In the lead-up to the episode, show creator Lorne Michaels had all of his attention on outspoken host Tim Robbins. The politically active actor had pitched a searing broadside against NBC parent company and infamous polluters General Electric, which Michaels had rejected for the show, claiming the piece to be more pointed than funny. (Robbins, perhaps anticipating that outcome, included a scene in his sly 1992 political satire Bob Roberts, in which the guest host—played by Robbins’ pal John Cusack—is similarly shut down by a self-mythologizing “edgy” live late-night sketch show called Cutting Edge Live.) Robbins, with then-wife and fellow provocateur Susan Sarandon in the audience, eventually appeared in the goodnights for the show sporting an anti-GE T-shirt. Still, by then nobody was thinking about him, General Electric, or much of anything else but that night’s musical guest.
After performing her first number, a typically striking rendition of the Loretta Lynn torch song “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home,” O’Connor returned to the Studio 8H stage having made a few last-minute requests. Rather than sing the planned a cappella song “Scarlet Ribbons,” O’Connor’s manager informed SNL music coordinator John Zonars that O’Connor would, instead, be performing an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War.”
And, since the Irish singer intended for the song to bring attention to the issue of child abuse, she’d asked that the performance be filmed with a single camera, in close-up, so that her closing gesture (of her holding up a picture of a starving child), would be the lasting focus. Zonars, in the SNL oral history, Live From New York, claims that everyone was moved by O’Connor’s song and gesture in dress rehearsal when she held up the planned photo and made a heartfelt plea to protect the world’s vulnerable children.
So the 26-year-old singer walked out onto the SNL stage for her second number of the night on the live show. She sang “War,” O’Connor’s inimitable voice building in passion power until, after delivering the song’s final message, “And we know we shall win/As we are confident in the victory/Of good over evil,” raised a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera and, staring straight down the barrel of the live camera, tore it up. “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor urged, then blew out the candles that had been her only accompaniment, and walked offstage.
Watch Sinead O’Connor Rip of a Picture of the Pope on ‘SNL’
That’s when all hell broke loose.
NBC was immediately, and for days afterward, flooded with calls, overwhelmingly condemning SNL’s musical guest insulting the head of the Catholic Church. As O’Connor herself (now known as Shuhada Sadaqat after converting to Islam in 2018) reminisced in her 2021 memoir Rememberings, she was greeted with an eerie silence not only on stage (director Davey Wilson ordered that the traditional “applause” sign not be lit), but backstage as well, where the stunned and variously appalled cast and crew had all but disappeared.
“When I walk backstage, literally not a human being is in sight,” O’Connor recalled in the book. “All doors have closed. Everyone has vanished. Including my own manager, who locks himself in his room for three days and unplugs his phone.”
O‘Connor herself would appear once more that night, standing alongside Robbins and his now-forgotten T-shirt in the goodnights, while the NBC switchboards lit up with outraged Catholics and others decrying what they saw as an unprovoked attack on a world religious leader. Several weeks later, when the singer took another New York stage at the Madison Square Garden tribute concert to commemorate Bob Dylan’s 30th year in music, O’Connor once more abandoned her planned Dylan number (“I Believe in You,” from Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming), once she was met with a confused and sustained barrage of both boos and cheers from the enormous crowd. With fellow concert performer Kris Kristofferson (who’d glowingly introduced O’Connor by praising her courage) emerging from the wings to tell the singer, “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” she launched into an a cappella “War” once more while the unremitting audience attempted to drown her out.
Back at Saturday Night Live, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Cast member Phil Hartman went on The Late Show With David Letterman that week to express displeasure at O’Connor having blindsided everyone at the show, which she certainly did. (It’s impossible not to feel for performers Tim Robbins, Ellen Cleghorne, Melanie Hutsell, and Rob Schneider, who had to follow O’Connor’s crowd-killing stunt in a sketch called “Sweet Jimmy: The World’s Nicest Pimp.”) However, Michaels himself not only allowed her back on stage to wave goodnight to the still stunned crowd but later called O’Connor’s action, “The bravest possible thing she could do,” citing her troubled personal history with child abuse and the systemic coverup by the church of sexual abuse by its clergy, something the raised-Catholic O’Connor knew about all too intimately.
Watch Joe Pesci on ‘SNL’
Still, Saturday Night Live also allowed a particularly ugly rebuttal to O’Connor’s actions on the very next show, when host and fellow Catholic Joe Pesci not only reassembled the gathered pieces of the offending photo (fair enough) but promised that, had he been in attendance the week before, he’d have given the young woman “such a smack.” Then, several months later, musical guest Madonna (who’d publicly condemned O’Connor, even mocking the shaven-headed singer’s looks), echoed the stunt by quoting O’Connor’s call to “fight the real enemy,” while tearing up a picture of notorious Long Island adulterer and future Saturday Night cameo-maker Joey Buttafuoco.
In the ensuing years, SNL star Jan Hooks would intermittently don a bald cap and Irish accent to impersonate O’Connor on the show, although those sketches focused more on the singer’s reputation as an outspoken—if occasionally humorless and strident—woman than on SNL’s history with her.
Watch ‘The Sinatra Group’ on ‘SNL’
Meanwhile, protests, death threats, and canceled gigs all followed in the singer’s wake, with an anti-O’Connor Times Square publicity stunt seeing a bulldozer flatten a pile of her records. The once chart-topping singer never truly regained a foothold on the American charts.
Still recording today at 55, O’Connor has found continued success in other countries, even as her long and storied history of personal and mental issues have beset the troubled star, including the shocking suicide death of her son Shane in January 2022. As for O’Connor’s claim that the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II were responsible for enabling untold offenses against children in Ireland and across the world, well, history has vindicated at least the then-taboo accusations the young singer made on live American TV, even if the damage to her career still lingers.