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The Pandemic, One Year On: 5: The Cranberries, technology and the complexity of place

When I was in secondary school, trying to prepare for what was expected of me after the transition to adulthood, probably my favourite band was The Cranberries.

They were a popular band in general terms. Almost everybody in Ireland, and very many people around the world, knew what The Cranberries sounded like.

They weren’t the typical choice of teenage boys in all-boy schools, though, where most were split into factions (“Oasis or Blur?!” was a question that came with a suggestion of violence) and the really admirable ones, the not-yet-grown-ups who seemed to be more grown up than many of the grown-ups we knew, were advocates of The Smashing Pumpkins or The Stone Roses, Portishead or The Velvet Underground.

The Cranberries was a dangerous preference in this environment, so I kept it to myself.

I had the cassette of No Need To Argue, their 1994 album. It’s strange to look back now, from the bits and bytes future, at how music found a way to travel around the world, in the grooves of vinyl and on the translucent microfilm of a cassette tape.

I played that cassette to wearing point.

I had an old silver portable stereo of my dad’s, with all the knobs and controls and tuners on the top and two speakers either side of the cassette tray. (Memory is fragile, and I can’t picture it clearly, but it may even have been one of those high-tech variations with side-by-side cassette trays, which — magically — allowed us to play one cassette while recording to a blank in the other tray. A pencil was a vital tool, re-spooling the thread of the cassette whenever it became loosened or untangled.)

All of this I mention now because a friend indirectly reminded me of what The Cranberries meant to me almost 30 years ago, and because those memories brought to mind also a famous occasion in the recent history of Irish sport, and because those memories reminded me what we’ve been missing, and what may be on the brink of being lost forever.

The famous sporting occasion was when Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling championship in 2018.

This will, very likely, mean nothing to anyone who is reading this from outside of Ireland. It is likely, too, that it will mean not very much to many people reading this in Ireland.

Limerick, the place, has no real emotional resonance for me. My family is all from the east and the north. I have been to the city only a couple of times, and usually just when passing through, on the way to someplace else.

But as I watched the scenes at the end of that All-Ireland hurling final three years ago, the resonance of place went through to my core and brought tears to my eyes. (Tears to the eyes are always a good sign, I’ve learned with time. It pays to listen to what brings those tears.)

Limerick had just won the All-Ireland for the first time in 45 years. They had seen heartbreak many times during those years, especially in 1994, when they led by six points with a few minutes remaining but still lost.

Limerick, the local concept of Limerick, a county where you might walk from one end of the other with an early start and a good day, means something intangible but priceless.

(It’s the same for Donegal and for Waterford and for Tyrone, and all the other old Irish counties, and the “meaningfulness” of those ideas of things often comes out on the fields of Gaelic football and hurling on summer Sundays, the colour of crowds walking together down small streets in provincial towns, taking a pint of beer under the sun, marvelling wordlessly at the beauty of being alive, and together, and from somewhere.)

At the beginning of 2018, word had come through that Dolores O’Riordan had died, tragically, aged just 46, in a London hotel room. She was a proud daughter of Limerick, destined for greatness. Greatness might go global but it always starts local.

As tens of thousands of Limerick people celebrated the achievements of their team out on the field at Croke Park in the late summer of 2018, in those magic minutes after the whistle has sounded and the reality of a joyful moment is just sinking in, someone in charge of the stadium’s public address system pressed play on the song “Dreams”.

Suddenly these moments, already transcendent, were elevated to a new level. The green swathes of Limerick, with all of Limerick together both in place and in spirit, and the voice of one of their own, recently ascended to the plane of the gods, joining in from beyond the grave. (This video captures it well; the song comes in at around 3:30.)

It’s likely the same for you, too, wherever in the world you are. There is something old in the ground beneath your feet, and no matter how we layer it with concrete, its spirit and its magic bubbles to the surface and into the bloodstreams of its people.

This sense of place is newly complex in a pandemic world.

For the fortunate ones amongst us who have been able to continue working a job or a business, the reality quickly became “work from home”.

There are not too many steps between “work from home” and “work from anywhere”.

There is something beautiful to be gained in that. Whenever we can travel again, the opportunity to work while travelling presents the possibility of a joyful freedom.

But it’s also true that there’s something beautiful which could be lost too.

The places we come from and the places we are in are important. They shape us in ways that can give us great joy and can give us great hurt, too.

A future where place is unimportant, where you are everywhere but nowhere, is one I cannot imagine.

At some stage in the future, technology, through virtual or augmented reality or some other innovation we know nothing of right now, might make the virtual world indistinguishable from the real one.

But for now, the virtual world so many of us spend so much time in is a poor relation to the world outside our front door.

The world outside our front door is messy and complicated. If we’re paying attention at all, we will see lots about it that we don’t like.

It’s easy to withdraw from that. It’s never been easier.

When we withdraw fully, we might pay a price without knowing exactly what that price is.

In this new complexity of a tech-laden world that pulls us out of the present and pulls us out of our place, maybe the best way to find our surroundings again is just to try to look up and listen closely.

If we can do that, we might see and hear the magic of the place.

We might see and hear how that magic might be under threat.

And we might find out how we can play a role in honouring the timelessness that rests undimmed beneath our feet.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.