Connor had disappeared from the American pop scene, quickly replaced by a new glottis-catching Irish pixie dream girl, Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries.
Some of the damage to O'Connor's career, of course, was self-inflicted. On October 29, 1992, Rolling Stone published an embarrassing interview given by O'Connor before the SNL performance. In the interview, O'Connor called Mike Tyson's rape victim a "bitch," criticizing her public appearances on talk shows around the time of Tyson's conviction. She also proposed an adolescent vision of transformational social change, suggesting that if no one voted or went to work, the world's institutions would be somehow regenerated and improved. The interview perfectly captured a portrait of the singer as a young, politically naïve firebrand, courting controversy for controversy's sake. It fit the preconceptions of both champions like Roeper and critics like DeCurtis, and her protest was dismissed before it was ever properly heard.
But effective American political protest, from Rosa Parks to Cindy Sheehan, has often relied on imperfect messengers. Why then did O'Connor's protest in particular fall on deaf ears? Was it due to the foreignness of her complaint? American Catholics would, of course, within a decade of her SNL appearance, discover themselves in the midst of a priestly sexual abuse scandal of their own. O'Connor's alarm bell was meant for them as well.
More likely, America was unable to hear out, let alone accept, O'Connor's protest because we were unwilling, in DeCurtis's words, to "take seriously" the provocations of an entertainer who would put her career on the line to make a point. We tend to look to our musicians as entertainment professionals—an expansive identity into which Dylan, for instance, has found a comfortable retreat in his late years. A musician with no self-preservation instinct is considered highly unprofessional.
O'Connor came from a different culture and came to us as an unfamiliar type—a true believer. She often spoke of her voice as a gift from God to lift her out of the "hell" of her childhood and compared herself to her role model, Joan of Arc. In 2002 she told Salon:
I felt that I was having a relationship with what I would call the Holy Spirit. My feeling all my life was that thing did come and help me through some very difficult times and my intention was always to help it, then. And when I got older I got the chance. The thing is, if that spirit asked me to do something, then I had a lot more to fear by not doing that thing than I had by doing it and dealing with the consequences of what people think.
O'Connor actually seems to believe that she was specially endowed by God with a powerful voice in order to restore integrity to a corrupted Church and put an end to the pervasive evil of child abuse. This belief is born out not only in her interviews but also in her music.
In a secular, psychology-oriented society, this might be seen as delusional. * But in a highly religious society like the one that forged her, this sort of faith-based crusade is not only valid but represents one of the few available models of effective reform, followed by King and Gandhi, among others. To claim to speak for God is to appeal both to the individual's spiritual integrity and to a moral authority higher than that of the earthly powers that be. This appeal was at the heart of O'Connor's SNL protest, as she prophesied a future of damning reports of abuse and dwindling Catholic flocks.
If we in the American entertainment media couldn't see O'Connor for the prophet she was, we were off the mark in blaming the messenger. We could have done a much better job of listening to what she had to say.
* An earlier version of this sentence included an extraneous mention of O'Connor's recent bipolarity diagnosis that inadvertently implied a connection with her religious belief. We regret the oversight.