Zombie Wasn’t Just a Massive Hit; It Was a Protest Song

Remember the Cranberries? They’re not really around anymore, but back in the ‘90s the band from Ireland was making real waves in our neck of the woods. In 1993 they broke into the mainstream with their aptly named debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?

Zombie music video / The Cranberries / Fergal Lawler, Mike Hogan, Dolores O'Riordan / Dolores O'Riordan
Source: Getty Images

Singer Dolores O’Riordan, guitarist Noel Hogan, bassist Mike Hogan and drummer Fergal Lawler then recorded their second album, No Need to Argue, which managed to be even more successful than the first. And the reason for that was their powerful first single, Zombie. As it turns out, the story behind the song is just as strong.

A Song About “Man’s Inhumanity”

“This song’s our cry against man’s inhumanity to man; and man’s inhumanity to child.” – Dolores O’Riordan.

What for many of us was a song to sing along to in the car or at a school dance, was a song of protest for The Cranberries. The 1994 hit single Zombie was no simple track. It was inspired by some real sh**.

Fergal Lawler, Dolores O'Riordan, Noel Hogan, and Michael Hogan pose for a portrait in front of a city sculpture.
Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images

Dolores wrote the song in 1993 while the band was touring in England. She wrote it in memory of two young boys named Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, who were killed in an IRA bombing in Warrington, England.

A Song About “The Troubles”

Zombie describes the violence of the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles.” The clash was mainly between nationalists (self-identified as Irish or Roman Catholic) and unionists (self-identified as British or Protestant). It’s clear that Dolores and her band condemn the IRA – not just with their lyrics, but with their sound and vocals.

Young Belfast men gather around burning vehicles in a debris-strewn Belfast street.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It’s hard not to hear and (hopefully now) understand the meaning behind Dolores’ howl of “What’s in your head Zombie? Zomb-ey-ey, ay-ey, ay-ey, ooowwwww.” During a performance of the song in January 1994 at The Astoria in London, Dolores declared to the crowd…

In Memory Of…

She declared: “This song is our cry against the violence in London, against the war in the north of Ireland. And we want it to stop.” It wasn’t all talk; tributes from the concert were paid to the victims of the Warrington attack.

Portraits of Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

On March 20, 1993, three-year-old Johnathan Ball was killed as two bombs hidden in litter bins exploded on a busy shopping street in Cheshire, England. Five days later, 12-year-old Tim Parry died. 54 other people were injured, including a 32-year-old mother of two, Bronwen Vickers, who had to have her one of legs amputated.

Dolores’ Primal Response

Another head hangs lowly

Child is slowly taken

And the violence caused such silence

Who are we mistaken?

If the death of two children in an IRA bombing doesn’t drive you to write a song, what will? For Dolores, the pain was real. Zombie was a primal response to the injustice she was witnessing.

Dolores O'Riordan stands somber as she performs on stage.
Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

She poured her anger and frustration into the song. Dolores was on tour at the time of the incidents, and she couldn’t ignore just how deeply affected she was by the tragedy. She wrote Zombie alone in her apartment in Limerick, on an acoustic guitar.

It Started Out as an Acoustic

Guitarist Noel Hogan recalled when Dolores brought it in on an acoustic guitar. “We started doing what we’d normally do and made it that kind of sweet indie pop thing.” But it was different this time: she told the guys, “Look, that’s not gonna really work with this.”

The Cranberries sits backstage.
Source: Pinterest

“It’s a kind of ‘I’m pissed off song, I’m angry about this,’ and I think the music should reflect it.” So, she picked up the electric guitar, “kicked in distortion on the chorus,” and said to drummer Fergal Lawler: “Maybe you could beat the drums pretty hard?”

It Was Originally Called “In Your Head”

Lawler revealed that the song was initially called “In Your Head” because he saw a setlist and written down was the track “In Your Head.” Later on, Dolores changed it to Zombie. Regardless of the title, the band knew they had their hands on something special.

The Cranberries pose for a group photo on top of a castle ruin.
Source: Pinterest

Hogan said the heavier sound was the “right thing” for the track. “If it was soft, it wouldn’t have that impact,” he told said in 2012. “This was a new direction for us. And it would stand out in the set because of that.” The band realized with Zombie that they “can actually be heavy and still have melody.” It even changed the way they played live.

In the Name of Ireland

Another mother’s breakin’

Heart is takin’ over

When the violence causes silence

We must be mistaken

The song stood out, all right. It was powerful – just as the real people who had to live with the aftermath of the tragedy. “I remember seeing one of the mothers on television, just devastated,” the singer told Vox in 1994.

A studio portrait of Dolores O'Riordan dressed all in white.
Photo by Tim Roney/Getty Images

“I felt so sad for her, that she’d carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing and some… prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that.” And what made it worse?

It’s Not My Family

But you see, it’s not me, it’s not my family

In your head, in your head, they are fightin’

With their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns

In your head, in your head, they are cryin’

Dolores O'Riordan performs on stage with her guitar.
Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images

The fact that the terrorists declared these acts in the name of Ireland enraged Dolores. As an Irishwoman, she was particularly offended. “The IRA are not me. I’m not the IRA… The Cranberries are not the IRA. My family are not.” She explained: the lyrics “It’s not me, it’s not my family,” – that’s “what I’m saying. It’s not Ireland, it’s some idiots living in the past.”

No Need to Argue About the First Single

The record company wasn’t so gung-ho about releasing Zombie as No Need to Argue’s first single. After all, their softer songs, Linger and Dreams, were their most popular singles at the time. As Hogan explained, though, they had already been playing Zombie in the set for a long time and it was working well.

The Cranberries perform in front of screaming fans.
Photo by Eric Robert/Sygma/Getty Images

The band made their argument by saying the song had been played live for a year, and the crowds go “apes***t.”

She Ripped Up a $1 Million Check

According to the band’s former manager, Allen Kovac, Dolores was intentionally setting her band apart with politically inspired lyrics. Kovac verified that Island Records urged the Cranberries not to release Zombie as a single.

Dolores O'Riordan stretches out her arms while performing on stage.
Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

In his narrative, Dolores ripped up a $1 million check that the label offered her to work on another song. “Dolores was a very small, fragile person, but very opinionated,” Kovac said. “Her belief was that she was an international artist and she wanted to break the rest of the world.” Zombie was part of that (r)evolution.

They Called Her Naïve

The single was released in September of 1994 and eventually became The Cranberries’ best-selling single, reaching number one in Germany, Australia and France. Remarkably, it topped the U.S. alternative rock charts. Dolores’ lyrics were the subject of criticism, however.

The Cranberries pose for a group shot.
Source: Wikimedia

People called her naive and accused her of taking sides in a complicated conflict that she apparently didn’t understand. Dolores, though, was one tough cookie. “I don’t care whether it’s Protestant or Catholic, I care about the fact that innocent people are being harmed,” she stated to Vox. “That’s what provoked me to write the song.”

An Anthem for the Innocent Victims

In your head, in your head

Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie

What’s in your head, in your head?

Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie, oh

She explained that it wasn’t just some song she wrote because she’s Irish.

Dolores O'Riordan plays her acustic guitar on stage.
Photo by Patti Ouderkirk/WireImage/Getty Images

“You know, I never thought I’d write something like this in a million years,” she confessed. “I used to think I’d get into trouble.” But trouble was far from what Zombie got the band into. Rather, the song became an anthem for innocent people trapped by other people’s violence.

This One’s Dedicated To…

It’s the same old theme, since 1916

In your head, in your head, they’re still fightin’

With their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns

In your head, in your head, they are dyin’

As time and performances went on, Zombie became a relevant protest song for many of the atrocities that were occurring in the world.

Dolores O'Riordan raises her hand in solidarity during a concert.
Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Throughout the ‘90s, Dolores would regularly dedicate the song to the citizens of Bosnia and Rwanda, for example. The song doesn’t directly mention any specific terrorist groups or organizations, as she explained to NME in 1994, “It doesn’t take sides. It’s a very human song.”

Banned by the BBC

To her, terrorism is “very confused.” She said: “If these adults have a problem with these other adults well then, go and fight them. Have a bit of balls about it at least, you know?” Okay, so the band did get into a little bit of trouble.

Dolores O'Riordan stands covered in gold under a cross in the Zombie music video.
Source: YouTube

But nothing major. In the U.K. alone, Zombie reached number 14, but the achievement was hindered by the BBC’s decision to ban the music video. The original clip was shot by Samuel Bayer, a coveted music video director.

Kids and Guns

He had previously made Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Blind Melon’s No Rain (both very memorable clips). Bayer flew to Northern Ireland to shoot footage of The Troubles, making a point to get images of children holding guns.

Two young boys play in the streets of an abandoned town.
Source: YouTube

Needless to say, these were images and morals that the BBC (and Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE) adamantly objected to. So, what they did was broadcast an edited version of the music video, focusing on concert footage, which the band had already disowned.

Passing the Billion-View Mark

The Cranberries weren’t a fan of the video. “We said it was crap, but knew we were fighting a losing battle,” Hogan told the magazine Rip It Up in 1995. “It’s just really stupid.” The BBC couldn’t get rid of the original, groundbreaking video, though.

Fergal Lawler, Mike Hogan, Dolores O'Riordan pose for a group photo.
Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty images

The official version endured. In fact, as recently as 2020, the official Zombie video became the first song by an Irish band to reach more than one billion views on YouTube. That makes it the third video from the ‘90s, and the sixth from the 20th century to reach the milestone on YouTube.

Dolores Would Have Been Proud

Surviving band members Fergal Lawler, Noel Hogan and Mike Hogan made a statement: “We are so delighted… We are sure Dolores has a big, proud smile on her face too.” For those who don’t know, Dolores O’Riordan died in 2018 at the age of 46.

Fergal Lawler, Noel Hogan, and Mike Hogan arrive at the Grammy Awards.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images

In January of that year, the metal band Bad Wolves was scheduled to re-record Zombie with Dolores. But the plans came to a tragic halt when they learned that the singer was found dead in her hotel room, just hours before the recording session was due to take place.

Dead in Her Hotel Bathroom

“We are devastated,” The Cranberries said in a brief statement. “She was an extraordinary talent, and we feel very privileged to have been part of her life. The world has lost a true artist today.” On the morning of January 15, 2018, Dolores was found lifeless in her hotel bathtub in London.

Dolores O'Riordan dances with her cape during a performance.
Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images

At 2:00 a.m. on the 15th, Dolores reportedly called her mother. By the morning, she was found unresponsive in the bathroom. By 9:16 a.m., she was pronounced dead. The day before she died, Dolores flew to London (from New York, where she lived).

Things Were Looking Up

She was planning to meet with Martin “Youth” Glover about the second, almost-completed D.A.R.K. album. She was also due to add her vocals to a new version of Zombie by L.A.-based metal band Bad Wolves. Not just that; she was going to meet representatives of the BMG record label about a new Cranberries album.

Dolores O'Riordan smiles for a photo.
Photo by Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty Images

It was completely unexpected, and everyone who knew her was in utter disbelief. “She was great,” Hogan later recalled. “We spoke about getting back to work.” Just a few days earlier, on the 12th, Dolores and Hogan spoke in a phone interview.

They Were About to Go on Tour

They spoke about a March tour and how they had made their first studio album in six years. And two days after that, one day before her death, she emailed the guitarist a bunch of fresh songs that they could consider for the next album.

The Cranberries pose in the studio with a framed copy of their album.
Source: Pinterest

“She was in a good space,” label executive Dan Waite said after learning of the singer’s unexpected death. Many others thought she was in good spirits at the time. At the time of the news, an autopsy and toxicology report had not yet been announced.

The Rumors Lasted for Months

The police were treating Dolores’ death as unexplained. The tabloid Santa Monica Observer published a false story, rumoring that fentanyl was found in the hotel room. With that, people suspected it was a suicide, a “deliberate overdose.”

Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries performing on stage.
Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images

Unfortunately, this fentanyl overdose theory lasted for months. Come September of that year, it was official: the cause of death was accidental drowning in a bathtub following sedation by alcohol intoxication. For some, the fact that it was an accident made it even more devastating.

Her Last Two Phone Calls

Empty bottles (five mini-fridge bottles and a champagne bottle) were found in her hotel room, as well as some prescription drugs. Yet, according to toxicology tests, her body contained only “therapeutic” amounts of the medications.

Dolores O'Riordan poses for a photo with her mother.
source: Twitter

Still, her blood alcohol content was 0.33%. In her intoxicated state, Dolores not only called her mother, but she left two voicemail messages for Dan Waite, the one who set up the collaboration with Bad Wolves. In both her messages, she spoke lovingly about her kids, and showed enthusiasm for some other exciting things…

Proud to Be Sampled by Eminem

She expressed the band’s thrill at the Eminem sample (the rapper released his album Revival a year earlier which included a sample from Zombie as the hook for his song In Your Head). She could also be heard in the voicemail singing a snippet of the Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony, which “Youth” Glover had produced.

Eminem performs on stage.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

This is why Waite stated that Dolores was in a good head space – she gave off no suspicions that she was planning on taking her own life. “I’ve seen a few things saying she was depressed, but she was definitely making plans for the week,” including dinner with him and his wife.

What Went Wrong?

Born in 1971, Dolores was raised in the Irish city of Limerick as the youngest of seven children (it would have been nine if two hadn’t died in infancy). She had always idolized her father, a farm worker who got injured in a motorcycle accident in 1968 that left him brain damaged and unable to work.

Dolores as a baby in her mother’s arms.
Source: Twitter

There was one point, when Dolores was seven, when her sister accidentally burned down the family home. Their rural community pitched in, though, and raised enough money to purchase the family a new house.

“I Have a Lot of Secrets About My Childhood”

But there was something much worse that consumed her early life. Later on in her life, Dolores said that she had been sexually molested by an older man when she was just a child. In 1995, she told Rolling Stone, “I have a lot of secrets about my childhood.”

Dolores at a young age with pink ribbons in her hair.
Source: Pinterest

Some sources say that from the age of eight, she was abused for four years by the same man – a person whom she trusted. Despite the darkness, the young Dolores managed to find a way out – through music.

Singing in Pubs at Age 10

She was singing before she even started talking. At the age of five, the principal of her school took her to the sixth graders’ class, sat her up on the teacher’s desk, and asked her to sing for the 12-year-old students.

Dolores in a class photo.
source: Facebook

Dolores’ early singing years were all about traditional Irish music, playing the Irish tin whistle and the spoons. She would sing as a liturgical soloist in the local church choir as well as at school. By the age of 10, she was singing in local pubs where her uncles took her.

She Already Knew It at 12 Years Old

At the end of the day, music became her escape. And it made her stand out, too. “If I started to sing, then all the others in the room would stop and listen,” she told Rolling Stone. On Dolores’ first day of middle school, the 12-year-old stood up in front of her peers and announced…

A portrait of Dolores singing at a young age.
Source: Tumblr

“My name is Dolores O’Riordan and I’m going to be a rock star.” It came to the point where she would sit at the piano in the main hall every day playing, and her classmates would sit around her after lunch to listen to her sing.

They Wanted Her to Be a Nun

By 17, she learned guitar, too, and started playing gigs. After all, she was spending almost all her waking hours devouring music. If she wasn’t practicing the piano, guitar, or writing songs, she was helping her mother, learning the accordion from her dad, and working part-time at clothing stores.

Dolores O'Riordan embraces her mother.
Source: Tumblr

Her mom didn’t like this whole “rockstar” idea that her daughter was always talking about. She encouraged Dolores to be a nun or get a degree and become a music teacher. Instead, Dolores ran away from home at 18 and lived with her boyfriend for a few years.

The Cranberry Saw Us

She told Vox that she left home because she wanted to sing, even if it meant being poor for a while. “I was really poor for a year-and-a-half,” she recalled of that time. “I remember actually being hungry, like I’d die for a bag of chips. That’s when I joined the Cranberries.”

Niall Quinn, Mike Hogan, Fergal Lawler, and Noel Hogan appear in a newspaper clipping.
Source: Twitter

In 1990, she met a local band called the Cranberry Saw Us and was given the opportunity to replace the departing lead singer. The group later renamed themselves The Cranberries. Hogan recalled those early days…

She Sang With Her Back to the Audience

She came and sang a few songs for them that she had written, and they were “blown away that this small girl from Limerick had such an amazing voice.” But the “small girl” was surprisingly shy. She would sing with her back to the audience for a while.

Don Burton and Dolores O'Riordan on their wedding day.
Source: Reddit

Even though the Cranberries were pretty fresh, they joined the ‘90s alt-rock wave and the rest is history. As for Dolores’ personal life, the ‘90s were also good to her. In 1994, she married Don Burton, a tour manager of Duran Duran.

Canada, Three Kids, and a Rough Patch

At the time, she was one of the richest women in the U.K., and she was only 24! The couple moved to Canada and had three kids together. Things were good for a while, until the Cranberries hit a rough patch.

A portrait of The Cranberries.
Photo by Niels van Iperen/Getty Images

And really, which band doesn’t go through rough patches? Anyway, the way their former music producer, Stephen Street, sees it, Dolores gave too much of herself at the gigs. “Perhaps she could have tempered her behavior and been more measured,” he said, “but that wasn’t her way.”

From The Sopranos to Gossip Girl

In fact, there was a point in 1996 when their tour was cut short due to her exhaustion. Kovach had to fly to Ireland and take Dolores to a doctor, telling her that she simply wasn’t healthy enough to tour.

The Cranberries pose for a group photo on a couch.
Source: Pinterest

Still, the band stuck together for a while, despite the fact that their later albums never reached the same success as their first and second. As their sound grew edgier, they never lost their fan base. And their music was still in demand and being used in soundtracks like The Sopranos, Gossip Girl, and You’ve Got Mail.

She Wanted to Live for Her Kids

The Cranberries may still be relevant and played on the radio, but the band first broke up in 2003, and Dolores recorded two solo albums. They regrouped in 2009 and released the album Roses three years later. Nonetheless, Dolores was still facing her demons. Life got chaotic for her.

Dolores O'Riordan embraces her daughter Molly during an event.
Source: Imgur

In 2013, she told close friend and journalist Barry Egan in the Sunday Independent’s Life that she attempted to overdose on pills, but ultimately “wanted to live for her kids.” She also confessed to having a drinking problem.

She Was Charged With Air Rage

Her marriage fell apart by 2014, which was the same year she got arrested for stepping on a flight attendant’s foot and head-butting a cop. In November of 2014, Dolores was charged with air rage on a flight from JFK to Shannon airport.

Dolores O'Riordan disembarks at the airport.
source: Pinterest

During the flight, the singer reportedly became verbally and physically abusive to the crew. She resisted as she was getting arrested, reminding the police that she payed her taxes and their wages. She shouted, “I’m the Queen of Limerick! I’m an icon!”

A Public Meltdown

In fact, she even headbutted one officer and spit at another. As for the flight attendant, Dolores allegedly fractured the woman’s foot during the incident. In the end, a judge spared her from a jail sentence, determining that she was mentally ill at the time.

A portrait of Dolores O'Riordan.
Source: YouTube

She spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital and pleaded guilty to the charges. She was later diagnosed as bipolar. Her mother, Eileen O’Riordan, stated that her daughter had been in a fragile mental state for a while.

The Aftermath of Her Divorce

Eileen also claimed that medical results showed that her daughter was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The judge agreed to dismiss all charges if Dolores apologized, in writing, to her victims and contributed $7,300 to the court.

Dolores O'Riordan speaks during an interview.
source: Twitter

Later on, Dolores spoke of the incident, telling the media that in the aftermath of her divorce, she was stressed from living in New York hotels. According to her mother, this was nothing new. Eileen said her daughter “carried quite a burden of pain and torment from her past.”

Things Only Got Worse

Bipolar or not, Dolores powered through it all with her music. It was later in her life that she spoke more openly about her early sexual abuse. The abuse at the hands of a family friend – which lasted four years from age eight to 12 – threw her into a depression and deep self-loathing.

A portrait of Dolores O'Riordan in her backyard.
source: Pinterest

She experienced suicidal thoughts over the years, which only got worse with her accelerating career and anorexia. At her father’s funeral in 2011, her abuser approached her and apologized for his actions. She had feared the meeting.

Nightmares for a Year

Dolores revealed that she had “nightmares for a year before my father’s death about meeting him.” She claims that she had “blocked him out” of her life. After her 20-year marriage ended, she moved to New York and started working with a new band, D.A.R.K., and DJ Olé Koretsky, who later became her life partner until her death.

A portrait of Dolores O'Riordan.
Source: Twitter

D.A.R.K.’s 2016 debut, Science Agrees, took Dolores’ voice into new, electronic heights. In 2017, she spoke publicly about her bipolar disorder. That year, she reportedly began writing a suicide note…

Her Kids Were Her Joy

The note was composed during a stupor that involved drinking heavily and taking Lorazepam. She later stated that depression is “one of the worst things to go through,” but she’s also had “a lot of joy in my life, especially with my children.”

Dolores O'Riordan’s last Twitter post, a photo of her and her cat.
Source: Twitter

Dolores’ final social media post, expressing her outlook on the future, was on January 4, 2018. At the time of her death, she had a net worth of $25 million. Of the many accomplishments in her life, Zombie and its powerful impact is definitely at the top of the list.

The O’Riordan Kids

After their mother’s death, Taylor, Molly, and Dakota O’Riordan moved out of the family home in Peterborough, Canada because it contained “too many memories.” Eileen reported that “the girls are doing, okay but Taylor is understandably finding it very hard.”

Don Burton, Donny (Taylor), Molly and Dakota Burton arrive for Dolores O'Riordan's funeral.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Taylor was actually supposed to record a song with his mother shortly before she died. In fact, the mother-son pair were set to record together two weeks before, but Taylor had had a sore throat, and put it off until he felt better. His grandmother said: “He couldn’t do it. It is a pity. I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.”

Sued by the Nanny

Speaking of Dolores’ kids, their former nanny sued Dolores and her then-husband Don in 2004. The youngest child, Taylor, had a nanny named Joy Fahy, who sued the couple, “for breach of contract and false imprisonment.”

Reporters swarm Joy Fahy as she enters the courthouse.
Source: Facebook

Apparently, she claimed that she was “held at their isolated Canadian home, where she says she finally barricaded herself in a bedroom when they allegedly threatened to keep her passport after a ferocious row,” The Telegraph reported. Fahy ultimately lost the case and had to pay over $300,000 in legal bills.