Dolores O’Riordan: Success rested uneasily on the shoulders of influential singer

Success came early for her band The Cranberries but O’Riordan struggled with the trappings of fame

Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan has died suddenly in London. We look back at some of her greatest hits. Courtesy: Island Records

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Dolores O’Riordan, one of Ireland’s most influential contemporary rock stars died suddenly at a hotel in in London on Monday morning. She was in the UK for a recording session. The circumstances of her death have not yet been confirmed.

O’Riordan, from Ballybricken, Co Limerick, had been in the public eye for more than 25 years. It began for her in 1989, when she took over from an ousted male vocalist in the then-named Cranberry Saw Us. Slowly, O’Riordan steered the band in a new, often svelte pop direction, with a name change to The Cranberries a part of this.

The Limerick band was the kind of ingénue act that more weathered observers of Irish rock music had thought would wind up after several years in the sunshine and retire to whence they had come.

The Cranberries perform on stage in Lublin, Poland, in June 2016. Photograph: Wojciech Pacewicz/EPA
The Cranberries perform on stage in Lublin, Poland, in June 2016. Photograph: Wojciech Pacewicz/EPA

In the early stages of the band’s development, O’Riordan was so shy that she often turned her back on the audience while singing. She was the embodiment of the word “elfin”, the epitome of the word “slight”.

Looks, however, could be deceiving. The Cranberries were tougher than perhaps even they themselves had reckoned. Success came quickly, resulting not just in a fan base that adored them and their music (notably the 1993 debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We), but also media attention, which the band members initially found difficult to engage with.

As is usually the case in rock-pop music, the focus was on the lead singer, in this instance the petite, pretty O’Riordan, whose early durability seemed at odds with the delicacy of the band’s music.

It is fair to say that success rested uneasily on her slim shoulders. This writer was in her company several times over the past 25 years and always got the impression that the attendant fame and fortune was never welcome.

Dolores O’Riordan: “anyone who gets famous so quickly and so young, you’re bound to be a bit of a casualty .” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Dolores O’Riordan: “Anyone who gets famous so quickly and so young, you’re bound to be a bit of a casualty.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

In a 2012 interview, she told me, “anyone who gets famous so quickly and so young, you’re bound to be a bit of a casualty in some fashion. You go through life, and then you realise you only live once, and that there are some things you might have lost or given away when you were young, so you go back to find them.”

Regrets of certain kinds seemed to have burrowed into her as the years passed, yet for a while in the mid-1990s O’Riordan and The Cranberries could do no wrong. Two further albums, No Need To Argue (1994) and To The Faithful Departed (1996) consolidated their worldwide appeal, making them an international rock music success. Come 2003, the band split up. Noel Hogan, Michael Hogan and Fergal Lawlor edged towards other music projects, but (for a while, anyway) not O’Riordan.

“I took the break,” she said in the same interview, “and thought at that point that I would never go back to making music, that in my life I needed to find 100 percent sanity, and that I wanted to be a mother and a wife. I didn’t want to be a famous person or to be in a band. I didn’t want to have contracts in my life. In short, I needed to find elements of my life that I felt I had lost.

“ I thought I’d start a different life, maybe go back to school; I started painting, as well, which was brilliant, as there was no pressure or pull from people to finish with the canvas. I found it very therapeutic, as well as a great way to pass time and to find myself, to a degree.”

Music, however, was far too strong a magnet. Solo albums were recorded and released (2007’s Are you Listening, 2009’s No Baggage), but O’Riordan realised it was The Cranberries that lit the flame for the fanbase. Come 2010, after seven years, the band reconvened, and since then she had divided her time between family, friends and music.

Her daughters, she told me more than once, were her touchstones. “I’m there to say to them not to be shallow or insecure or succumb to the pressures of society in the ways that women are supposed to look, appear or behave. You have to learn to be yourself and be strong – they won’t know unless their mother tells them. My daughters helped me to realise that it’s okay to have a bit of a spare tyre. Who cares about that – it’s your heart that counts.”

Dolores O'Riordan poses in Paris in January 2012. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Dolores O'Riordan in Paris in January 2012. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, the band once again gathered around to promote Something Else, a “best of” album featuring songs with orchestration. Around the time of doing media interviews for the album, O’Riordan seemed enthusiastic about getting back to writing original material for a new studio album. She was pragmatic, as befits a woman in her mid-40s.

“I genuinely don’t expect to be as successful as we once were,” she said in an interview in The Irish Times. “The 1990s was our time for that, I think; we were hungry and on fire. Now, we’re older, we have kids, and I know we’ll never get those earlier moments back again. Not that I want them.”

Again, her love of family always came through. In 2014, she and her husband of some 20 years, Don Burton, split up and subsequently divorced. Her daughters, however, couldn’t be separated from her.

“My saving grace, I say it again, are my kids. If I didn’t have them, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be here – seriously. When you have them you live for them; you can’t be feeling too sorry for yourself, or worrying about yourself when you have kids to look after.”

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