As an emigrant, ‘Linger’ wasn’t about love. It was about Ireland

Living in London in the 1990s, Dolores O'Riordan's song was a touchstone for my pain, my loss

Dolores O’Riordan (pictured performing in New Jersey in 1996) died in London on January 15th at the age of 46. Photograph: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Dolores O’Riordan (pictured performing in New Jersey in 1996) died in London on January 15th at the age of 46. Photograph: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

 

“If you, if you could return
Don’t let it burn
Don’t let it fade…”

For many Irish now in their 30s and 40s, The Cranberries’ Linger was the track of their teenage years. Released in 1993 it said everything about unrequited love, lust and longing.

I, on the other hand, was heading towards my 30s when I first heard it on a London radio station. That Irish accent was so distinctive, the lush arrangement so engaging, I had to stop my car somewhere near King’s Cross on my commute home and I think I said, out loud, “Who on earth is that?”

The ever so gentle see-saw start with a gentle hum underneath, the almost soporific opening bars giving way to a symphonic sweep - starting nearly 40 seconds later, an almost totally different song - then that plaintive voice: “If you... If you could return…”

For me, Linger wasn’t about love, unrequited or not: it was about Ireland.

“If you could return, don’t let it burn, don’t let it fade…”

I was five years gone from Dublin but emigrants, as I discovered, hung on to everything from Ireland with a tighter grip: I’d never seen Riverdance, had cruelly slagged it off to my metropolitan media mates but, secretly, was delighted an Irish brand had made it on the global scale.

Now, this slip of a Limerick girl with the voice of a punk choirgirl, was charting new territory with this track, shouldering U2’s preachy braggadocio out of the way, making room, along with Sinead O’Connor, for Irish women with their soaring vocals and searing lines:

“I’m in so deep
You know I’m such a fool for you
You’ve got me wrapped around your finger…”

Linger was a song we emigrants could belt out while loving and hating Ireland simultaneously. Whether it was a car seat chorus of one, or mouthing the words silently to the hum in your earplugs insulating you from the daily Tube crush, or, best of all, the shoulders-around-each-other at last orders in our favourite pubs in Camden, Stockwell, Cricklewood or Harlesden:

“Is that the way we stand? Were you lying all the time? Was it just a game to you?”

Helen O'Rahilly has been living in London for 30 years. 'Emigrants, as I discovered, hung on to everything from Ireland with a tighter grip.'
Helen O'Rahilly has been living in London for 30 years. 'Emigrants, as I discovered, hung on to everything from Ireland with a tighter grip.'

Linger was a cri de coeur: Ireland, why did we have to go? Why do we still love you so? In 1993, five years in London behind me, I still hadn’t quit you, Ireland. My father died that year. The pull to come home, permanently, was strong. Linger was my touchstone for so much pain, so much loss, so far from home. Never have 300 miles felt like 10 times that distance.

When I heard that Dolores O’Riordan had died in London on Monday my reaction, after shock and sadness, was that she was not at home. Not in Limerick. Not in Ireland. Not home.

I played Linger louder than ever before - along with so many of us - and I hope that unmistakable sound carried all the way across the Irish Sea, carrying her spirit home.

Helen O’Rahilly is a TV executive, a former (and first woman) director of RTÉ Television, BBC creative director and BBC One executive. Born in Dublin, she’s lived in London for 30 years.

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