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"The root cause of a lot of the problems in politics is hardness of the heart. Music and the light that goes with it is the best thing to thaw that out." — Bono

Songs of Iris



noun, (ˈī-rəs)

  1. The colored diaphragm around the pupil that regulates the amount of light entering the eye
  2. A plant with showy, bright colored flowers
  3. A rainbow, the colors of a rainbow, the Greek goddess of the rainbow
  4. A female name

U2 fans have long been interested in Bono’s childhood, especially regarding the death of his mother. As I listened to the lead singer both celebrate and lament her at recent concerts in San Jose, California, I was struck again by the shaping power she has had on him, and by extension, the entire band.

Iris Rankin married Bob Hewson in 1950. It was a scandalous event — she was a Protestant, he was a Catholic, an unthinkable union in highly sectarian Ireland. Bono has said on both the Innocence + Experience and the Experience + Innocence tours that he has very few memories of his mother. The one he can’t escape, however, was Iris’ collapse at the graveside of her own father when Bono was 14 years old. The cerebral aneurysm she suffered led to her death just four days later.

There was never an opportunity to say goodbye or tell his mom how much he loved her. In fact, the remaining members of the Hewson family — Bono, older brother Norman, and his father — never spoke of Iris again. Bono told French journalist Michka Assayas, “After she died, my father didn’t talk about her…. So that’s why I don’t have any memories of my mother."

Psychologists refer to the mother-child bond in terms of “attachment.” The most critical years for attachment are in infancy, when a baby learns whether he or she can trust the mother. If the mother meets all the basic needs, the infant will bond and feel safe. Later, in the toddler years, children who have healthy attachments will move out and explore their world, then confidently return to the security of a nurturing mother. Children who have not learned to trust their mothers often respond by being anxious and clingy or aloof and distant as adults. Therapists typically ask patients about experiences with their mothers to gain clues about good and bad bonding events.

Though limited, the stories we have from Bono’s childhood convey a wonderful, healthy, trusting relationship with Iris. At the E+I tour opener in Tulsa, he told fans, “The [memories] I have are beautiful, magical.” Sadly, this made her loss even more devastating. The person who Bono was most bonded to was ripped from him during adolescence at just the time when he needed her most, leaving a gaping hole in his heart.

All humans have a fundamental need for attachment to one significant person with whom she or he can share unconditional love. This is the relationship that was severed for Bono. “I would go back of my house after school, but it wasn’t a home,” Bono told Assayas. “She was gone. Our mother was gone, the beautiful Iris… I felt abandoned, afraid.”

Bono begins telling us about his mother early in the band’s career. (Fernanda Bottini also discusses this in her insightful essay “Like A Song: Mother – ‘I Will Follow’ / ‘Mofo’ / ‘Iris.’”) U2’s first hit single, “I Will Follow,” is at least, in part, the story of losing his mother. Bono sings, “A boy tries hard to be a man / His mother takes him by the hand / If he stops to think, he starts to cry / Oh why?” On the E+I tour, accompanied by the haunting bells of Edge’s chiming harmonics, Bono sings to Iris in a hushed trance, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.” And then, with full volume and conviction he cries, “Your eyes make a circle.” As Bono introduces “The Ocean” on the E+I tour, he recounts a scene of his mother swimming in the waters of Dublin’s north coast, as digital waves wash across the screen above the arena floor. Then, as if in a dream, in one of the most brilliant transitions of the show, Bono summons the name of his dear mother, a seeming act of re-creation, speaking her once again into existence, her image appearing on the giant “barricage” screen. Bono remembers, “She was running circles around my father… running toward us… running away from us… Iris.”

“Something in your eyes,” Bono sings of his mother in the song that bears her name. But I also hear him conversing with his long-departed mom in the E+I show’s opening number, “Love Is All We Have Left.” “Seven billion stars in her eyes,” he sings. The ghostly antiphonal response across space-time, distorted from its long journey, is a woman’s voice. I think it’s Iris counseling her son, “Don’t close your eyes.” In the next song on SOE (and in concert), “Lights Of Home,” Bono belts out another assertion, “In your eyes of love, I see the lights of home.” And for the second time in as many albums, Iris responds, this time with a heavenly choir at her side, “Free yourself to be yourself, only you can see yourself.”

The chasm between this mother and son, played out on the I+E and E+I tours, is seemingly insurmountable. The distance still brings pain. Darkness gathers around the light. Bono, vulnerable as ever, regresses to the Boy that desperately wants the affection of the most important person in his life. On stage, he lives out the joy of love and the terror of loss.

During the I+E tour, Bono would often mimic sucking his thumb during “Iris,” as he curled up in a nearly fetal ball. Twenty years earlier, on Pop, he sang about “mother-sucking rock ’n’ roll” in “Mofo,” conflating the images of mother and music as life-sustaining wet nurses. In U2 By U2, he remembers playing “Mofo” live: “There I was, just speaking to my mother in front of fifty thousand of my closest friends. Some nights it would really surprise me what an emotional place I would get to.” As the band traversed the world, Bono would nightly ask, “Mother, am I still your son? You know I’ve waited so long to hear you say so.”

On 1993’s Zooropa, Bono sang about old home movies, discovered by a relative, containing footage of the wedding scene we view on the I+E and E+I tours. “She wore lemon,” the melancholy frontman sang. “She’s gonna make you cry.” In U2 By U2, Bono comments about “Lemon,” remembering, “There were two things going on, memory and loss, a portrait of a girl in a shimmering lemon dress that kept it sexy and playful and the pathos of a man separated from the things he loves.” In “Lemon,” Bono’s grief takes him again to the ocean, as he sings, “I feel like I’m drifting from the shore, I feel like I’m swimming out to her.”

Even earlier, on U2’s second album, October, Bono wrote “Tomorrow,” an unconscious account of his mother’s funeral. His heartbreaking plea echoes across the barrenness of approaching winter. “Won’t you come back tomorrow? Won’t you be back tomorrow? Can I sleep tonight?” At just 20 years old, the broken bond was nearly unbearable: “I want you… I really want you… I want you to be back tomorrow.”

But the journey for affection isn’t hopeless. For Bono, the agony of losing his mother finds resolution in a different story. He creates a narrative that brings new relationships and new loving bonds. His wife, Ali, and their kids provide opportunities to experience the family he longed for but never had. In 2009’s "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight,” he sings, “She's a rainbow and she loves the peaceful life.” Hmm, interesting. Look back at the definitions of “iris” at the top of this article. Rainbow. Iris. Ali. A psychoanalyst might chuckle and remind us that most of us guys marry our mothers. Regardless, Bono has clearly found nurturing attachment elsewhere. He jubilantly exclaims, “Baby, baby, baby, I know I'm not alone!” The quest for unconditional love in a relationship has been won. The hill-turned-mountain has been overcome. “Listen for me,” he asserts. “I’ll be shouting, shouting to the darkness, squeeze out sparks of light.” Victory and joy replace chaos and fear.

In the liner notes for SOE, Bono tells us even more about his mother and the loss he suffered: “On death, we tend to look the other way until the spectre’s face enters our frame… a staring match that death always wins and we’re left broken by the loss of someone really close to us. I owe Iris. Her absence, I filled with music." In the darkness, Bono learned to see. He kept his eyes open when they needed to be.

Everyone can relate to the themes Bono lays down about Iris. Some people have experienced the unconditional love of a sacrificial mother, while others have only known pain and separation. Still others have experienced heavy loss. Many women long to be mothers; some can, some cannot. When I hear “Iris” in concert, I grab my kids, hold them close. My children are a gift.

Iris is a foundational character for both the I+E and the E+I tours. She moves us on a primal, archetypal level. When Bono sings and tells stories about his mother, he reaches out with a hand of compassion to touch every single person in the arena. All of us have stories of life, love, pain and loss. And all stories, even the hard ones, are important to tell. U2’s frontman just leads the way.

So, Bono, tell us some more about your mother. We’re listening.


(illustration by Kelly Eddington)

(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2018