Dolores O’Riordan, pictured in 2002, sang with a raw intensity that articulated emotional turmoil. ROLLING NEWS.IE
By Colleen Taylor
When you Google “top Irish rock stars,” the names typically listed are Bono, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. Our minds tend to zone in on male rock stars first: after all, the very concept of “the rock star” as such is a masculinist one. It took (for me, at least) a tragically young death to recognize the glaring omission and gender bias in this list. Throughout the past week, the world has been mourning and remembering Dolores O’Riordan, who rose to fame in the 1990s as lead singer for the Cranberries. At home in Ireland, her sudden death at 46 has left a gaping wound, but it’s also left a legacy behind. We can no longer overlook that Dolores O’Riordan was—is one of the greatest Irish rock stars.
The extraordinary O’Riordan’s early biography looks rather ordinary in Irish and Irish-American terms. She grew up in Ballybricken, Co. Limerick, the daughter of a farmer and the youngest of nine children. She had a difficult upbringing, but her life began to change in the early 1990s when she auditioned for the Cranberries. Guitarist Noel Hogan described O’Riordan’s audition as a godsend: “The fact that she wasn’t already in a band was a miracle.” In 1994, the band shot to international fame when “Zombie” hit number 1 in the U.S. charts. Their following albums, “No Need to Argue” and “The Faithful Departed” went platinum and reached the top spots on the U.K. and U.S. Billboard charts. In 2003, the band announced a break and O’Riordan began pursuing her solo career, releasing two albums, “Are You Listening?” and “No Baggage.” In 2009, the Cranberries reunited for a North American and European tour, playing both O’Riordan’s solo hits and the band’s top rock ballads from their 90s career. Just this past spring the Cranberries released an acoustic album, entitled “Something Else,” which included three new hits. They band had announced further plans to record when the shock of O’Riordan’s sudden death whilst in London for a short recording session, was announced on Jan. 15.
It’s safe to say that without O’Riordan, the Cranberries wouldn’t have made it big. She was the golden ticket, the unique feature that made them sound like much more than a prototypical, unremarkable rock band. Her voice, after all, wasn’t the typical rocker voice a la Patti Smith or Gwen Stefani. O’Riordan had a tenderness and a lilt to her vocals that is decidedly un-rock in terms of style, but which I, like so many others, see as the defining feature of the Cranberries sound. One might even call it the “Irishness” of her voice—the way you can hear her strong Limerick accent, a distant, loose connection to traditional ballads, or the melodic cadence of even her most guttural notes. There’s a multifaceted feeling and finesse to each word Dolores sang—even the famed “Zo-om-bie.” Her vocals aren’t just rock n’ roll, they’re poetry.
At the weekend thousands of fans paid their respects at Limerick’s St. Joseph’s Church, a special local, Limerick service as a prelude to yesterday’s funeral Mass. The church was decorated with pictures of the singer and her music filled the chamber. Fans laid white roses and daffodils beside the open coffin, which was inscribed with “The song has ended, but the memories linger on”—the choice of “linger” paying homage to one of O’Riordan’s best performances. The Bishop of Limerick presided over the service, recognizing O’Riordan’s mourners across the globe, but focusing on fans in her home county, making space so that they could say their goodbyes to a local inspiration.
I have been thinking about O’Riordan all week, blaring “Zombie” and “Linger” on repeat in my headphones. And what’s clutched at my heart every time I re-hear those hits is the O’Riordan paradox: the simultaneous mystery and intimacy in her voice. Many have called her vocals “haunting,” but it’s more complicated than that. She sang with a raw intensity that articulates emotional turmoil: you feel like she’s expressing exactly what you feel, in all its complex opacity, making it transparent for you, comprehensible at long last. And yet, I think to myself, who was Dolores O’Riordan? When it comes to Bono and Van Morrison, I have a sense of their characters—publicly, at least. O’Riordan, on the other hand, will always remain a mystery. Rather than find that frustrating, I think it only amplifies the gut-wrenching emotional truth in her voice. When the song ends, Dolores O’Riordan is a mystery. But for those short four minutes, when you traveled along the journey of her lyrics, it was like she knew you, and you knew her, soul to soul.
The cause of O’Riordan’s death, which police have labeled “unsuspicious,” won’t be released until April. She will be laid to rest beside her late father in Caherelly Cemetery, Limerick.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column each week in the Irish Echo.