The goshawk’s power

In reruns, even now, they sometimes air the dress rehearsal. Sinéad O’Connor’s voice still wavers and cracks. She still lingers on the speaking edge of song. There is still pain and defiance.

In this version, however, she does not have a photograph of Pope John Paul II. It is not his face the camera sees as she sings the word “evil”. There is no hanging silence afterwards, in which she tears the picture in half and quarters and eighths. Three decades later, the protest is still too great an affront.

The photograph belonged to O’Connor’s mother, the woman who abused her. It belonged to a church that abused countless children. O’Connor, who died this week, spoke and sang for the ones who didn’t survive. She spoke and sang an angry, scarifying truth.

For more than a decade after her appearance on Saturday Night Live, the Catholic Church continued to deny it was harbouring paedophiles. It continued moving priests from parish to parish. It continued to shield molesters from the police.

In Australia, it built the legal edifice that would protect it from compensation claims. It established its own body to investigate abuse and used it to silence victims. It continued its fight against queer rights, abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research.

O’Connor reminded the world of art’s power to say the unsayable. The breaths she took between phrases were the same haunted breaths you hear when you interview survivors or their parents. She worked with the power that comes from suffering.

To some this power was horrifying. It was as wild as a goshawk. The week after O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live, the actor Joe Pesci hosted the show. He joked that had he been there on the night, he would have smacked her. He held up the same picture of Pope John Paul II, the one from her childhood, pasted back together on a card. The audience cheered. The symbolism was extraordinary. No matter what, the church would be kept intact.

O’Connor never recovered from the truth she had told. She was treated as a madwoman. Her pain was a curiosity. As the church lost its authority, as inquiry after inquiry validated her wilding honesty, she was never thanked or forgiven.

“A lot of people say or think that tearing up the Pope’s photo derailed my career. That’s not how I feel about it,” O’Connor wrote in her memoir, Rememberings. “I feel that having a No.  1 record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "The goshawk’s power".

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