It was summer, 1994. I had recently graduated high school, and was enjoying a trip to Ireland with my parents. Along for the journey was my best friend Steve, and his mother and stepfather. We spent the trip traveling around the lower half of the island, staying well clear of The Troubles, touring the countryside and various points of interest, staying in a different B&B almost every night.
One day early in the trip — possibly Day One, else it was Two — we visited the city of Limerick. Steve and I were excited because this was the home of The Cranberries, though of course they were probably not there that day and in any case we certainly did not encounter them in the street or anything so absurd. My two clearest memories of Limerick are an HMV, where I bought two t-shirts I would wear throughout my college years, and saw for the first time a copy of U2’s first album, “Boy,” with the proper cover art. The second thing, just up the street upon an island in the River Shannon, was King John’s Castle, a sprawling 13th-century fortress. Somehow, at the time, I was more excited about being in the Cranberries’ hometown.
I don’t know if it’s less common for teenage boys than it is for teenage girls to have a crush on popular singers, but in any case it really only happened once for me, and that was Dolores O’Riordan. She typically kept her hair short; either a black or blonde pixie cut, with a broad forehead and sort of a heart-shaped face. She typically wore simple black clothing, stockings, and combat boots, not the aggressively sexualized style of the modern pop singer. She looked like she had a lot on her mind and would probably have a lot of interesting things to say, and that combined with her voice and the steely look in her eyes, made her a very compelling figure. She didn’t need to give away the goods to be interesting. She could flat-out sing. It was an unusual voice but it was powerful, and carried a lot of emotion, and she used it in compelling ways that truly made her, as a vocalist, as much a part of the band’s signature sound as her three bandmates — the brothers Mike and Noel Hogan, and taking the award for owner of the Irish-est possible name, drummer Feargal Lawler.
The Cranberries music has a kind of haunting sound which struck an interesting counterpoint to the grunge movement of the 1990’s. They were without question a rock and roll band, but their sound was sort of poppy, with ringing guitars and gentle, tripping rhythms, a lot of strings and other instrumentation that went beyond what the four of them typically produced on their own. The sound, like O’Riordan’s iconic voice, lived in the space between beauty and anguish, haunted by the dark but not removed from the light.
Between March of 1993 and April of 1996, they released three hugely successful albums and a stream of classic singles that you still hear out in the world, twenty-five years later. They had kind of a comedown in popularity after the third album, which was a bit of a departure from their signature sound, and then after a less successful fourth album in 1999, they left Island Records and made a fifth album in 2001 that I honestly did not even know existed. They broke up, and reunited over a decade later, in 2012, to release a new album. Their most recent offering, “Something Else,” was released last April.
It hasn’t yet been revealed how Dolores died. I know that she reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, stemming from abuse she suffered at the age of 8. I hate that such a thing happens to anyone. She had struggles, resulting in an unfortunate confrontation with an Aer Lingus air hostess in 2013. She also tried to end her life that year but, thankfully, the attempt failed. She has three children – ranging in age from 12 to 20 – and she always said she loved “being a mum.” She also fought with anorexia for a while. My fear is that her mental illnesses caught up with her. I hope that isn’t true. I would take almost any other explanation over that. So often the people who tell stories and create beautiful art do so because they need a way to express some darkness that has been planted within them, and too often they leave us too soon because of it.
I’ve been listening to The Cranberries this afternoon. “Ode to My Family” struck me in a whole new way today, as I considered Dolores’s life, and so I’ll share that video below. All I can say is, may you be at peace, Dolores. You kicked ass. You were always beautiful, no matter how you might have felt sometimes. Thank you for sharing your beautiful voice with us. Thank you for your music. And thank you for giving a seventeen year old boy a healthy image of what a young woman looks like — with a head full of interesting ideas, a badass pair of combat boots, and all her clothes on.