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Friday 20 September 2019

Joseph O'Connor: 'The lost voice that opened all our hearts'

Dolores O'Riordan was more than a musician - she was an icon and an inspiration, writes Joseph O'Connor

Dolores O’Riordan sang like no other and her loss felt personal
Dolores O’Riordan sang like no other and her loss felt personal

Joseph O'Connor

The world lost some great musicians and artists this year but one loss in particular was felt by all Irish music fans, indeed by all Irish people.

In Dolores O'Riordan's hometown of Limerick, she will long be commemorated and missed. Far more than just a local who became internationally famous, she was also a person for whom everyone felt immense fondness and empathy. In some ways, too, she was and remains an icon, emblem of a deservedly proud city that has at times felt looked down-upon.

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A mere 46 when she died last January, Dolores encompassed multitudes: toughness and frailty, gutsy street-smarts and a sort of innocence. A superstar while still a young mum, she could be softly spoken in interviews but was a live performer of electrifying fierceness.

The entrancing, ethereal voice often sang of everyday hopes and heartaches. She never wrote a line that sounded false. The early lyrics sometimes felt like diary entries; perhaps they were, or had once been. Certainly they found echoes in millions of hearts, all over the world, but it's impossible to separate the words from the voice.

She sang in her own accent, the intonation of her hometown bringing earthiness, a sort of dignity and self-respect to the work, oddly moving for being so understated. She didn't twang like a wannabe American but she didn't Oirish it up either. She was herself, first and last, never bobbing around like a cork in the sea of other people's expectations. She had roots and she knew what they were.

In interviews she seemed down-to-earth, authentic and intelligent, rather private by nature, often funny. You felt she was sometimes as troubled as any sensitive person must be when the runway lights of fame blaze on.

I never met her, but one test of great singers is that we come to feel (no doubt wrongly) that we know them. Edith Piaf, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell have some quality that invites us into their lived experience. Perhaps it's more that their work becomes a screen on which something of ourselves is projected or simply that their artistry has a beauty that stirs deeper recognitions.

Whatever that shimmering quality is, Dolores O'Riordan had it when she sang. As with Patti Smith or Billie Holiday, Nina Simone or Amy Winehouse, you hear one phrase and you know who is singing.

The band's sound was such a mix, there was grit as well as melodic beauty. Their debut album was entitled Everybody Else is Doing it, So Why Can't We?, a punk question if ever there were. There was something of Irish traditional singing, too, in the inflections and intensity of Dolores's otherworldly voice, soaring into immensity like a Connemara tern. It was a voice that stilled you. Then wowed you.

Its grace notes and ornamentations, its octave-bounding swoops, then its achingly beautiful, clean-as-ice clarity, like a chorister singing a carol on Christmas Eve. It's significant that Dolores had a childhood love for church music and plainchant, that she was raised in a home where the radio was often tuned to country. There's an honesty to her style; you imagine Loretta Lynn and Patsy Kline would have loved her. Hers was a voice that opened your heart, often with great tenderness. Then there were the moments when Dolores's voice opened your heart the way dynamite opens a safe.

All Irish people know that Limerick is a place where sport has long been a defining passion. Thomond Park, the rugby stadium, is a field of dreams; locals still talk with proud reverence of Munster's defeat of all the All Blacks in 1978.

This summer, when the county's hurlers won the All-Ireland after an interim of 45 years, they were greeted by a throng of 100,000 euphoric supporters on their return to the city. The moment when the crowd began singing Zombie by The Cranberries was unforgettably moving, a tribute to a woman who fought the fight on her own terms. U2 are admired by many of their fellow Dubliners but no one will ever sing Where the Streets Have No Name to hail heroes.

The selfless decision by her family to allow the public to pay their respects to Dolores was another profound and poignant acknowledgement of her importance. Fans travelled from all over the world to St Joseph's Church in the city to bid farewell, but hundreds of the mourners were Limerick people, many of them women decades older than her. The requiem mass was broadcast on local radio. President Higgins visited her family.

There was some radiance Dolores transmitted that made her loss personal. She was the peerless frontwoman of a rock band that sold 40 million albums. She was also the girl you grew up beside, the mum at the school gates. She sang like no one else. She lingers. She always will.

  • Joseph O'Connor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His novel 'Shadowplay' will be published in June

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