We’re looking back at one of television’s most infamous moments. Sinéad O’Connor is a musician who has never been shy to make her opinion well known in the public eye. Nothing compares, though, to her now-legendary appearance performing on SNL on this day back in 1992.
Saturday Night Live has had several acts break the rules and find themselves on the wrong end of Lorne Michaels’ wrath—but perhaps none were as scandalous as O’Connor’s moment of infamy. It may well have come from a pure place but the way in which O’Connor would make her point upset millions of Americans and one very important man, in particular.
SNL, the now-iconic late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show, has been running prolifically each week since launching in 1975. Each episode features a musical guest, in the shape of a solo act or a band, who will then perform two or three tracks after being introduced by the host of the show. Make no mistake about it, being booked to perform on SNL, with such a gigantic audience, can make or break a musician.
The majority of musicians thrive on the high-pressure moment, however, some, unfortunately, do not. Or perhaps we should be clearer, some artists see the huge audience and the headlines waiting as an opportunity to make a point be it political or personal. Elvis Costello did it with music, Rage Against The Machine did it with flags—Sinéad O’Connor did it with a picture of the Pope.
Taking to the famous Studio 8H stage, the camera panned to O’Connor who, staring directly down the barrel, delivered a cappella rendition of Bob Marley song ‘War’. The track choice was a deeply poignant one and was delivered as an attempt to protest against the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. It was intended to flip Marley’s original war on racism and train its crosshairs on child abuse.
O’Connor, who started to sing the lyrics: “We have confidence in good over evil,” held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera at the very moment she sang the word “evil” and with a flash of intensity both in her eyes and vocal, she began tearing it up in pieces, throwing them at the camera and stating: “Fight the real enemy”. Apparently, the photo was one that had been situated on her own mother’s wall since 1978.
SNL had no idea about the stunt O’Connor was planning and, during rehearsals, she instead held up up an image of a refugee child. Knowing the show’s strict rules and unwillingness to upset their sponsors, it’s hard to imagine O’Connor could have got the stunt past the producers. Following the sudden switch, NBC Vice-President of Late Night, Rick Ludwin stated that after seeing the religious protest from the singer he “literally jumped out of [his] chair”, the crew scrambled while the production team contemplated cutting the feed.
O’Connor has often discussed the reason why she pulled the stunt in the years that followed, the singer then later explained that the plan was inspired by Bob Geldof: “When the Boomtown Rats went to No. 1 in England with Rat Trap, [Bob] Geldof went on Top of the Pops and ripped up a photo of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who had been No. 1 for weeks and weeks before,” she told Hot Press. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, fuck! What if someone ripped up a picture of the pope?’ Half of me was just like: ‘Jesus, I’d love to just see what’d happen.’
“It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organisation that he represents,” she said in an interview with Time. “In Ireland, we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorised what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.”
Having been raised in a strictly religious family with the Catholic church, O’Connor later detailed her own relationship with the religion and, subsequently, her own abuse as a child at the hands of those who were there to protect her. “Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing,” she said.
“Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing, and I had to find out why it happened… The thing that helped me most was the 12-step group, the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. My mother was a Valium addict. What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school.”
O’Connor’s actions would be equally chastised and celebrated by millions around the world. While many devout Catholics reacted negatively to her actions, a number of high profile figures such as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson would pay tribute to her bravery in protest.
Trying to get her message across through the relevant channel’s O’Connor also started sending out a letter to major news organisations explaining: “The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I tell my story and have it heard,” she wrote. “My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart in the name of Jesus Christ.”
At the time of the incident many people struggled to understand her actions and, a decade after the performance, she reflected: “It’s very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about, but outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood.”
In the singer’s autobiography, Rememberings, she writes in an excerpt published by Rolling Stone: “It was taken when he visited Ireland in 1979. ‘Young people of Ireland,’ he had said after making a show of kissing the ground at the Dublin airport like the flight had been overly frightening, ‘I love you,’” the excerpt says.
“What a load of claptrap. Nobody loved us. Not even God. Sure, even our mothers and fathers couldn’t stand us,” she writes. “My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope,” O’Connor added. “It represented lies and liars and abuse.”
In her memoir, O’Connor explains that during the rehearsal, she held up a photo of a Brazilian street kid who the police had killed. However, she then used the picture of the Pope for the real performance. “Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer,” she writes in the passage. “I just had stuff to get off my chest.”
See the footage, below.