For Gen-Xers who couldn’t quite appreciate the “outsider” mentality of ’90s grunge culture, singer Dolores O’Riordan’s death on Jan. 15 struck deep. Many who first encountered O’Riordan’s music as teenagers cherished the interiority, tender understanding and even quiet rage that they found in her melancholic voice.
In a recent New York Times video, the Irish music journalist Dave Fanning called O’Riordan’s music “something that was for people who weren’t really into the kind of noise or the torn jeans of grunge. They just wanted some music that would be a soundtrack to them growing up between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-one, and the Cranberries were one of the few bands giving them something that was pure pop, that was quite heavenly.”
Many who first encountered Dolores O’Riordan’s music as teenagers cherished the interiority, tender understanding and even quiet rage that they found in her melancholic voice.
O’Riordan was frontwoman and a songwriter for the Cranberries, a band hailed by Rolling Stonein 1995 as “Ireland’s biggest musical export since U2.” Like U2, the Cranberries made use of religious symbolism, and they veered toward the same humanitarian activism for which U2’s Bono became famous. In particular, O’Riordan advocated for children throughout the world. She grew up during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland; “Zombie,” one of the Cranberries’ most popular songs, focused on the 1993 Warrington bombings and, in particular, mourned its two young casualties.
With a vocal style that owed something to yodeling as well as keening, a traditional practice of lament of women for the dead, O’Riordan maintained a special preference for traditional-sounding Irish, Celtic and church-based music. She often spoke about the church’s influence on her work, assigning it a central role in her success. But O’Riordan’s earliest leanings toward a career in music were waved off by her mother, Eileen, a religiously observant woman who bore the weight of her husband’s paralysis and the deaths of two of her nine children. Eileen got through these hardships with a hearty dose of survivalist realism.
Determined to work around obstacles, O’Riordan sharpened her musical and vocal skills by playing the organ and singing hymns in her parish community. Right up until 1989, when she auditioned for and joined The Cranberry Saw Us (the first name of the band initially known for its parody-based music), O’Riordan belonged to a church choir. Bringing to the band new musical prospects (she also played guitar), she toured the United States with the Cranberries in the early ’90s after they faced a mostly disinterested reaction from U.K. listeners at the release of their first album, “Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?” (1993). At the same time, videos for two songs from the LP, “Linger” and “Dreams,” received prominent play on MTV. After five to six months of touring and climbing U.S. charts, when the band returned to their native Ireland their popularity was no longer in question.
Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick called Dolores O'Riordan "a true child of Limerick; talented, honest, full of soul and courageous.”
In 1994 the band released “No Need to Argue,” and to the surprise of record executives, it did something few second releases do: it outperformed the band’s first, going platinum seven times in the U.S. market. The single “Zombie,” alongside pretty-but-Band-Aid-ripping tunes like “Ode to My Family” and “Dreaming My Dreams,” did what the Irish seemingly do best: O’Riordan and her bandmates “churn[ed] heartache into art,” as Rolling Stone noted. Mining her own experiences for lyrics that some critics found trite—as though transferred directly from a personal diary—O’Riordan continued this practice throughout her career.
When the band’s third LP, “To the Faithful Departed,” dropped in 1996, the group was on a downward course from mainstream fame. Rumors of O’Riordan’s desire to work as a solo artist began circulating, and while “Departed” presented a couple of favorites like “Salvation,” an anti-drug song with the same brashness of “Zombie,” and the ever-gloomy and historical “I’m Still Remembering,” dedicated to Kurt Cobain, ultimately the wide-ranging experimentation of the album (along with the transition into adulthood of much of the band’s fan base) led to a largely tepid response among late ’90s listeners.
The band’s incessant touring took its toll on O’Riordan. Plagued with both mental and physical health problems, she took a hiatus from the band from 2003 to 2009, pursuing a family-focused life at her home in Canada with her then-husband and Duran Duran tour manager Don Burton. She released two solo albums during this time, and later rejoined the band for tours across North America in 2009 and Asia in 2012. Speaking publicly in 2013 with journalist Barry Egan about the four years of sexual abuse she endured as a child, the singer said she felt healing and even a new spiritual awakening was possible for her.
Diagnosed in 2015 with bipolar disorder and having experienced long bouts with depression (as evident early on in songs like “Empty” and “Disappointment,” both from the “No Need to Argue” album), O’Riordan continued to write from an emotionally honest and sometimes raw point of view. A favorite song of hers, which she claimed had always been with her but she had never been able to produce, was the love song “Apple of My Eye.” During her six-year break from the band, she finally recorded it on her 2007 solo album, “Are You Listening?”
Although the cause of her death is officially unknown and toxicology reports will not be available until April (and even then, such reports will only be made public with the family’s permission), an article published in The Santa Monica Observer on Jan. 18 suggests that O’Riordan died from a deliberate overdose of Fentanyl, an opioid used to treat severe pain, most probably given to treat the intense back pain she suffered.
Speaking two days after her death, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick noted how O’Riordan had brought hope and pride to her home city. Recalling how she had been named after Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, he stated that O’Riordan had never lost sight of her loved ones or her roots: “Way beyond anything else,” he stated, “this was the passing of a loving mother, daughter, and sister… Her rise to stardom gave a huge amount of belief to young people locally at the time. She was a true child of Limerick; talented, honest, full of soul and courageous.”