The US could learn from Sinead O'Connor and reckon with its history

The Irish singer's legacy is one of demanding accountability for past injustices

Emotions run high in the US state of Georgia during an event that highlighted the story of America's last known slave ship. Reuters
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In the days that passed between the death and burial of Sinead O’Connor, there was an outpouring of praise for the Irish singer. News accounts and op-eds in major media in the US and Ireland made note of her courageous and prophetic voice. If there is a lesson to be learnt from Sinead’s life and the reactions to her passing, it is the importance of calling institutions and nations to account for past sins and the benefits that can accrue to future generations when such a reckoning occurs.

While the many causes for which Sinead fiercely advocated had a single common denominator – all were borne of her concern with injustice – she is best remembered for an appearance on national television ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II while admonishing the audience “to fight the real enemy”. Some saw her action as unforgivable. The incident haunted her and for a time derailed her career, but not for her many fans in Ireland.

Ireland, a largely Catholic country, understood Sinead’s anger. My wife Eileen was deeply attached to her Irish heritage and her Catholic faith. We were frequent visitors to the Emerald Isle and were there in the early 1990s when the newspapers were filled with stories about the Magdalene laundries, the homes to which “delinquent children” and pregnant unwed women were sent and subjected to abuse and forced servitude. The expectant mothers worked until their babies were born and taken from them.

The Irish press carried pages of photos and interviews with women detailing the abuse they endured and the pain of their loss. Stories were also revealed of mothers who died in childbirth and babies who perished (6,000 in all) and were interred in mass graves. These reports were compounded by extensive reports of sexual abuse by the clergy.

Because Sinead, at the age of 14, had been charged with theft and sentenced to a year and a half in a Magdalene laundry, she knew firsthand the indignity of this incarceration. As the Irish media and political leaders would not let the matter rest, posting stories and editorials and statements by elected officials, many Catholics came to share her rage. The Catholic Church in Ireland was held accountable for its past and continues to be humbled by this reckoning.

While Sinead’s legacy of demanding accountability for past injustices was being honoured, one could not help but contrast it with recent news stories in the US that showed American politicians and US Catholic bishops not only refusing to acknowledge the past of the country and church but seeking to erase it.

Despite this sordid history, America continues to claim its innocence and its right to be the standard-bearer of virtue

For example, Republican governors and other elected officials in Florida, Texas, and Virginia are demanding changes in the way America’s deplorable history of slavery and racism is taught in schools.

In a crass effort to “whitewash” slavery, that institution is being portrayed as a time in which some blacks learned skills that benefited them post-slavery. Eliminated are a detailed accounting of the horrors of Jim Crow segregation and the mass lynchings that took thousands of lives. They want a guilt-free past with no accountability.

Nor is sexual abuse a stranger to the US Catholic Church (or, for that matter, some other religious institutions). Shocking stories of widespread abuse continue to be reported, in dribs and drabs, and soon forgotten, because religious leaders in the US coalesce to sweep their problems away to “protect their institutions.” Or they work to change the subject by asserting that the real problems lie elsewhere.

While Ireland and its church have been forced to come to terms with the past, America and its institutions have never fully come to terms with theirs and are moving in the opposite direction.

Contrast the shameful coverups of the US bishops with Pope Francis’ apology to Canada’s indigenous peoples for the church’s role in erasing their history and culture or Pope Francis’s recent meeting in Portugal with victims of clergy abuse.

Compare this acknowledgment and apology with America’s failure to own up to its history and crimes. This refusal to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the injustices of the past has led my compatriots and co-religionists to insist on our collective innocence while making delusional claims of virtue. It’s become a habit we can’t break – with consequences for our present and future behaviours.

America is the only nation to use nuclear weapons – and we did so without telling the Japanese about the long-term impact of radiation on civilians, who years later continued to suffer from radioactive poisoning. The US dropped millions of tonnes of bombs on Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, making victims of millions of innocents. As late as the past decade, the US used torture as a weapon to extract information from prisoners and tried to justify this practice with shockingly detailed “legal memos” written by Bush administration officials.

Despite this sordid history, America continues to claim its innocence and its right to be the standard-bearer of virtue. This sense of impunity is what comes from never being forced to reckon with the past, as the Irish and the Irish Catholic Church were forced to reckon with theirs.

This, then, is one lesson from Sinead O’Connor’s life and death: the importance of calling nations and institutions to accept responsibility for their pasts, and the humility and the possibility of changed behaviour that can accompany this acknowledgment.

Published: August 15, 2023, 5:00 AM