To the Faithful Departed

Ruth Cunningham takes a look at the unexpected death of The Cranberries’ singer Dolores O’Riordan, at age 46, along with her legacy of a hard fought and rarely recognised role as a famous front woman in rock music

There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when someone who has felt omnipresent in your life and your wider consciousness passes away. There’s a tendency to imagine them as far older than they were, such is their level of permanence and familiarity. It’s for this reason perhaps that the death of Dolores O’Riordan last week shocked people around the world. I know it was for me. Forty-six is too young to die by anyone’s standards.

Although her life was cruelly cut short, her achievements are more than many of us could ever dream of.  The Cranberries have sold over 44 million records. They have performed on SNL and David Letterman. Dolores herself sang with Luciano Pavarotti in a performance that brought Princess Diana to tears. It’s not a bad track record.

Upon joining the group formally known by the cringeworthy and punny name ‘Cranberry Saw Us’ at the age of 18, Dolores was a solitary female presence in a band full of men. She sang, brothers Noel and Mike Hogan played lead guitar and bass and Fergal Lawlor played drums.

Dolores’ legacy will not only be her unique, ethereal and haunting voice, most often described as a ‘yodel’, though that is a tremendous part of it. While the music industry has brought countless female vocal talents to prominence, what it has not done is bring more than a handful of female front-women of male bands to fame and fortune. Dolores and The Cranberries were one of the select few.

Back in the 1970s, Blondies Debbie Harry, arguably the most recognisable female front of a male band, said that: “the only place left for rock to go is toward more girl stars. There’s nothing left for men to do. There’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new.” Debbie Harry is never one to mince words and from her point of reference at the time, she wasn’t wrong. She was the first female lead of an alternative band that gained any quantifiable measure of success in the wider music industry.

“There’s nothing left for men to do – there’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new”

In the years that followed there was Siouxsie and the Banshees led by Siouxsie Sioux and The Pretenders fronted by Chrissie Hynde. As time passed, the genres in which female fronted bands gained prominence became notably more obscure. No Doubt, with singer Gwen Stefani as the face, gained great prominence in the US charts in the 1990s and early 2000s and are credited in part with bringing ska back into the mainstream. They are unquestionably the exception as opposed to the rule.

What may not be surprising then, is that it’s not exactly easy to find a contemporary example of a female front woman. Two of the most successful are Evanescence, fronted by the last remaining original band member, Amy Lee and Paramore’s Hayley Williams. The fact that neither of these women or bands are what you could describe as ‘household names’ says it all.  There are a handful of women who have done what Dolores did and became known for it.

In this case, this woman came from a small town called Ballybricken, 11 miles from Limerick City. The fact that Dolores’ voice, her unforgettable and unmistakable voice that sold many millions of records and was heard many million more times around the world, came from somewhere so unremarkable is nothing short of inspiring. MayKay, of Irish alt-rock group Fight Like Apes tweeted in the wake of Dolores’ death that: “she’s the reason so many young girls saw a place for themselves in rock music.”

Once The Cranberries became successful it became a signifier to young Irish women that it didn’t matter where you came from; you didn’t need to be from glamorous places like Miami or California to become somebody.

This sense of locality and Irishness attached to Dolores led only to an increase in her relatability.  Indeed, what has been mentioned time and time again since Dolores’ death is that she was relatable. She never lost her unmistakable Limerick accent and remained close to her hometown, her family and her faith.

The first song she ever wrote when she was 18 reflected the total, exquisite and exaggerated pain of being rejected by your first love. We’ve all been there. Dolores told The Irish Times, “I wrote about being rejected. It was inspired by a night I had at a club called Madonna’s. This guy asked me to dance and I thought he was lovely. I couldn’t wait to see him again. But at the next disco, he walked straight past me and asked my friend to dance. I was devastated. Everyone saw me being dumped, publicly, at the disco.”

 It’s hard to think of a more relatable scenario. The fact that she managed to turn this snub into Linger, a single that remained in the Billboard Charts for 24 weeks and sold over 700,000 copies, is somewhat less relatable, but I digress.

The public’s ability to relate to Dolores as a vulnerable woman was only compounded by her candidness. Several years ago she confessed she had been abused as a child and spoke to friend Barry Egan about what that had meant for her mental health throughout the years. In their interview for the Belfast Telegraph she said: “I knew why I wanted to make myself disappear. It was something that I noticed manifested itself in my behaviour, such as my eating disorder, depression and eventually the breakdowns.”

Dolores never claimed to be a role model nor to be someone worthy of idolatry.

She was a woman with a rare talent who made a name for herself and proved to countless young women and girls that it was possible to do so. As she said: “I’ll always be a bit of a train wreck. Nobody’s perfect. Those people who pretend they are perfect aren’t perfect.”

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