Sinead O'Connor in Belfast
Northern Ireland Politics of Music

Sinead O’Connor… my Danny Boy

This is the script of the piece Neil did on Sinead for Ungagged, 10/08/17 His piece starts at 23 mins…

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“… Which brings me to what I wanted to speak about.  One of my music heroes.

At the weekend, Sinead O’connor posted a really sad, video to Facebook. It was a cry for help. Her voice and image went out to millions,, and the positive response was inspiring.

People from across the world held out their hands and hoped they could catch the very fragile and desperately ill woman. Happily, it has been reported she is safe and with people who love her.  But this sad event and the anniversary theme of this podcast reminded me of when I saw Sinead, live, in Belfast now nearly thirty years ago.

Not since I had watched the Ramones with their defiant “this is me, SO?” attitudes, smacking the frets with a string orchestra behind them on Top of the Pops in the early eighties had I noticed such societal twisting and bending till it broke. Norms we had been sold tangled, turned and thrown back at us to create new ground. New questions. New ways to see the world.  Counter culture is always usurped and sold back to us, creating new counter cultures.  This time it was a woman – a woman breaking the bonds of the patriarchal male gaze.  A woman demanding people to listen.  A woman demanding people to look, but judge for who she was, not how she was packaged.

Before her, there had been Blondie. Debbie unabashedly strutting across stages, but unmistakably an all American poster girl, selling clothes and style as well as records. An all american icon, albeit one with attitude.

The Irish were biting back. Political and personal statements of “we are here and we are more than the conservative Irish catholic/protestant at loggerheads about just whose unnatural, boxed up, disciplined ideology is supreme.”

In today’s global kiss arse neo-con context, Bono is called a wanker, but for a Northern Irish boy questioning all he experienced in his unionist town, Sunday Bloody Sunday and waving white flags and singing about dead American Civil Rights leaders was pretty radical. Civil rights were a threat in our bordered, walled, military world.

Teenaged visits to Dublin and partying across the wire in Belfast was my rebellion. I guess part of hers was singing in Belfast’s most bombed hotel.

The shock of Sinead; the appearance, defiance, rebelliousness -truthfulness- was like the buzz around Boy George after his first appearance on TOTP. He bent gender. He looked incredible. He raised questions, and consumerism jumped on board. The homophobic commentary from The Daily Mail and its nasty comrades bounced off his young, confident shell of self. Until it became too much. And until it was packaged and sold.
Sinead stood, self consciously, beautiful and strong. “This is me. I don’t do “Dana” nor am I Madonna. I am a woman with something to say. Listen or don’t.”

The shaved head. The subtle, if any, makeup. The lack of ra-ra, jewellry or shoulder pads immediately set her apart singing Mandinka without Legs and Co and their nonsense. She bent the Murdoch, BBC, Rothermere, ad-man, fashion world, socialised, schoolboy view of what a woman should be.

But something about her seemed fragile. Glass. Breakable. In need of a friend, as we all are at 21.

Excited by Mandinka, we wanted to go to the Belfast show. There were threats after some would say, unwise words about our war wounded walled province – or was that a local media creation? A sense of “punk” Irish republican hysteria created to sell newspapers? Tickets? And a hastily rearranged venue. The Europa Hotel- protected like almost no other hotel in the world seemed a wise new stage.
Gareth, in the know, got the tickets. I smuggled my SLR camera into the show. The tickets expressly said in those days, “no cameras,” but I would sidle up to the press corp and slip the camera out of my jacket.

This was well before the days of people watching live events through their phone screens. I used to watch through my camera eyepiece – trying not to waste expensive, valuable, finite film – waiting for the perfect shot. Hiding behind the camera; self conscious; not wanting to look someone so beautiful straight in the eye. I got few good shots that night – I was too mesmerised by this person.

And she took to the microphone, holding it tightly; looking around the small venue (most venues in Northern Ireland at that time were small). Her eyes scanned the crowd, and then, I felt, they rested on me. Or on my lense.

The music was immediate; I couldn’t place it into a box along with my Toyah’s, Debbie’s or Kate’s. This was music with lyrics as important as my Curtis’s, Morrissey’s and Burn’s. This wasn’t punk, but it shouted something.  It challenged everything.

The atmosphere she created was electrifying. This was a woman with something to say, but who was saying it through her music. Even the band – made up of  Smiths members, couldn’t divert our attention from this performer.


No grandstanding like Bono; no histrionics like The Jesus and Mary Chain.

I remember being disappointed the concert was so short – but this was a young woman with new songs.  I longed to see her later in her career with more to say.  But that was the last time I did.

This was a woman as I experienced women. This was no media creation. This was someone with opinions; with blood, flesh, colour and nervous, darting eyes. No mannequin. No wankers fetish.

This was someone who didn’t demand to be treated like a man – this was a woman who demanded to be treated as a human being. Valued as a human being, and fallible like every other human being I knew. And I was hooked. This woman of truth, but so delicate, so damaged. So aware.

Sinead cried on film; she sang about her lost children. She sang about her lost childhood and the lost generations and scars in her Ireland. She raged at the down presser man. She raged at the tendrils of organised religion. She revealed her inner battles and physical scars. She was hated by the American right and the religiously pompous and patriarchal. Frank Sinatra threatened to “kick her ass” for refusing to play a concert if the US national anthem was played at the start in her protest at US foreign policy.

And she gave Miley Cyrus advice – sound, motherly advice and was ridiculed in a dreadful way by the young woman whose rebellion has been packaged and sold back at her. A young woman sold as a commodity, but all the time, like lots of young people nowadays, told their rebellion is theirs while their money is spent or their bodies and minds are exploited, while corporations tell her do this; buy this- adults don’t like or “get” this. Miley’s rebellion has been packaged up and corporations make a mint. Sinead’s own advice, from her song the Emperor’s New Clothes, is thrown back at her.

“He thinks I just became famous
And that’s what messed me up
But he’s wrong
How could I possibly know what I want
When I was only twenty-one?
And there’s millions of people
To offer advice and say how I should be
But they’re twisted
And they will never be any influence on me…”

Some of Sinead’s songs reduce me to tears. (in privacy of course – this damaged male holds the baggage of role models foisted upon him by capitalist stiff upper colonialist lips and admen and consumerism and hierarchy).

Her song, My Special Child is my Danny boy.

She’s My Patsy Cline.

But unlike Danny, her songs are hopeful, educational and unlike Patsy, she *will* heal.”


By Neil Scott

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