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How to Sing a War

How to Sing a War

I didn’t know Dolores O’Riordon, and will not presume to have known her here. I do know that the violence of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ set off in her a desire to write a song. The song was called, ‘Zombie’. It became a huge hit that helped propel the band The Cranberries to fame in the 90s. Zombie had a big impact on me. It was one of the few songs about ‘The Troubles’ that actually cut close to the bone. It wasn’t a call to arms. Nor was it an embrace of the violence. Provoked by an IRA blast that took the lives of Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry, two children from Warrington England, the lyrics acknowledged the impact the war had – and continues to have. For anyone who’s life has been affected by war, they will tell you, it’s like having a nerve exposed all the time.

I was born and raised in St. Catharines. The youngest of five of immigrant parents. Both Mom and Dad grew up a street apart from each other in what can only be described as the ghetto of the Falls Road, Belfast. In today’s Canada, we are familiar with the news stories of families fleeing violence from places such as Syria, Iraq, Sudan and others. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Northern Ireland would have been on this list of war ravaged hot spots. Like so many in this country, war is why I am Canadian.

Despite being born and raised under the Maple Leaf, I have always felt one step removed from everyone around me. Being able to relate has always been a challenge. War can be all-encompassing. As O’Riordon points out in her song, even if it’s not you, or your family, you’re still part of it – and it part of you.

My parents left Ireland to ensure that their children would not grow up knowing the fear and hatred that accompanies conflict. For the most part, they succeeded. That said, any war casts a long shadow. Case-in-point: Every morning when I was a child, my mother would make me say my prayers before heading out the door to school. An Our Father and a Hail Mary. However, the most consistent prayer was not actually a prayer. It was Belfast made manifest in the front hall every morning. My Mother would look at me and say, ‘keep your eyes and ears open’, to which I would respond, ‘and your mouth shut’. I don’t think any of my friends left their houses in the morning with that lesson top of mind.

Such lessons instilled in me a sensitivity to my surroundings, and the people that inhabited them. For my parents growing up in Belfast, such sensitivities could mean the difference between life and death. For my siblings and I, it set us apart from a trusting larger community. In our house, having a problem with authority was seen as a badge of honour. The music video for Zombie features images from the streets of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The are a few scenes, where children glance at the camera amongst the rumble. I always identified with the look in their eyes – a fierce and defiant determination. I was raised with those eyes. The would appear in the midst of sharp discussions over the dinner table. Yet, the streets of St. Catharines held no cause for such eyes. O’Riordon’s lyrics gave voice, even an outlet, for my own heritage.

I went on to study peace and conflict at university. The decision was as a direct result of my upbringing. There, I was forced to confront my own rebel notions of justice. I have always abhorred violence, but have always been able to relate to the anger that fuels it. The tightrope walk of conflict is the ability to acknowledge the anger of injustice, while not condoning the violent response such injustice provokes. In music, there are many examples of songs that relate to The Troubles. From rebel songs to Orange drums, to Bono’s incessant preachy monologues. Yet, The Cranberries have always seemed to be able. to tread the line between the anger and sorrow that has haunted the Irish. To give sound to the reality of, ‘the same old theme since 1916’.

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Toward the end of 2016, I had the opportunity to live in Northern Ireland for a few months. Driving through the small towns and villages, I would see either Union Jacks or Tricolours flying from the lamp posts. Despite the on-going cease fire, and progress from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, I could still feel the tension that seemed to lay just beneath the thin veneer of everyday life. The news still reported arms dumps found in parks, and kneecappings from a few blocks away. As Brexit fears stoke the embers of an old conflict that still burns, I am left to wonder who will stand out from the next generation of artists and provide a voice to those who have been shaped by this war.

Since her death, much ink has rightly been spilt conveying O’Riordon’s life and work. A life and a body of work that I very much hope will indeed linger. The Cranberries were an important band, not simply because of the melodies. They were an Irish influence able to break through to North America, and able to sing to the very soul of what it was to be Irish. They could capture the sorrow of a country and sing to the exiles of war. To speak to those whose lives bullets did not take, but instead shot out from under them their own identity. Rest in peace, Dolores.

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