On October 3, 1992, Irish musician Sinéad O’Connor stuns the audience at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and viewers across the United States when she tears up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live.
O’Connor surprised the SNL staff when she opted to sing an acapella version of the Bob Marley song “War” instead of a song from her recent album. She gave a stark, intense performance of the song, which decries “ignoble and unhappy regimes” that hold people in “sub-human bondage,” changing some of the lyrics to specifically mention child abuse. At the conclusion, O’Connor held a picture of the pope to the camera and tore it to pieces, saying “Fight the real enemy.”
The audience was silent throughout the performance, but NBC reported hearing from nearly a thousand angry callers over the next few days—as well as seven who called to support O’Connor. Madonna, something of a musical rival to O’Connor at the time, criticized her performance, telling The Irish Times: "I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people." The next week’s SNL guest, Joe Pesci, devoted his opening monologue to condemning O'Connor. Two weeks later, at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, O’Connor was shouted off stage.
Despite the outrage, O’Connor stood by her actions and clarified that she wanted to “face some very difficult truths,” namely the epidemic of child abuse in her native country.
It would be years before most Americans would grasp the extent of abuse in the Irish Catholic Church and connected institutions, but the topic was all too personal to O’Connor. As a teenager, the singer had spent 18 months in a Magdalene asylum (also known as a Magdalene laundry), an institution nominally meant to house wayward or promiscuous youth but which, in a number of cases, were sites of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of children at the hands of clergy.
The year after O’Connor’s SNL appearance, a mass grave was discovered on the grounds of one such institution, prompting an investigation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. As these abuses and thousands of other cases of child abuse across Ireland and the U.S. finally came to light in the 2000s, the real target of O’Connor’s shocking protest became increasingly clear.