‘My pilgrimage to Sinéad O’Connor’s homeland made me appreciate how brave she was’

Webster visited Bray and O’Connor’s final resting place in Dublin on her trip  (ES composite)
Webster visited Bray and O’Connor’s final resting place in Dublin on her trip (ES composite)

Do you remember where you were the moment you heard the news that Elvis had died? I was asleep on the night of 16 August 1977 when I awoke to the sound of my mother screaming “The King is dead!” hysterically at my sister’s bedroom door. Some 46 years later it was my sister who came pounding down the stairs at around 6pm on the night of July 26 this year, with the equally distressing news that Irish singer-songwriter and political activist Sinéad O’Connor had died.

We were the same age, and although we’d never met, I understood her battle; the writing was already on the wall, and as someone who’d also struggled with my own demons and mental health issues, I couldn’t help but feel her death like a deep blow in the pit of my stomach.

Sinéad O’Connor wasn’t your normal pop star. She wasn’t in it for the fame and fortune. Her shaven-headed, bovver-booted look made her a maverick. To speak out against the injustices committed within the institutions of the Catholic Church, and its role in the subjugation and abuse of women, became the thing she seemed born to do. Her outspoken nature made her both revered and reviled.

I first set eyes on a young O’Connor as she stomped her way through the Mandinka video wearing a pink tutu with said bovver boots on the telly, and I rushed out to buyThe Lion and The Cobra —her debut album, which contains one of the most emotive songs ever written,Troy,  a song about her abusive mother who died in a car accident when O’Connor was just 18. The album is so full of unfiltered ferocity and passion that it remains one of the greatest of all time.

I refused to buy the second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, because it contained the hit single Nothing Compares 2U. I felt as though having a number one with a Prince cover, and it being a commercial success was some form of betrayal. I hadn’t yet lost in love, and as a punk, I thought it violated the idea of what I thought she was about. It wasn’t until I’d experienced a few losses myself that I was able to shed a tear as automatically as O’Connor herself in the beautifully choreographed video for the song by John Maybury, in which she wanders around the Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris, dressed like a priestess of punk.

O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2U was a number one hit and career-defining song (Sue Webster)
O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2U was a number one hit and career-defining song (Sue Webster)

This summer I felt an uncontrollable urge to cross to visit the Emerald Island. Maybe it was my Irish genes pulling me closer to its bosom. After completing a brief history of Northern Ireland, by taking in the political war murals documenting the 30 years known as ‘The Troubles’, I found myself on the isle of Achill in rural County Mayo. It’s the backdrop for the recently Oscar-nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin and home to the smallest pub in Ireland, M.P. Lynott. It was previously owned by the Thin Lizzy frontman’s great uncle.

There, while drinking a bottle of Malbec on an empty stomach, I garnered enough confidence to give the residents of The Valley Hotel, Hostel & Bar a rather shameful rendition of Nothing Compares 2U, in tribute to our poor lost soul, O’Connor, who passed away just a week before.

I felt very connected to O’Connor throughout my trip — enough to change my flight and make a detour in order to pay my respects to this beautiful, powerful, outspoken and often misunderstood woman. I’d come to the conclusion that my own struggles with mental health were more to do with society’s expectation of how a woman should be, rather than having some sort of screw loose.

Webster signing a condolence book for O’Connor (Sue Webster)
Webster signing a condolence book for O’Connor (Sue Webster)

At a young age I was wrongfully diagnosed for just being myself, for following a creative path instead of succumbing to a regular job. I also forfeited marriage and kids in order to travel the world and then decided, later in life and only when I was ready, to have a child against the odds and beat the biological clock at its own game — a privilege up until then that I felt had been reserved for men. Becoming a mother enabled me to understand how much O’Connor had suffered with the untimely death of her son, Shane, who took his own life aged just 17 — and how incomplete she felt without him.

I headed back to London via O’Connor’s family home in the seaside town of Bray, which has since become a shrine, where I laid a pebble from the beach in her memory, and then travelled to her final resting place at Deansgrange Cemetery on the outskirts of Dublin. There I laid freshly picked flowers from the Island of Achill.

Although we never met, I felt a better, deeper understanding of O’Connor by immersing myself within the complicated history of Ireland. Her acts of bravery and her ability to clear an entire octave within the blink of an eye, will be greatly missed.