Sinéad O'Connor Dead at 56: Inside Her Public Struggles and Private Tragedies

The Irish singer found major success in the music world, but her personal life was marred by tragedy and struggles with mental illness.

Sinead O’Connor, who became an international star in 1990 with her cover of Prince’s "Nothing Compares 2 U," has died at age 56, according to multiple reports. The Irish Times was first to report the news. No cause of death has yet been reported.

"It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad," her family confirmed in a statement to RTE. "Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time."

Born in Glenageary, Ireland in 1966, O'Connor went on to become one of the country’s most prominent musicians, joining the ranks of U2, Enya, and The Cranberries, all of whom achieved worldwide fame in the '80s and '90s.

O'Connor's personal life, however, was marred by tragedy and struggles with mental illness. Her son, Shane, died by suicide at 17 in January 2022 after going missing in Ireland, and the singer publicly threatened suicide herself multiple times in recent years.

O'Connor achieved international recognition with the released of second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The critically acclaimed album was nominated for four GRAMMY awards, winning Best Alternative Music Performance, and sold seven million copies worldwide.

It also featured the 1990 hit, "Nothing Compares 2 U," O'Connor’s arrangement and cover of a record composed by Prince for one of his side projects. The song was accompanied by a video of the singer starkly crying in front of the camera, quickly becoming a staple on MTV and making her the first female artist to win the network’s Video Music Award for Video of the Year. 

Initially, Prince, who was not involved in the production, was a fan of the cover. "I love it, it's great!" he said of her version in a 1990 Rolling Stone cover interview. "I look for cosmic meaning in everything. I think we just took that song as far as we could, then someone else was supposed to come along and pick it up." But the relationship between both singers eventually soured.

O'Connor later went public with accusations that Prince physically threatened her. "It spoiled the song completely for me. I feel a connection with the song, but the experience was a very disturbing one," she told Rolling Stone in 1991. "I'm just very angry with him."

In November 2014, the singer explained to the Norwegian station NRK what happened when the two met. "He summoned me to his house -- and it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman -- he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So, I told him to f**k off."

"He got quite violent," O'Connor said. "I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine."

Despite the attention that followed the hit single, O'Connor grew noticeably uncomfortable with the spotlight, with controversy following most of her career. 

Shortly after she went No. 1, O'Connor was criticized for refusing to perform live if the U.S. national anthem was played before her concert, with Frank Sinatra threatening to "kick her a**." The singer also refused to accept her four GRAMMY nominations and win, skipping the 1991 ceremony. She also backed out of her first Saturday Night Live performance to protest Andrew Dice Clay’s appearance.

"It's not like I got up in the morning and said, 'Okay, now let's start a new controversy,'" O'Connor told Rolling Stone in 1991. "I don't do anything in order to cause trouble. It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble. And that's fine with me. I'm proud to be a troublemaker."

Sinead O'Connor tears a photo of Pope John Paul II during her infamous 'SNL' performance. - NBC

On Oct. 3, 1992, O'Connor was the musical guest on SNL. During an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s "War," of which she altered the words to focus on child sex abuse, the singer ripped a photo of Pope John Paul II. The performance was met with complete silence in the studio, while NBC was flooded with calls of complaints the following morning. She later told Salon in a 2002 interview that she wouldn’t have changed anything about the SNL performance.

Thirteen days after the SNL incident, O'Connor was booed off stage during a Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. She was part of a star-studded bill, but was unable to complete her performance of "I Believe in You." Instead, she sang a few lines of "War" once again, before running off stage.

Sinead O'Connor, before being booed off stage at a 1992 Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. - MARIA BASTONE/AFP via Getty Images

In the years to follow, O’Connor took an even more vocal stance against the Catholic Church. In 1995, she made an unannounced appearance on the British late-night series, After Dark, and later appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 to speak out about the sexual abuse scandal in Ireland. She also published several op-eds, labeling the Vatican as a “nest of devils” in the Sunday Independent.

In 2013, O'Connor openly criticized Miley Cyrus for her sexual messages and warned her of the dangers facing women in the music industry. “Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. We aren’t merely objects of desire,” she wrote. "I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers." Cyrus responded with a series of tweets that compared her to Amanda Bynes, who had become known for her erratic behavior and rants on Twitter. 

Following Prince’s death in April 2016, O'Connor accused Arsenio Hall of supplying the late performer with drugs in a post on Facebook. He was "a long time hard drug user," she wrote, adding he "got his drugs over the decades" from Hall. The former late-night host filed a $5 million defamation lawsuit in response. 

She later apologized for the accusations against Hall.

Her private life wasn’t any less bumpy. O’Connor married multiple times, first to music producer John Reynolds, who worked on several of her albums, in 1989, and then to journalist Nick Sommerland in 2001. Their marriage lasted three years. O’Connor married a third time, to her longtime friend Steve Cooney, in 2010. Shortly after separating from Cooney in 2011, the singer wed therapist Barry Herridge in a drive-thru in Las Vegas. That marriage lasted just 18 days.

O’Connor had four kids. Her son, Jake Reynolds, was conceived during her first marriage. She became embroiled in a long custody battle with journalist John Waters, who was the father of her daughter, Roisin Waters. She had her third and fourth child -- Shane Lunny and Yeshua Francis Neil Bonadio -- with two different partners in the years following.

On her 33rd birthday in December 1999, O'Connor attempted suicide. She later revealed on a 2007 broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show that had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003. Though, the singer said that she had since gotten three second opinions, informing her she was not bipolar.

In November 2015, O'Connor posted a series of troubling messages to her Facebook page, with one indicating that she had taken an overdose.

"There is only so much any woman can be expected to bear. What was done to me this week was appalling cruelty," she wrote. "This week has broken me. The last two nights finished me off. I have taken an overdose. There is no other way to get respect. I am not at home, I'm at a hotel, somewhere in Ireland, under another name."

"I don't matter a shred to anyone," O'Connor continued. "No one has come near me. I've died a million times already with the pain of it. So yeah.. Strangers like me.. But my family don't value me at all. They wouldn't know if I was dead until weeks from now if I wasn't f**king informing them now."

Local authorities later confirmed she had been found and was safe, but the following day the singer posted again, lashing out at her exes over their custody issues and treatment of her when she had been hospitalized.

"Jake, Roisin, Jr., frank, Donal, Eimear, I never wanna see you again," the singer wrote. "You stole my sons from me. Then you had hypocrisy to come to hospital and then not be here when I wake and not pick up phone? I'm sh*t to you. You're dead to me."

"Why were you here when you're the ones who put me here," she continued. "And where the f**k are you now??? Murderers. Liars. Hypocrites. All of you. You caused this."

In May 2016, O'Connor went missing while staying with friends in a suburb of Chicago. She was later found, but the incident occurred after another troubling Facebook post, this one regarding the custody of her youngest son, Shane, who was then just 12.

"Baby, I've been trying to get you out of care but Tusla are being monsters. I have to back off because they are hurting me so badly. I get unwell again if I go near them," she wrote, referring to Ireland's Child and Family Agency. "The best thing I can do is advise you to get a solicitor of your own -- which you are now entitled to because you are 12 -- and bring a case of your own against Tusla, under the children's rights clauses of the constitution."

The outspoken musician opened up about her childhood trauma during a 2017 interview with Dr. Phil where she accused her mother of physical and sexual abuse. "She ran a torture chamber," O'Connor said of her late mother who died when she was 19. "It was a torture chamber. She was a person who took delight, would smile in hurting you."

O'Connor announced that she converted to Islam in 2018. She also changed her name to Shuhada' Sadaqat, and continued to criticize the Catholic church and religious theologies.

On Jan. 7, 2022, O'Connor's 17-year-old son Shane -- whom she'd lost custody of in 2013 -- was found dead in Ireland. O'Connor said that her son had been under suicide watch and had "ended his earthly struggle.'

"My beautiful son, Nevi’im Nesta Ali Shane O'Connor, the very light of my life, decided to end his earthly struggle today and is now with God," the singer said in a statement at the time. "May he rest in peace and may no one follow his example. My baby. I love you so much. Please be at peace."

Just a few days before her own death, O'Connor posted about Shane's death, writing, "Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him."

In a 2022 Showtime documentary, Nothing Compares, O'Connor got candid about her childhood, career and the fallout from her post-SNL shunning.

"They tried to bury me," she says in the trailer. "They didn't realize I was a seed."

While O'Connor went on to release 10 studio albums over the course of her career -- the last being I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss in 2014 – none of them matched the success of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. It could be argued that the controversy surrounding the singer, especially at the beginning of her career, pushed away potential fans and collaborators. However, in talking with Rolling Stone, she didn’t feel that way. 

"I don't think it's hurt me at all. Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing this interview for the Readers and Critics Poll, would we? I don't look at all the things that happened as being disruptions or disturbances. I look at them as being incidents where I expressed how I felt about something, about what I saw to be the truth. And sometimes a lot of people didn't agree with me -- which is to be expected."