The Memories in Dolores O’Riordan’s Fierce, Fragile Voice



Dolores O’Riordan, the lead singer of the Cranberries, performing in Dublin in 2000. The headiness of young female angst was central to the band. Credit Ferran Paredes/Reuters

DUBLIN — If you watched MTV in the winter of 1994, it was impossible to ignore Zombie” by the Cranberries. The music video’s director, Samuel Bayer, drew from a palette he’d used on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and positioned the band’s lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan, painted in gold, in front of a large cross. “It’s the same old theme since 1916,” Ms. O’Riordan snarled, referring to the quashed rebellion that gave birth to the Irish republic, between clips of British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland and play-fighting children. “In your head, in your head, they’re still fighting.”

There were many breaking points during the war in Northern Ireland, but the second Warrington bombing in England in 1993 was significant enough to set off street protests in Dublin. Johnathan Bell, 3, and Tim Parry, 12, were killed when the Irish Republican Army detonated two bombs in trash cans. Touring in England at the time, the Cranberries digested the news, and wrote “Zombie,” their protest song.

By the time the single was released in 1994 — two weeks after a cease-fire announcement from the I.R.A., and a month before one from the unionist paramilitaries who opposed them — the Cranberries were one of the biggest rock bands in the world, with Ms. O’Riordan at the helm, a frontwoman so prominent that the Cranberries meant her. They were an Irish band whose global success was instigated by how America embraced them, by MTV giving their moody music videos heavy rotation, and, crucially, by American radio, a medium that prompted album sales of more than 40 million, mostly for their first two albums: “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We,” in 1993, and “No Need to Argue,” in 1994.

Now, the Cranberries’ music reminds me of the inside of bedrooms, of school discos where everyone swayed, bored, until “Zombie” came on and the moshing began, awkward at first. The songs evoke the smell of damp school sweaters and the ennui of suburban bus shelters, as well as the money scraped together to buy Dr. Martens boots.

As news broke on Monday that Ms. O’Riordan had died suddenly, Irish people took to social media in shock. In the evening, people switched on 2FM, the popular music station of the national broadcaster RTE, where the host Louise McSharry dispensed with her plans and instead gave the two-hour program over to the Cranberries’ music. Fans and musicians phoned in to talk about what the band and Ms. O’Riordan meant to them. Women sent in text messages about how they had mimicked O’Riordan’s style, and how her songs had gotten them through their school exams.


Ms. O’Riordan in New Jersey in 1996. The band owed much of its global success to how the United States embraced it. Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

The headiness of young female angst was central to the Cranberries. Ms. O’Riordan was a teenager when she wrote the lyrics to the band’s second single, “Linger,” in response to a first kiss. The teenage memories of many Irish women are inextricably linked to Ms. O’Riordan’s voice. And what a voice. Like many Irish singers, she consciously or unconsciously incorporated the highly stylized ornamentation of traditional Celtic “sean nos” singing. If the guitar of U2’s the Edge is the evolution of a fiddle mid-jig, Ms. O’Riordan’s voice was keening the dead at the end of a wake.

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