When the exit Catherine Ferguson Growing up in Northern Ireland in the late ’80s, she says, the entire island—the North and the Republic—was in dire need of a makeover.
“The unrest was still going on, and the Catholic Church was still very much in power in the south,” she notes. “It was so gray and miserable and it felt like you don’t have much choice and you don’t have a voice, and abortion is banned everywhere.”
An unexpected voice for those without a voice will appear in the form of the Dublin singer with a relentless presence – Sinéad O’Connor. They appeared on the scene not only for entertainment but for challenge.
Then she arrived like this alien and opened the door. And we were all like, ‘Whoa! Hello who is this? “It was all about her – the music was absolutely fantastic,” Ferguson recalls. The way she looked was so adorable and her boldness was so sexy. And I think just as a country, we needed it. Like, kids really need it.”
The new award-winning Ferguson movie Nothing compares It documents O’Connor’s outsized influence not only on Irish but global culture, and the massive backlash she faced for defying standards in the recording business and in society. The film hit theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles for an Academy Award-qualified tour, and is now available to stream. show time Subscribers next Friday. It premieres on Showtime’s line service on Sunday 2 October and hits theaters in Ireland and the UK on Friday 7 October.
The film’s title hints at the biggest single of O’Connor’s career—which Prince wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U.” That song was from her second album, but Sinad has already become a global phenomenon with her first recording, lion and cobraIt was released when she was 21 and had music that she composed as a teenager.
The director says, “She wrote a lot of songs before she turned 17. I think the first two songs were [written] When she was 14, it’s like a diary, really.”
Sounds can penetrate ethereal at first, and then move into a howl.
“The sound is so powerful,” Ferguson told Deadline. “And the length of the tones, the rage and the ferocity behind the notes—I had never heard it before… It was like a battle cry or something, like that ringing sound I hadn’t heard from anyone yet to think, really.”
Ferguson finds O’Connor’s voice deeply rooted in Irish tradition and legend.
“A lot of the songs are that relaxing and explosive sound that comes out of them,” she says. “There was something really old I knew, even grotesque; I don’t mean it in a spooky ghost way, I mean in an Irish folk way so ingrained in our history… It made me think of yearning too,” a traditional vocal lament for the dead embedded in Gaelic Celtic culture.
Perhaps unfortunately for O’Connor, she was also strikingly beautiful, and record industry devotees tried to push her into a normative female mould. F-That, O’Connor responded effectively, keeping her streak down to short bristles.
“She very quickly resists the record company wanting her to grow her hair and dress nicely,” Ferguson points out. The film includes multiple clips of TV interviewers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Charlie Rose in New York) who seem confused by O’Connor’s decision to do without long hair.
“It caused quite a stir for a long time and for many years,” Ferguson notes. “She felt taken so seriously, she needed to strip just about everything. I also don’t think it was as big of a deal for her as it was for anyone else. I think she was like, ‘I want to shave my head.’ It was a look she loved.”
This “controversy” was nothing compared to what awaited O’Connor when she began publicly condemning the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. As the film explores, she was raised by physical and emotional abuse by her mother, and attributed her mother’s imbalance to the distorting influence of Catholic teachings. Priest describes the atmosphere stifling Ireland at the time, when church and state were closely linked.
“The Church influenced everything. If it is a sin it is against the law of the state,” Fr. Brian Darcy notes in Nothing compares. “So divorce, contraception, and anything that didn’t quite agree with a very narrow view of the Catholic Church, was simply not allowed.”
O’Connor rebelled against this and did not hesitate to use her bug-calling software.
“There is a tradition among Irish artists of being agitators and activists – whether they are playwrights or poets,” says O’Connor in a contemporary interview that was shown as voiceover in the film. “The artist’s job is to create the difficult conversations to have.”
As anyone will remember at the time, O’Connor was booked as a musical guest Saturday Night Live On October 3, 1992. She performed an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s song “War”, intended to send a message against racism and highlight the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. She eventually took a picture of Pope John Paul II – a photo her mother had posted on her wall – and tore it to shreds and urged “to fight the real enemy”.
The provocative gesture elicited an immediate and angry response. The Catholic League attacked her. Someone rented a steam machine to smash her CDs in New York. Context matters. O’Connor’s denunciation of pedophilia in the Catholic Church came nearly a decade before the sexual assault scandal erupted into public discourse. So it was far ahead of its time. A small relief, given the vitriol I faced.
“You can already hear audible shouts in [documentary] The audience when you get to that backlash because it feels violent and ridiculous. “The ferocity of that is unbelievable,” Ferguson says. “Just thinking, what caused that reaction? Like, a 24-year-old girl from Dublin causing a reaction like that. Steamers in Times Square. I mean, it’s ridiculous as it is.”
Even fellow pop star Madonna denounced O’Connor. She faced further accusations after criticizing the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and on a previous occasion for refusing to perform a concert in the United States if the event was preceded by the playing of the national anthem. By then, she had completely vanished as a pop icon. And that was fine with her.
“They all thought I should be laughed at for throwing my career down the drain,” O’Connor says. “I never planned on becoming a pop star. It wasn’t a good fit for me to be a pop star, so I didn’t get rid of any career I wanted… I wasn’t sorry, I didn’t regret it.”
If O’Connor sought any vindication, she could look forward to a radically changed Ireland, which she helped achieve. Marriage equality became part of the constitution in 2015. In 2018, the Irish public voted overwhelmingly to repeal the ban on abortion. That same year, Pope Francis visited Dublin and apologized for what he called “crimes” committed by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The documentary is part of a reappraisal of O’Connor, now 55. She is finally celebrated for her bravery which, decades ago, led to her public ostracism. As singer and feminist activist Kathleen Hanna put it in the film, “Senad O’Connor as an artist made her way into a world that wasn’t ready for her…she didn’t deserve what she got.”