During the first series of the RTÉ music show, ‘No Disco’, the presenter, Donal Dineen and myself travelled west to Limerick on a couple of occasions to pick up long interviews that we’d use to populate what was, in essence, a niche video clip show. And because the show didn’t have a bob in its budget, our filming model – if we had one – was based on piggy-backing regional news gathering units and working in tandem with the often irregular schedules of some of the RTÉ correspondents who were based outside of Dublin.
This worked for the most part, at least during those early days, even if we routinely left high-profile musicians and songwriters hanging-on indefinitely in hotel lobbies and cafés while we awaited the return of a veteran film crew from the scene of a crash or a local political press jaunt.
On December 17th, 1993, The Cranberries were back in Limerick, their home-town, where, having recently become the first Irish band to sell one million copies of a debut album in America, they were being feted by the city council, local dignitaries, hail fellas and the great and the good of the local social circuit. At that time Limerick’s physical heart, like many other large Irish cities, was ailing and in need of urgent renovation and an infusion of imagination and renewal. Its reputation wasn’t helped either by cheap national stereotyping.
But not too far beneath the surface, Limerick was far more a fab city than Stab City, and this was nowhere more apparent than in its emerging alternative music scene which, for at least ten years from the early 1980s onwards, was as energetic and diverse as anywhere in the country, and often far moreso. If Tuesday Blue and Toucandance maybe set the early pace, and while The Cranberries would eventually become the focus, the real heavy lifting was done for years by distinctive, urgent pop groups like The Hitchers, They Do It With Mirrors, Those Stilted Boys and A Touch Of Oliver. To this day, the music they produced between them during that period provides a formidable soundtrack to a formidable city of formidable people.
I’ve written previously about that scene and I consistently return to it to remind myself of the prominent gulf that existed at this time between some of the loftier aspects of Dublin’s music establishment and those movers and groovers who emerged and took shape far from it. Often in spite of it. From 1988 until 1994, give or take, easily the most breathtaking and enthralling new Irish music was being stewed far from the capital, and it was easy to understand how and why.
Without the distraction of the maddening crowd, removed from the lazy sloganeering and what could often be an insidious and self-celebratory circuit, a handful of bands emerged from around Ireland that displayed as instinctive a grasp of the potential of sheer pop dynamics as they did brass neck. They were bonded, not by geography or [dis]location, but by a shared sense that they neither knew better or cared less.
They crawled from Larne, Downpatrick, Enniskillen, Limerick, Galway and Cork and, the sterling, energetic fumes of a selection of local promoters, hacks, hangers-on and the odd national radio producer apart, were left largely to their own devices. At least until such time as the pennies dropped, literally. On the back of positive press abroad and label deals for Therapy?, Ash, The Divine Comedy, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans of Ping F.C. and The Frank And Walters, this crack squad ceased to be mere disconnected curiosities [‘there’s something in the water, boys’] and, instead became attractive propositions in many different aspects. Unlike many of their better-known, over-hyped Dublin-sponsored contemporaries who, to me at least, seemed to often exist in name only.
Donal Dineen fetched up in Limerick that afternoon, December 1993, for a pre-arranged exchange with Dolores O’Riordan and Fergal Lawlor, The Cranberries’ enigmatic singer and lyricist and practical pulse, respectively. The interview, which was aired on ‘No Disco’ in early 1994, had been arranged to coincide with the broader hometown celebration of the returning minstrels. To which they responded with typical courtesy and no little bafflement: for the band, it was an opportunity to thank their parents and their road-crew in the presence of their peers.
Fresh off of what was often a torturous train ride from Cork, Donal dutifully bode his time until RTÉ’s mid-West correspondent, Cathy Halloran, had completed her own filming, satisfied that she had enough raw material for the two-minute report on the triumphant return of The Cranberries she was filing for that evening’s Six One News. At which point the master went to work.
Dolores was instantly taken by Donal’s choice of trouser: he was kitted out in one of his preferred ensembles of the time, a serious designer hoodie and salmon-pink corduroys. As opening gambits go, ‘I love your pants’, delivered in the singer’s trademark Ballybricken accent, became one of the more memorable ice-breakers from the entire ‘No Disco’ canon. One million albums sold, still not caring less.
But Donal had been formidably briefed and knew well what he was dealing with. I’d enjoyed a long-running game of fox and hounds with The Cranberries and, without ever enjoying their patronage or breaching their inner circle, just wrote glowingly and consistently about them wherever and whenever I could. I was also, in a roundabout way, attempting to coax them onto the growing roster at Keith Cullen’s fledgling label, Setanta Records and, as I did so, I kept encountering some of the major, London-based scouts – Premier League opposition – in the most unlikely venues in the country. All of us chasing the same thing.
By now I’d profiled The Cranberries for the first time in Hot Press magazine, reviewed their stunning set at Cork Rock 1991 for the same publication and also for what was then The Cork Examiner [where, alarmingly, I managed to make a prediction that was to hold water]. And I saw them live in The College Bar in University College Cork and The Stables, on what is now the University of Limerick campus, to what was general audience indifference on both occasions.
I saw them live in The Shelter, a small patched-together venue on Cork’s Tuckey Street, on a magical bill assembled by Shane Fitzsimons, and although they often appeared fragile and nervous, I just felt from early that Noel, Mike and Fergal were still learning their instruments. And although Dolores may indeed have been socially awkward – she was a teenager, c’mon – I never fell for the line that she was overly shy. The Cranberries knew well how to gild the lily.
Dolores had already mastered her instrument, though: her voice, from the off, was heaven sent and, behind her, the boys were playing perennial catch-up. That learning process went on for several years, during which time the band was forced to grow up quickly and adjust or be lost. Any claims that The Cranberries landed fully-formed is just wrong: the facts see that off.
The first sessions for their debut album, ‘Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We ?’ were junked and the producer, Pearse Gilmore, who also managed The Cranberries [which is revealing in itself] was dropped from both portfolios. The singles lifted from that record, ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’ were all but ignored, as was the album itself when it was first released in March, 1993. An early, holding E.P. for Island Records, ‘Uncertain’, was critically panned and while the band was always assured of a warm welcome back in Limerick, they were still a difficult and niche sell outside of it. One live show at Dublin’s Rock Garden during this time was attended by a score of paying punters.
By any critical standards, The Cranberries were far from the best band to emerge from Ireland during the early 1990s. Indeed, to my mind, they were far from the best band to emerge from Limerick. But they went on to become the biggest and the brightest of them all because, at their core, they had Dolores, whose voice and whose personality masked a multitude.
On the weekend of my twenty-third birthday in June, 1991, I saw fifteen of Ireland’s best emerging young bands perform over three nights as part of the Cork Rock shindig at the fabled Sir Henry’s venue in Cork city. The Cranberries performed half-way up the bill on the second night, surrounded on either side by the bulkier, more sophisticated and ultimately faceless pop sound of The Chelsea Drugstore, featuring Colin and Peter Devlin, and The Brilliant Trees, the terrific Finglas guitar band.
The Cranberries stood out because they didn’t physically stand out at all. And of the fifteen participating acts, they were one of only two – the other being the jazzy, swing-pop act, Bird – to feature a woman.
She was from another world altogether. Then, now and forever.