Sinead O’Connor Had a More Personal Reason for Ripping Up the Pope’s Photo Than People Realized

Sinéad O’Connor was catapulted to fame as a musician in the early ’90s, and controversy quickly followed. During one dramatic music performance, she tore up a picture of the Pope, making Catholics and their supporters all over the world furious. 

But despite the intense backlash, the public never fully understood her reason for tearing up the picture. Although she did have her complaints about the Catholic Church, the picture held a painful, personal meaning for her too. 

Sinead O’Connor’s dramatic life

Sinead O'Connor
Sinead O’Connor | Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

From the beginning, O’Connor’s career has been defined by attention-grabbing talent and equal parts controversy. According to Biography, the Irish singer was 24 years old when her single “Nothing Compares 2 U” became an international smash hit. 

The song was from her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and the single propelled the album to the top of the charts. Soon, she was nominated for four Grammy Awards, she won the MTV Video of the Year Award, and she was named Artist of the Year by Rolling Stone. 

But in 1992, O’Connor found herself at the center of a firestorm. She was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and at the end of her performance, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II, declaring, “fight the real enemy.”

People were outraged, and many said that she had destroyed a promising career. 

The deeper meaning behind the picture

The backlash from the event was huge. According to the New York Times, she was booed offstage when she appeared at a tribute concert for Bob Dylan. Joe Pesci threatened to hit her on TV. She became a running joke on late-night TV shows. 

But although people were furious with her for attacking the church, O’Connor’s statement was about more than the Pope. Although she was protesting abuse in the church, the photo held another meaning for her. In her recently released memoir, Rememberings, she shared that she had been brutally physically abused by her mother when she was a child. 

“I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well,” she wrote.

When she was 18, O’Connor’s mother died. She went to her mother’s home and took down the only picture on the wall: her mother’s photo of the Pope. O’Connor saved the picture for years, intending to destroy it when the right opportunity came along. 

Sinead O’Connor: Telling the whole story

 In her book, O’Connor explained many of the details of her life. For instance, she set the record straight on Anthony Keidis’s claim that they were romantically involved, saying, “Only in his mind.” On the other hand, she admits that she did have a brief affair with Peter Gabriel. 

But as People reports, O’Connor’s symbolic rejection of the church and her mother’s abuse wasn’t the end of her healing. After multiple mental health crises, she suffered a breakdown in 2015. She has since undergone a lot of therapy to find stability. Now she has bi-weekly check-ins with her medical support team to help keep her safe and healthy. 

Although she’s gone through a lot over the years, the predictions that she had destroyed her career turn out to be wrong. Through it all, she continues to do what she loves: make music. She has a new album coming out later this year.

And how does she feel about her bold protest against abuse, both personally and in the Catholic Church? 

“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant.”

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