Story & Meaning Behind “Zombie” By The Cranberries

Zombie was The Cranberries’ biggest hit and enters the charts every time another band does a good cover of it—see the Bad Wolves version of the song. It packs an emotional power that many tracks lack, and much of the actual lyrical content can be related to world events, no matter the era. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into Zombie by The Cranberries and discuss its meaning, purpose, and history leading up to the song. 

Why “Zombie” Was Written: A Brief History

Before Zombie, The Cranberries were known for beautiful ballads, but this song was such a departure from their debut album that it caught many people off guard. Rather than a sorrowful tale of love, it was a scathing rebuke that raged against violence and the Irish Republican Army.

Why Ireland Split into the Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland

To really understand the events that led up to Zombie, we’ll have to look at the history of Irish independence movements and the Emerald Isle’s history as a whole. It’s much too long to describe in great detail here, but a framework of history should be enough to divulge the meaning of the track. 

Ireland has always struggled against outside interference and controlling powers. Whether it was Christians taking over from the Celtic settlers, Viking raiders, or English power moves, they have always faced some sort of opposition. Even today, the state of Southern Ireland is a separate entity from the greater United Kingdom. 

Ireland’s Home Rule Act was where the groups we’ll be discussing sort of originated from. Passed in 1912, a Home Rule Bill—Ireland becoming independent—would not be made into law and would be suspended when World War I broke out. Many Irish people signed up for the British forces, believing that if they served the British government would reward them with independence. This was not the case. 

In 1926, two groups of armed rebels took control of key positions in Dublin and declared Irish independence. This Easter Rising would be quickly squashed by British forces, though not without consequence. Most normal people were opposed to the revolution, but Britain executed many of the leaders of the groups, turning public opinion in favor of independence overnight. 

And now, we get to the original Irish Republican Army or IRA. Between 1919 and 1922, the group fought a guerilla war against British forces, leading to casualties on every side. We’ll sum up the IRA in our next paragraph for brevity’s sake, but this was when the Troubles truly got started, leading to a War of Independence and a Civil War in Ireland. 

The IRA has gone through many evolutions throughout the years but was first established between 1919 and 1922. Its main goal was independence from Britain, though in later years it would be labeled as a terrorist group, it has always promoted violence and revolution. Many conflicts erupted between the IRA and British forces, from post-World War 1 through the 1990s. 

Bloody Sunday, memorialized in a well-known U2 song, was one of the most famous flashpoints. In 1969, British troops were sent into Irish cities to protect Catholic minority groups. In 1972, troops fired into a Catholic Rights civil group’s march, killing 13 people. This led to quite a lot of violence on both sides and only instilled more fervor in protestors and revolutionaries. By 1988, more than 3,000 people would lose their lives in the fighting. 

Bombings were a fairly common way of fighting back, which leads us to the events that inspired The Cranberries’ song, Zombie. In 1993, in Warrington, two bombs were detonated on a busy market street. They had been hidden in trash cans by the IRA, but their blast didn’t harm actual IRA targets. Instead, two children were killed, a three-year-old and a 12-year-old. 

Dolores O’Riordan, like many many others, saw the events on the news and was devastated. The IRA would go on to claim the attack rather than condemn the violence against children, even claiming the violence in the name of Ireland. This disgusted many Irish people, O’Riordan included, who would instantly denounce and distance themselves from the IRA. 

The Meaning of “Zombie”

The Cranberries - Zombie (Official Music Video)

Zombie was released in 1994, topping the United States Alternative Rock charts and the mainstream charts of Germany, Australia, and France. It became The Cranberries’ biggest hit single, catapulting them onto the top of international charts and making them famous around the world. 

This track is interesting for the band, as it was a departure from their typically soft sound. It’s got a heavy weight to it that their ballads lacked, but that was largely the product of O’Riordan pouring frustration and anger into the song as a whole. It also gives it that much more power as if it was a soft track, it wouldn’t have the same impact. 

The one thing you can really point to about Zombie is that it isn’t hiding anything in its lyrics. The death of children is tragic, and so is the fact that humanity continually finds itself in a cycle of violence. People are always in conflict over something, and this is a protest song that became an anthem for innocent people caught in the crossfire. And while the track doesn’t call out any groups or individuals by name, it’s a pointed statement about the IRA. 

It’s the same old theme, since 1916

Essentially, Zombie is saying that the same things have been happening since the IRA got started and people keep rehashing the same ideas and conflicts over and over again, leading to tragedy. 

In your head, in your head,
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie,
What’s in your head, in your head?

While it isn’t confirmed by O’Riordan or anyone else, to me it seems like she’s literally calling the people committing these atrocities brainless like zombies. The real question is asking what could be in your head if you’re doing these things. Hasn’t there been enough conflict over something that’s already been settled?

But, you can’t get away from the fact that it was definitely written about those two children’s deaths in 1993.

Another head hangs lowly,
Child is slowly taken

Another mother’s breaking,
Heart is takin’ over

While many people may not have been involved in the conflict, nobody was more innocent than those children. It’s the emotional hammer blow of the song, pointing out that while adults fight over something stupid, kids who have nothing to do with it are losing their lives. 

O’Riordan also spends a couple of lines distancing herself and her beloved nation from any of the wicked acts of terrorist groups like the IRA.

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

It’s not the everyday person who wants this. It’s only a few people who do, but their actions are causing problems for everyone else. The entire track rebukes the actions of those people and brings attention to the plight of the innocent. This is one of the things that makes it such a good song, because, in any conflict, there are the people struggling for power and those who are affected by the conflict but want no part of it. 

In the end, Zombie is a haunting track about the consequences of violence, the people who are affected by it, and the fact that it’s all rather pointless. 

The Lasting Legacy of “Zombie”

Some songs become classics because of their quality, while others become classics because their meanings can be related to pretty much any time period in addition to the original events they were written about. Zombie is a track that has both raw and passionate lyrics and a message that can carry over to a lot of other situations. 

Many songs just need a few changes to lines, like Bad Wolves’ version of Zombie changing the year mentioned in the track to 2018 and adding drones to the list of weapons mentioned in the song.

O’Riordan would dedicate Zombie to people living in Rwanda and Bosnia, but it would also go on to apply to attacks in Manchester, Paris, and Egypt. Any place where there is a power struggle and innocent people get caught up in it, this is a song that relays the challenges they face and the tragedies that are occurring.

It’s a track that is going to continue to endure and resonate with people for years to come. It will, unfortunately, always have a place in the world, making it one of the greatest songs ever produced and a stark reminder that violence and tragedy are completely preventable, and frankly, stupid to engage in.

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