Sinéad, Ireland, and the Meaning of HairFeatured, Music — By Anthony Easton on October 25, 2011 at 7:00 am
Last month Sinéad O’Connor tweeted that she hated Ireland. The woman was intractably connected with Ireland and, unlike other great writers, she had refused to exile herself — she did not become fashionably English like Wilde, or conveniently French like Beckett or Joyce. She even evaded the call to America, despite her successes there, so for her to say that she hated Ireland, that she no longer wanted to work towards justice or correct the sins of the country, but just descend into hatred… it was understandable. Heartbreaking, but understandable.
Among other things, O’Connor has talked about hating how power works in Ireland. In the last few years, the Irish government and the Vatican have argued about who is responsible for the systematic protection of sexual abuse in Ireland. The Irish say that the Vatican evades its responsibility, and the Vatican denies any cover-up. In truth, both states are responsible for the abuse that occurred. Few people have spoken as eloquently as O’Connor has about the conflation of government, social, and political forces that made the abuse in the schools and churches of Ireland so rampant.
She has been saying this for decades. Most infamous was O’Connor’s Saturday Night Live performance, when she tore up the picture of the Pope. This has been mythologized and written about, not least by SNL creator Lorne Michaels himself, so there would appear to be nothing new to say about it. But looking at those images again, O’Connor’s bald head becomes, in context, a complicated symbol about the history of abuse in Ireland — perhaps more significant than the iconoclasm’s futility.
O’Connor spent sixteen months in the Magdalene Laundries in the 1970s for shoplifting. These asylums were encouraged by the state to take over the spiritual and educational developments of young women who were thought to be irredeemable — not holy enough, not enough in control of their bodies, violent or sexual or vain, or not female enough. These places taught the virtues of femininity — a certain passivity, a quiet piety, a refusal to speak out. They placed the sinner’s weight on young girls who were the victims of men.
There have been songs sung and books written about this, and a decent, if slightly melodramatic, movie. The Magdalene Sisters is important because it notes something about O’Connor’s self-presentation. There are several scenes where women had their hair shaved to the skull — sometimes for medical reasons, but sometimes as punishment for vanity. Shaving was a way of forcing humility on girls who were thought to be too forward and not broken enough. The bald woman was a woman who had been humiliated by an institution as punishment for her desire for selfhood.
For Americans, who did not have this context, O’Connor’s shaved head was the ascetic gesture of punk, with its serious politics refusing to get in the way of patriarchal ideas of beauty. I am not saying that this was not part of the gesture that O’Connor was imparting. But there was something darker here — she was taking the the Magdalene laundry’s gesture of ritual humiliation and its hygienic nature (some of the excuses for shaving heads concerned lice and the like), and made it a gesture of ironic resistance.
There was another layer here, if we are talking about women and hair and Magdalene and humbling before god. Magdalene, who was the woman that Christ chose to see him as he rose from the tomb, who preached and who listened to God, had an exalted status outside of the misogyny of her age. In the millennia between the crucifixion and our present day, the Marys in the bible were conflated, and Magdalene was thought to be the one who washed the feet of Christ with her hair. This lead to a set of depictions, most famously by Titian, of a very attractive woman whose nakedness is only covered by the flowing tendrils of her bright red hair. Modesty and the refusal of modesty are found in this one symbol. The shaving of the head becomes a symbol of shaving away the only thing that kept Magdalene from the gaze of the Church, and the only thing (in the mind of Christendom) that protected her or saved her.
O’Connor’s shaved head was an Irish shaved head — a head that declared that she was Magdalene, and that she would no longer be Magdalene.
This is a context that was only really understood by the Irish, and this was the beginning of a long set of dialogues between O’Connor and her country, a set of dialogues that reached an apex with the competing reports about sexual abuse that the Irish Government and the Vatican wrote. O’Connor responded to these reports, first in the Washington Post, and later in a series of television interviews for American media through the summer, before going home to Ireland.
The Op-ed in the Post is an argument about the nature of God, and it is about hearing what the tradition says, and it is a masterpiece is using the words of the institution against itself:
“To Irish Catholics, Benedict’s implication — Irish sexual abuse is an Irish problem — is both arrogant and blasphemous. The Vatican is acting as though it doesn’t believe in a God who watches. The very people who say they are the keepers of the Holy Spirit are stamping all over everything the Holy Spirit truly is. Benedict criminally misrepresents the God we adore. We all know in our bones that the Holy Spirit is truth. That’s how we can tell that Christ is not with these people who so frequently invoke Him.”
In this sense, the call of the spirit was what she followed, and who she quoted throughout discussions of American contexts; she brought Irish voices, Irish histories, and Irish contexts to America, because the problems that occurred in Dublin happened in other neighbourhoods and other cities that were mostly Catholic, and often very Irish. Mt Cassel in Newfoundland, the parishes under Bernard Law in Boston, the schools in Philadelphia — they have their own contexts, but contexts that are informed by the Irish diaspora and by the universal Church.
O’Connor isn’t well of late, she has said as much, and she has always been quite explicit about her struggles with mental health; but there is hope in seeing her, a little filled out, not with the long hair of Magdalene in legend, or the shaved head of Magdalene laundries, but in a short, sensible, and now grey cut. Hair is political, and O’Connor’s new hair is a suggestion of a bit of calm.