Enya and The Corrs are superstars, loved around the world. Why not in Ireland?

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Ed Power: Country has rarely looked kindly on those who stood out, who dared sing differently

In a different version of 2020 – one we still occasionally catch ourselves dreaming about – the June bank holiday weekend would have seen indie singer Caroline Polachek perform at the Forbidden Fruit festival in Kilmainham in Dublin.

The lights would have gone down, the former Chairlift frontwoman’s celestial vocals soaring above a rumble of depth-charge beats. And finally, she would have unveiled her big surprise.

“The daylight’s fading slowly/ The time with you is standing still,” Polachek would have dulcetly warbled, as she covered one of the most beloved songs from her childhood. “I’m waiting for you only/ The slightest touch and I feel weak.”

Polachek never had the opportunity to bring her version of Breathless by The Corrs to Ireland. She did, however, cover it extensively while touring through 2019 and 2020. And then, just before Christmas, in a gift to Corrs fans and, really, to all humanity, Polachek officially released her interpretation of the Dundalk quartet's July 2000 hit.

Enya is someone who doesn't have the word 'I' a lot in her music. She is connected to that folk tradition

“An elegant rendition,” oohed the NME. “Stunning,” aahed Dazed Digital.” She’s done some excellent things with it, whisking the melodies into the futuristic avant-pop world of her debut album Pang,” swooned Stereogum.

It is indeed a striking interpretation. Assisted by Danny Harle of London “hyper-pop” label PC Music, Polachek takes The Corrs wholesome mid-tempo ballad on the equivalent of the terrifying boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Into the tunnel it vanishes, as Polachek’s vocals are fed through a pitchshifter while grooves wobble and shimmer. Imagine Björk covering C’est La Vie by B*Witched. And then make it both 10 times weirder and 100 times more soothing.

Esteemed company

The really big shock, however, is that The Corrs should be considered ripe for a credibility-infusion in the first place. The Dundalk siblings have never been critically beloved in Ireland – their 2017 LP Jupiter Calling was accused by the Irish Times of “bludgeoning your ears into submission”.

If it’s any consolation, they are in esteemed company. Enya is similarly given short shrift here. Millions of records sold and yet she is widely perceived as the musical equivalent of a lifetime supply of incense.

It remains to be seen if an indie favourite’s championing of Breathless will prompt a Corrs revival: a Corrs-naissance, if you will. But this has been the very trajectory on which Enya finds herself. From indie goth singer Weyes Blood to electronica producer/ David Byrne collaborator Oneohtrix Point Never a generation of (almost exclusive American) musicians grew up listening to their parents listen to Enya. Now they are proclaiming their love for the Donegal artist from the social-media rooftops.

There is nothing tongue-in-cheek about this fandom. To her admirers, Enya is no naff purveyor of new age goo. She is a sort of alt.pop equivalent of Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings: a servant of the secret fire of properly banging ethereal rock.

“She’s incredible,” Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering told me when I spoke to her in 2019. “Enya is definitely underrated because she is so feminine. She is a completely uninhibited feminine force. A matriarchal force in music.”

Those sentiments are shared by pianist and producer Chilly Gonzalez, who has gone so far as set down his feelings on the printed page with his book, Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures. Enya for Gonzalez represents the essence of a more ancient music – one pre-dating rock ‘n roll. A sound grounded in a sense of the communal rather than the individual.

“Enya is someone who doesn’t have the word “I” a lot in her music,” he told me recently. “She is connected to that folk tradition.”

Room for everyone

Enya fandom is a broad church, with room on the pew for everyone. “It’s a common misconception that Enya’s music is all floaty s**t. It’s not,” experimental musician Juliana Barwick told Pitchfork last September. “Some of her songs are dark and goth and badass.”

Pitchfork interviewed Barwick for an article titled Enya is Everywhere. Others lining up to praise the Donegal artist included Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas. He said: “There’s something about Enya being so mainstream that is really soothing to me,” he said.

The cult of Enya is more than merely a Millennial and Gen Z fad. The track Boadicea from her 1987 debut album, The Celts (originally released as “Enya”), was famously sampled by The Fugees on their 1996 number one, Ready Or Not. (Enya considered suing the group, who had not sought her permission, but settled out of court).

Is it too simplistic to note the one thing Enya, Dolores O'Riordan and three-quarters of The Corrs have in common: their gender?

South African cartoon rappers Die Antwood and troubadour Mike Posner have sampled Orinoco Flow; dance producer Panda Bear has incorporated into his music snippets of Enya’s track Na Laetha Geal M’òige.

“Everybody knows who Enya is,” Hadreas told Pitchfork. “But there’s also this feeling that it’s something spiritual and strange.”

Dolores

Third in this trinity of Irish artists carried shoulder high abroad while often looked down upon at home is The Cranberries. It is true that Dolores O’Riordan and her bandmates are today acknowledged as one of the most important Irish bands of the Nineties. Yet that wasn’t always the case.

“We’ve always been bigger in every part of the world apart from Ireland,” Cranberries guitarist Noel Hogan told me in 2019 as they promoted In The End, the album recorded with Dolores O’Riordan and released after her death.

“We were dead in the water,” he continued, recalling how they were received in Ireland and Britain prior to finding success in the US. “When our first album came out we had press-officers in the UK playing us bands like Slowdive, saying ‘this is in’. And I was like, ‘you can’t hear the vocals’. It [The Cranberries debut LP] had bombed and we were waiting to be dropped. And then suddenly everything changed because of America.”

Today, everyone adores The Cranberries. Miley Cyrus covered Zombie last year. Speaking to the Irish Times before Christmas “bubblegum grunge” singer Beabadoobee, aka Bea Kristi, cited Dolores O’Riordan as a key formative influence.

“They are honestly one of the bands that inspire my music,” she said. “My mum used to play them in the background of my childhood a lot. When I rediscovered them later on, it felt like a warm blanket. You know when something is so nostalgic it feels like a blanket? Dolores O’Riordan’s voice is amazing.”

“I love The Cranberries. They were amazing. I definitely looked up to Dolores O’Riordan,” agreed Heather Baron-Gracie of goth pop group Pale Waves, speaking to the Irish Times in 2019.

“She has one of my favourite voices of all time. She gave off that attitude - she was totally herself. I loved her fashion sense, she was such a cool person. She was who she was and gave off that thing of, ‘if you don’t like me - I don’t really care’.”

Big question

The question of course is why these artists are acclaimed abroad while historically dismissed at home. Is it too simplistic to note the one thing Enya, Dolores O’Riordan and three-quarters of The Corrs have in common: their gender?

They certainly don’t fit the blueprint for the global Irish superstar. They are neither hairy nor preachy enough; nor do they possess an earnestness that bleeds into a sense of manifest destiny.

It’s an archetype that comes in many varieties – U2, Kodaline, Dermot Kennedy . . . I’m sure you can think of others. And yet the flavour is always the same (that isn’t to suggest these are the only musicians Ireland produces – merely that they are the ones played on radio and invited to headline festivals).

Ireland has rarely looked kindly on those who stood out: who dared think, look, or sing differently. The Corrs, Enya and The Cranberries did at least some of those things. Their new-found credibility tells us a lot about where music is today. Genre barriers have been demolished, removing much of the old snobbery with it. It’s no big deal for a critics’ favourite such as Caroline Polachek to stand before the world a proud Corrs fan.

But it’s equally telling that the rehabilitation of Enya and The Corrs originated outside Ireland and has yet to really take hold here. That says a lot about us, our conservatism and our group-think. More, perhaps, than we might care to ponder.

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