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February 11, 2018


Growing up in Ireland, the political was personal, and O’Riordan never shied away from political themes
Growing up in Ireland, the political was personal, and O’Riordan never shied away from political themes

There is something about the Irish that gives them a disproportionately larger influence relative to the small size of their Emerald Isle. Situated west of the British Isles, it has had a fractious history with its neighbour. Having even been a colony of the British Empire, Ireland didn’t settle for dominion status or wait to gain independence through nonviolent constitutional means. Instead, the Irish overthrew their colonial overlords through a violent insurrection that is still the envy of independence movements the world over. This rebellious streak permeates not just their politics but also their culture and society.

My first memory of the Irish rock band The Cranberries just like so many others was of arguably their most famous song Zombie. Dolores O’Riordan, their lead vocalist’s mezzo-soprano voice instantly commanded attention even if the average listener could barely make out the lyrics from her strong Gaelic accent. It was soothing yet powerful, much like O’Riordan herself, hailing from a working class family in Limerick. Perhaps that explains the strong Gaelic influence in her vocals. Despite being an international phenomenon on par with U2 in their heyday, O’Riordan, and as a consequence The Cranberries, held their Irish identity as a badge of pride.

Female lead vocalists were, and perhaps still are, a rarity in rock music. O’Riordan’s beguiling voice gave the band an edge that made them one of the most recognisable alternative rock bands of the 0’90s. Their music touched on the personal as well as the political, and that is why it struck a deep chord with their audience.

Dolores O’Riordan’s beguiling voice gave her Irish band, The Cranberries, an edge that made them one of the most iconic alternative rock bands of the 1990s. She died on Jan 15 at the age of 46

Zombie the song was inspired by the death of two children in a bombing in 1993 by the Irish Republican Army. Growing up in conflict ridden Ireland, the political was personal, and O’Riordan never shied away from political themes [in the band’s music]. But she was equally adept at domestic themes. The song Animal Instinct from their album Bury The Hatchet was a moving melody about the vulnerabilities of motherhood:

Suddenly something has happened to me
As I was having my cup of tea
Suddenly I was feeling depressed
I was utterly and totally stressed
Do you know you made me cry
Do you know you made me die

In the video of the song, she wore a floral wreath on her blonde hair, a far cry from the bald, spine-rattling Valkyrie persona she was famous for.

As a testament to the diverse set of themes the band dealt with in their music, the song Promises from the very same album deals with divorce:

She is going to leave him over
She’s going take her love away
So much for your eternal vows,well
It does not matter anyway

Their debut album in 1993, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and the follow-up, No Need To Argue, made them the biggest musical export out of Ireland after U2. O’Riordan and the crew were at the top of their game, carving up their own unique sound even as grunge rock acts like Nirvana and Sound Garden ruled the charts. The Cranberries didn’t jump on to any bandwagon for album sales, fiercely clinging on to their own blend of alternative rock and Celtic folk musical influences. Though they weren’t able to replicate their earlier level of success in their later albums, they still maintained a very loyal core fanbase.

Roughly a decade after packing arenas and ruling the charts, The Cranberries broke up in 2003. Even in the intervening years when they had disbanded, she made two solo albums, Are You Listening (2007) and No Baggage (2009). The Cranberries eventually reunited in 2009 dropping one of their most memorable albums, titled Roses.

But in the midst of it all, O’Riordan’s life was unraveling, with substance-abuse problems, a divorce in 2014, brushes with the law and mental health issues. Despite that, her zest for music remained steadfast. Even in her last days she is said to have been involved in multiple projects, powering through it all. A comeback was certainly on the cards as she was in London in her last days, all revved up to record with her new band D.A.R.K, but instead she would be interred in the small town of Limerick, the place of her birth.

She leaves behind a towering legacy, not only as one of the most recognisable female voices in rock music but also of creating powerful art that is relevant more than ever, and in more ways we can imagine. A case in point, the following lyrics from the song Zombie:

Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence, caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?
But you see, it’s not me
It’s not my family

While they were inspired by a different context, the haunting lyrics could equally be applied to the recent spate of violence against children by Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Army Public School massacre in Pakistan and our disturbing apathy to such heinous acts. In that way, her voice transcends time, space and culture. Only a lucky few artists manage to achieve that, Dolores O’Riordan is one of them and through her art she would live on for a very long time.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 11th, 2018