Northern Ireland

Ralph McLean: Sinead O'Connor's activism cost her dearly but being true to herself was all that mattered

Sinéad O’Connor in 2008 (Niall Carson/PA)
Sinéad O’Connor in 2008 (Niall Carson/PA) Sinéad O’Connor in 2008 (Niall Carson/PA)

They say a great artist should never compromise. Sinéad O’Connor never compromised.

In an industry where toeing the line and playing the corporate game was the norm, lines were never toed and games - corporate or otherwise - never played in Sinéad’s world.

It feels flippant to say she spoke her mind and stood up for causes and issues that stirred her or made her angry, but she did.

It often cost her dearly, not just commercially speaking, but in terms of her own mental well being, but she didn’t care. Being true to herself was all that mattered.

There was a burning righteousness in that tiny frame that made her a figure for ridicule for many and saw her mocked continually by those who felt threatened by her but, more importantly, it also made her a source of inspiration and empowerment for many more.

Personally, I loved her for it.

And then there’s that voice. A unique instrument capable of both tear-inducing intensity and roof-lifting raw power. You knew you were in the presence of genuine greatness every time she walked towards a microphone and opened her mouth to sing. More than anything else, that’s what I’ll miss most.

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Ralph McLean previously interviewed Sinéad O'Connor for a documentary, and will host a tribute this Monday on BBC Radio Ulster.
Ralph McLean previously interviewed Sinéad O'Connor for a documentary, and will host a tribute this Monday on BBC Radio Ulster. Ralph McLean previously interviewed Sinéad O'Connor for a documentary, and will host a tribute this Monday on BBC Radio Ulster.

I was sold the moment I heard that odd, jerky debut single Mandinka in 1987. That indignant squall coming from the boot-wearing, shaven-headed little pixie figure I saw in that promotional video all those years ago spoke to me and it moved me just as many of her performances down the years have moved me.

Not everything worked of course, like every great artist hers was a recorded legacy peppered with both magical and shall we say less than magical moments, but you never for a second didn’t think she meant it.

I know it’s the safest track to evoke in the circumstances, but forget about it’s over familiarity for a moment and consider that cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U one more time.

It’s a recording that’s come to define her career to many. In Sinéad’s hands that simple ballad is soulful, honest and almost heartbreakingly fragile. As a slice of pure emotion captured on tape it’s quite something.

 

Maybe 20 years ago, I lose track to be honest, I made a documentary on her for BBC Radio 2 called, and brace yourself for the originality here, Nothing Compares To Her.

It was supposed to tell her life story and cover her finest musical moments to that point. As I remember, there was so much to fit in and so many stories to tell, even at that point in her life, that it was a nearly impossible task.

When I inherited the production duties early in the idea’s formation I was assured that “Sinéad was fully on board”. Needless to say, she wasn’t and many a month of anxiety followed.

From the outside her life certainly seemed chaotic, she changed management at least twice in that short spell for instance, and for a while I was convinced the whole project was doomed to failure.

“She’ll chat in Glasgow this Tuesday morning” changed to “Scrap that we’ll be touch” and soon radio silence was resumed. A broadcasting friend at RTE just smiled when I shared my worries with him. “Once you meet her you’ll love her” he said. He was right. 

Warm, welcoming and more beautiful in person than even those often stunning press images could suggest she was the perfect interviewee in many ways. Giving, thoughtful and wonderfully indiscreet, she delivered the goods and I knew the project was going to work within seconds of that first chat.   

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I interviewed her on quite a few occasions after that documentary, hosting memorable gigs with her alongside the Ulster Orchestra and chatting with her when a new album or re-issue was looming and she was embarking on the standard promotional trail, but it’s those lengthy sit down chats we first recorded that stick in my memory.

Sinéad was, in my experience, always fierce company rattling through subjects at lightning speed, dissing those she felt needed dissing and peppering her tales with plenty of expletives along the way.

She was sharp, engaging and often hilarious. She told stories about public figures that had me roaring with laughter, I seem to remember she tore into Noel Gallagher for meeting Tony Blair at Downing Street with a passion at one point, and it goes without saying the fragments I was able to use required the liberal use of the Radio 2 bleep button to ensure they got to air.

I also remember how loved Sinéad was by others. When it came to securing big name artists to talk about the woman and her work I was spoiled for choice.

I recall Bjork happily travelling to her nearest radio studio in Iceland to chat about her love for Sinead and I smile now as I remember Kris Kristofferson, who so famously stood up for the singer after the ripping up the picture of the Pope furore saw her roundly booed at that famous Bob Dylan tribute night in Madison Square Gardens, recording a heartfelt tribute song to her especially for me into a tiny recording device he borrowed from a neighbour.

That he then drove several hours across country on the tiny Hawaiian island he lived on to get to a post office and send me it to use in the programme only further confirms the affection she was held in by those who truly knew the craic.

Sinead was a one off. She was a survivor of abuse and a speaker of the truth as she saw it. She was also one of the greatest raw and natural talents this island has ever produced. And as for that no compromise thing? Well, I think that was her very finest trait. 

On Monday night from 8pm on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sounds, Ralph looks back on the musical life of Sinéad O'Connor with extracts from his documentary and other interviews and performances from the BBC archives.