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

Posted January 16, 2018 1:31 p.m. EST

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,” 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 IRA, 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 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 U.S. 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 Monday that 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 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.

The headiness of young female angst was central to the Cranberries. 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 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, O’Riordan’s voice was keening the dead at the end of a wake.

It’s hard to quantify the impact that O’Riordan had on young Irish women. At the very least, she is responsible for a large portion of those Dr. Martens sales in the ‘90s. For Irish women in their 20s and 30s, she occupies a space next to Sinead O’Connor, two petite punks whose unconventionality thrilled and intimidated a society adverse to just that. Like O’Connor, O’Riordan took international stardom by the scruff of its neck: She shaved her head; she turned up to rock late-night U.S. talk shows; and she did it all in her strong Limerick accent. It was the accent that positioned the Cranberries as a truly Irish band. O’Riordan never pretended to be someone else: She did not adopt an American twang but sang in the bold brogue of her hometown, a place later viewed internationally through the prism of Frank McCourt’s memoir “Angela’s Ashes” as a rain-soaked, gritty place. Don’t underestimate the power of hearing a woman from a nation with a small-country complex proudly owning her lilt. Even the arena-size songs, embellished with glossy ‘90s rock production, sounded unmistakably Irish.

The Cranberries appeared to arrive fully formed, and their international success fed a tremendous sense of pride in Ireland. At home, O’Riordan was viewed with fascination, regarded as edgy and “out there,” a perception compounded by her wedding to Don Burton, the former tour manager of Duran Duran, with whom she had three children.

The 1994 ceremony in County Tipperary was front-page news, her outfit the talk of the town: see-through lace leggings, knee-high white lace-up boots, a white lace bra under a sheer, endlessly flowing veil. (Her husband wore a black leather suit.) It was the ‘90s. The locals looked on agape. On Monday, The Irish Times photographer Brenda Fitzsimmons tweeted that O’Riordan’s arrival at her wedding, steering a horse-drawn carriage with her veil blowing, “was so ballsy I nearly forgot to take pictures.”

The opening crash of the Cranberries’ 1993 song “Dreams” has a transporting effect for me, back to school corridors, back to ink drawings on canvas backpacks, back to the clunk between songs on mix tapes recorded from the radio.

O’Riordan always looked so small behind those big guitars, but with fragility there was fierceness, one of our own, the joy of an outsider owning it for herself, and for all of us.