Within minutes of the news breaking that Dolores O’Riordan, the lead singer of The Cranberries, had died at the age of 46, an English person messaged me on Twitter to say that they are sorry. I wasn’t sure why, at first. I like The Cranberries as much as anyone else who had a CD player in the 90s, but I wasn’t a diehard fan. I realised quickly, though, what she actually meant. She wasn’t just saying, “I’m sorry Dolores O’Riordan has died” – she was saying, “I’m sorry you lost a member of your team, today.”
Irish women don’t have a lot of people on our team. Or, rather, we do, but most of them aren’t known outside of Ireland. You can’t talk about Nuala O’Faolain or Edna O’Brien with that many people outside of home, but you can talk about Dolores O’Riordan and Sinéad O’Connor. If you’re from a small nation, you probably relate. They are our unofficial ambassadors, our daemons, our way of telling the world that we, as Irish women, are more than just “English woman, but without the right to choose”. We are not just the granddaughters of the women who wore shawls. We are smart and strange and creative. We are prone to bouts of extreme shyness, followed by piss-and-vinegar moments of brashness. Dolores – the woman who sang in her own accent, who married young but wore thigh-high white boots to the wedding, whose speaking voice was barely above a whisper, but the words she said were supremely self-assured – did a lot of that heavy lifting for us. And now, she is gone.
Reading a Rolling Stone profile of Dolores from the early 90s, it’s kind of hilarious just how much the mainstream music press didn’t know what to do with her. The writer notes that the other members of The Cranberries were, for the most part, ordinary lads and that “only O'Riordan has the star trappings: the personal wardrobe assistant, the doting husband and the gnawing tendency of referring to herself in the third person (‘I put Dolores first, always,’ she tells me)”. There’s an insistence throughout that O’Riordan was an intentionally awkward diva – a sort of rural, thinking-girl’s Madonna. The profile is an elegant reminder of how women in 90s rock music were in a perpetual Catch-22: if you acted like “one of the boys” – see Courtney Love, or the grungier L7 – you were dismissed as grotesque; if you embraced your femininity, if you asked for wardrobe help or (God forbid) if you insisted on being treated as the star you were being told that you were, you were difficult. The interviewer notes how Dolores “picks, bird-like” at a bowl of fruit, but then later acknowledges that “Dolores was never a babe”, seemingly unaware of how one sentiment might impact the other.
Dolores’ voice is a home for anyone who has ever spent their life "out there" – outside the gang, outside the country, outside the limited parameters of what it is to have a "healthy mind"
The things the interviewer is rolling his eyes at, however, were all deliberate moves from Dolores – each one a brick in a wall between her and the enormous fame that threatened to crush her. The wardrobe assistants were part of a large female crew that she kept on tour, “for balance”. The doting husband – Don Burton, Duran Duran’s former tour manager – was, in the early days, referred to by O’Riordan as though he were a human shield. “There is a lot of chauvinism in the music industry. I'm glad to be married – and that's one of the reasons – so that I don't feel exposed anymore that way." Recalling their early relationship, she speaks, above all, of feeling protected: “When we're out and it's raining, he holds on to my arm extra tight in case I slip. I had never really experienced the caring thing before."
And yet, despite her determination in trying to hold back the world, the slip came anyway. O’Riordan suffered from bipolar disorder and frequently disclosed details of her mental health, long before it was common for a star to do so. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2001, she admitted to “having nightmares, seeing things that weren't in the room. I'd wake up screaming, crying. I'd experienced violence in my life and I was having nightmares about being hurt. I'd wake up and I'd, I'd...even be, like, frightened of my husband. And sometimes I'd go, ‘Is there any way out of here? Is there any way I can just wake up and be a regular girl?’”
Along with her voice, It was that kind of emotional frankness that made her music so instantly relatable. Even today, I’ve found myself crying at Ode To My Family, a song for anyone who has left the fold of the family and wondered if there was a way back in.
Don't turn away from me
'Cause I spent half my life out there
You wouldn't disagree
D'you see me, d'you see
Do you like me, do you like me standing there
Dolores’ voice is a home for anyone who has ever spent their life “out there” – outside the gang, outside the country, outside the limited parameters of what it is to have a “healthy mind” – and will continue to be so for generations of lonely, lost music lovers. I’m only sad we couldn’t keep her on the team a little longer.