A Voice That Will Linger As Long As Memory

There are events that shock us by seeming to happen out of any natural sequence. They attack that increasingly limited span of things we think we can rely on as facts of life. They leave us grasping. Is there anything we can be certain of, in the end, other than death?

Such an event was the passing of Cranberries singer Dolores O’ Riordan yesterday, at the age of just 46. While she had experienced some publicised struggles with mental health, there appears to have been no indication that something like this might happen.

The sudden arrival of The Cranberries as a global pop phenomenon in the early 1990’s took many on the east side of the Atlantic by surprise, not least the Dublin 4 rock press who, like every other Irish institution, are really only interested in how their buddies are doing.

The band’s galactic sized success proved difficult to argue against, so D4 rock journos either attempted to ignore them, or to damn with faint praise. They were basically just The Corrs, one or two of them sniffed, except from the wrong side of the Shannon.

Undemanding pop most of their stuff may have been, but The Cranberries passed the ultimate pop test by producing a sound that will outlast the band. Is there a single Corrs tune that can be recalled without significant mental effort?

What made them stand out was O’ Riordan’s incredible voice, sweet and husky and gentle and hurt. Even her trademark wail had a plaintiveness that yanked at the heart.

And if it seems faint praise to single out her voice as the one thing that made The Cranberries special, then what about all those years when The Edge’s guitar was the only truly unique thing about U2, at least until Brian Eno came along?

She was a person on whom fame never seemed to sit easily. This was probably to her credit, as well as a product of the fact that this unexpected success came when she was desperately young and – as it later emerged – damaged.

She outspokenness usually came out raw and ill advised. She didn’t say things just to produce some public effect. She spoke from the heart, shot from the hip. She was pretty much an ordinary Limerick girl, wild in the way Limerick girls are, uncomfortably set apart from the rest of humanity by that extraordinary voice.

Her voice gave the band and the world a handful of songs that will breeze free and easy through minds for as long as people continue to listen to music.

For me, there really is no song quite like ‘Linger,’ something of a guilty pleasure, with its perfect expression of a moment, the soundtrack to a dozen teenage romances I never had.

I once had a disagreement upon the relative vocal merits of Dolores and Sinead O’ Connor with someone whom, I later realized, was one of the genuinely nastiest people I would ever meet. She referred to ‘that wan from Limerick with the voice like a braying donkey.’

I really should have taken the remark as a clincher: failure to appreciate all the magnificent and noble things going on inside that haunting voice offered a clue that you weren’t really human, that you failed some basic test. Acting on that clue would have saved me a lot of time.

I only read yesterday that part of her struggles with mental health had to do with sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl at the hands of one of those ubiquitous ‘family friends.’ It is horrible to think of her, as it is horrible to think of anyone, being a casualty of something that appears to have been absolutely endemic in Ireland at that time.

The number of women of O’ Riordan’s generation, famous and otherwise, who tell stories of precisely the same kind of violation is something I’ve been finding profoundly disturbing for years now. Who were all these ‘family friends’? Shouldn’t we be trying to find them out, give them a call? Shouldn’t we be asking just what the hell was going on in society at the time?

The silencing of Dolores O’ Riordan’s magical voice isn’t just a sadness for Limerick, but for the world. It is a tragedy for her three children and family, the kind of loss that can’t be expressed.

Her voice is silenced. The memory will linger. May she rest in peace.

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