"A view of political violence in Northern Ireland so simplistic that its lyrics could have been scrawled with a crayon": why The Cranberries' Zombie is the worst song ever written about 'The Troubles'

Zombie video still
(Image credit: Island / Def Jam)

At the end of Ireland's historic 13-8 win over South Africa in the ongoing Rugby World Cup in Paris on Saturday evening (September 22), The Cranberries' 1994 single Zombie was chosen as the soundtrack to emotional celebrations inside the 80,000-capacity Stade de France. That decision, apparently, was taken in advance of the game by the IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union), with an 'insider' at the organisation telling the Irish Mirror newspaper that the choice was made because Zombie is "an iconic song globally and a very Irish song."

"Every nation has the opportunity to pick an entrance song and a celebratory song in the event of winning," the source explained. "The song has been played at provincial rugby grounds all the way through for the last number of years. After [former Cranberries vocalist] Dolores O’Riordan passed a lot of sports grounds wanted to honour The Cranberries in some way, so it is an anthemic kind of song."

On the most basic level, the IRFU's choice of Zombie is understandable. At the time of writing, the song has been streamed 998,315,872 times on Spotify, and its video has been viewed an astonishing 1.4 billion times on YouTube. A number one single in six European countries in 1994, the song won the 'Best Song' category at the 1995 MTV Europe Awards, and helped power its parent album, No Need To Argue, to over 17 million global sales.

One can understand then why it was Zombie that echoed around the Stade de France on Saturday evening: lesser-known Irish indie rock singalongs, the caustic Potato Junkie by Therapy?, say, or alternative [football] terrace anthem Give Him A Ball (And A Yard Of Grass) by The Sultans of Ping, would never have electrified the post-match celebrations in the same manner. But beyond its undeniable anthemic appeal, and those powerhouse statistics, the concept of Zombie being an appropriate soundtrack to any sporting celebration is a curious notion, one which has sparked a certain amount of controversy on social media and in the pages of Irish newspapers since the weekend.

The song was written by Dolores O’Riordan in the wake of the 1993 Warrington Bombings, in which two children, Johnathan Ball, aged 3, and Tim Parry, aged 12, were killed by exploding bombs planted in litter bins in the city centre by the IRA (Irish Republican Army): reports on the tragic deaths were given added poignancy by the fact that the two innocent children were out shopping for Mother's Day cards when they were caught up in the no-warning blasts. On tour in the UK at the time, O’Riordan remembered "just being really sad about it all", and the singer subsequently poured her feelings into her band's first protest song.

"What's in your head?" O’Riordan sang, furiously addressing the paramilitaries responsible for the bombings, and thousands of other unspecified acts of violence, arguing that the IRA's tactics were part of "the same old theme since 1916", the year of The Easter Rising in Ireland. Taking place from April 24-29 that year, that violent, bloody insurrection saw armed volunteers take over Dublin's General Post Office, from where Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Republic, an act which set in motion a chain of events leading to Irish independence five years later. By the time the 1916 Rising was crushed, 485 people - including 260 civilians, and 143 British military and police personnel - lay dead.

Given its subject matter, Zombie became identified as an "anti-IRA" anthem, and as its popularity spread and soared globally, the singer was asked in interviews to share her views on the situation in Northern Ireland. "A lot of people need to grow up," she told the NME. "If these adults have a problem with these other adults, well, go and fight them... it's pathetic." Not everyone, however, was impressed by the pop star's credentials for the role of commentator on one of the most complex conflicts of the modern era.

"She's from Limerick, what the fuck would she know?" Northern Ireland band Schtum bluntly told Melody Maker, as recorded in Stuart Bailie's thoughtful, nuanced and superbly-written book Trouble Songs: Music And Conflict In Northern Ireland. "You're talking about the last 25 years of a much bigger and wider problem that has gone on for hundreds of years."

Schtum hailed from Derry, a city 224 miles away from Limerick by road, but one which may as well have been on a different planet to the rural village where Dolores O’Riordan was raised. When the singer protested "It's not me, it's not my family", explicitly distancing herself from the violence in Northern Ireland, and its overspill into England and elsewhere, she spoke the truth: no-one from her family was present at the Battle Of The Bogside in Derry from August 12-14, 1969, for instance, or on January 30, 1972, when soldiers from the Parachute Regiment opened fire on civil rights campaigners in the city, killing 14 unarmed civilians in a massacre which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Equally, her family had the good fortune to be untouched by any of the atrocities claimed by the Provisional IRA (or any other paramilitary faction) during her lifetime. So removed, in fact, was O’Riordan from events in Northern Ireland that, in her lyrics to Zombie, she references "tanks" on the streets, perhaps confusing Belfast with Beijing. 

When Zombie video director Samuel Bayer came back from Belfast with staged footage of dirty-faced urchins wrestling on wasteland, images of paramilitary murals, and British troops patrolling the streets, scenes that would be intercut with arty images of an anguished O'Riordan singing in front of a crucifix surrounded by gold paint-sprayed 'cherubs', she commended the director for being "very brave" for visiting Ulster's war-torn streets. In reality, Bayer had a much closer brush with violent unrest when bored extras began moshing on the set of his shoot for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit video.

Of course, one need not be directly affected by political violence to be horrified and disgusted by the killing of innocent children, and O'Riordan's lyrics were a visceral, human and understandable response to an act of brutal, murderous violence. It's not a crime that her perspective on political violence in Northern Ireland was so simplistic that the lyrics to Zombie could have been scrawled with a crayon. But her belief that this violence was perpetrated solely by unthinking, unfeeling, brain-dead "zombies" was embarrassingly reductive, and wholly out of step with any serious study of the conflict. The myriad factors underpinning what were patronisingly labelled 'The Troubles' - arguments about identity, and territorial rights, and the specific, wide-ranging events which sparked the politicisation of its various combatants - would take years to elucidate and contextualise, and in its broad-stroke condemnations, Zombie makes no attempt to do so, instead casually brushing off the lived experience of nationalists/Republicans as concerns which exist only "in your head". This writer, born one year earlier than O'Riordan on the northern side of the Irish border, may perhaps have imagined being forced to move house not once, but twice, in the early '90s in Belfast, following a) a petrol bomb attack and b) Loyalist death threats delivered on the doorstep, but, to borrow a lyric from another Irish protest singer, I really don't think so.

There are no shortage of terrible, if sincere and well-meaning, songs about division and violence in Northern Ireland, from Spandau Ballet's W.B. Yeats-quoting Through The Barricades, inspired by the killing of Thomas 'Kidso' Reilly, the band's merch guy, by Ian Thain, the first British soldier to be convicted of murder during the conflict - a crime for which he served just three years of a life sentence - to Wings' Give Ireland Back To The Irish, but none are so naively one-dimensional as The Cranberries' biggest hit, now curiously recalibrated as a triumphalist sporting anthem.

It's not as if the IRFU are blind to political sensitivities on the island of Ireland either: mindful that a sizeable minority of its members are drawn from Northern Ireland, and that not everyone would feel comfortable hearing either Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem, or God Save The Queen, ahead of international matches, the organisation commissioned celebrated Derry songwriter Phil Coulter to pen a more inclusive anthem, Ireland's Call, which has since been adopted by bodies representing Irish hockey and cricket, who compete as all-island teams. Given the re-ignited debate over Zombie, perhaps the IRFU will opt to play, One by U2, or Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, or Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town the next time Johnny Sexton's team have cause to celebrate a World Cup victory. Regardless though of what may transpire in the coming weeks on the green [sporting] fields of France, there are plenty in Ireland who could happily live without hearing Zombie ever again.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.