Cranberries Singer Dolores O’Riordan and the Darkness That Haunted Her Past
The Irish singer-songwriter, who passed away suddenly this week at age 46, had been open about the years of abuse she suffered as a child and the impact it had on her adult life.
Francis Burns grew up in Limerick right around the same time that the Cranberries’ lead singer-songwriter Dolores O’Riordan did. When he heard about her death Monday at the age of 46, he shook his head with sadness.
“Everyone’s going to say she was unstable and had a tough childhood,” he said. “But that’s not what stands out for everyone in Limerick. Dolores was our hero. Her dad never wanted her to play music and she always rebelled against him. She chased her dream no matter what and she was an inspiration to all of us, especially younger musicians and girls.”
O’Riordan, whose haunting, Limerick-tinged, mezzo-soprano voice led the Cranberries to unimaginable success in the 1990s with songs like “Linger,” “Zombie,” and “Dreams,” died suddenly at age 46 on Monday morning at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane in London. She had been scheduled to record vocals for a cover of “Zombie” with the hard rock group Bad Wolves later that day.
Authorities have not yet released a cause of death but say they do not consider it suspicious.
Amid a massive outpouring of grief-filled tributes from the remaining members of the Cranberries, celebrity fans and politicians, O’Riordan’s longtime friend Dan Waite, managing director of the record company Eleven Seven Music, released a statement saying O’Riordan had left him an upbeat voicemail the night before her death.
“The news that my friend Dolores has passed deeply shocked me. I worked with the Cranberries at Universal Records and have kept in touch ever since,” Waite said. “Dolores left me a voice message just after midnight last night stating how much she loved Bad Wolves’ version of Zombie. She was looking forward to seeing me in the studio and recording vocals. She sounded full of life, was joking and excited to see me and my wife this week. The news of her passing is devastating and my thoughts are with her ex-husband, her children and her mother.”
Unfortunately, O’Riordan’s musical legacy and her role as a one of the few pioneering, iconic rock stars in Ireland is being inevitably overshadowed by stories about her difficult personal life. She was a shy child growing up in Ballybricken outside Limerick and while ambitious, she often referenced being overwhelmed by fame.
“O’Riordan was the first to admit she was unprepared for fame and ridiculously naive about how the music industry worked,” the Irish Times reported Tuesday. “She didn’t have a metropolitan background, would never have the right answers for music journalists and was annoyed to find herself a figure of curiosity in glossy magazine features. She was portrayed as if she still had straw from the farm back home in her hair, a rural ingenue lost amidst the bright lights of rock stardom.”
Just a few years out of high school, the youngest of seven children, O’Riordan “found herself on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, opening the front door to find Michael Stipe there with a present for her, singing for the Pope, and duetting with Pavarotti,” the Times wrote.
O’Riordan’s career, though, had a fairy tale beginning. The Cranberries’ debut album, despite songs like “Linger” and “Dreams,” was a flop after it was released in 1993. O’Riordan, then 22, was so despondent that she asked a journalist in a Dublin pub to “lend me twenty quid and buy me a drink.” O’Riordan and the Cranberries left for the U.S. soon after to be the support band for Suede but after they were spotted by a producer at MTV, the song “Linger” became a major hit and the Cranberries replaced Suede as the opening act mid-tour.
The Cranberries went on to sell more than 40 million records.
But the pressures of 18-month tours and rock stardom for someone who was, by all accounts, highly sensitive, emotional and introverted, had an impact on her health and she became anorexic in response to stress. She married in 1994 and she and her Canadian husband, Don Burton, then manager of Duran Duran, had three children which added to her responsibilities.
The Cranberries broke up in 2003 (though they would re-form later) and O’Riordan’s mental health seemed to become more precarious. She and her family lived in Canada for about 15 years but sometime around 2013 the marriage began to fail and O’Riordan moved to New York.
Demons haunted her from a young age.
In 2013, O’Riordan gave an interview to Barry Egan of the Sunday Independent revealing that she had been sexually abused from the age of 8 to 12 by someone who knew her family. The O’Riordans were living in public housing at the time and her father had been left with permanent brain damage after an accident.
She said her abuser “used to masturbate me when I was eight years old. He made me do oral sex for him and ejaculated on my chest when I was eight years old.”
She never told anyone and instead carried around what she called her “dirty little secret” while “putting on this charade, this perfect face.”
When she got older, she “had anorexia, then depression, a breakdown," she said. "I knew why I hated myself. I knew why I loathed myself. I knew why I wanted to make myself disappear.”
She said that talking about the abuse (she eventually told her mother but not her father, who died in 2011) helped her, as did her marriage to Burton and her kids.
But less than a year after she spoke publicly about her abuse, O’Riordan hit a new low when she was arrested for allegedly assaulting a flight attendant on an Aer Lingus flight from New York to Shannon Airport.
Egan then wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that he’d long known O’Riordan was not well and that her “sanity was fast unravelling.” He said she had told him she tried to overdose in 2012 and had an alcohol problem.
“Sometimes I hit the bottle," she told Egan. “Everything is way worse the next morning. I chain smoke when I drink. I have a bad day when I have bad memories and I can't control them and I hit the bottle. I kind of binge drink.”
Last year, the reunited Cranberries cancelled their European and U.S. tours because of back pain suffered by Dolores.
In Limerick, people lined up Tuesday morning to sign a book of condolence at Limerick City Hall.
One of the first to sign was the principal of the middle school where Dolores studied music.
“She was always proud of her roots, and of Limerick, and of being a past pupil of our school, so we are here today to remember her fabulous talent and express our sympathy with her family.”
O’Riordan’s last social media post, on Jan. 3, showed her with her cat. “Bye Bye Gio,” she wrote. “We’re off to Ireland.”