One of Ireland’s most distinctive voices and passionate performers returns to Australia this November.
Since the release of his debut They Don’t Teach This Shit in School in 2000, Damien Dempsey has earned the admiration of performers as diverse as Sinead O’Connor, Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen.
His style has been called ‘urban folk’ but he prefers to call it ‘Irish soul’ and the Dubliner is never inhibited about weighing into political debates and championing community causes.
He returns to Australia in November to headline the Sydney Irish Festival which will also feature Mary Black, Lunasa and Saint Sister (see page 6).
“I never performed with Mary but I would know her kids well,” Damien tells The Irish Echo. “You never know, we might do something at the end of the night if she’s into it. With Lunasa and that, get a bit of a singsong going. I always stick in a few of the old Irish songs because they have such great memories, the songs of our ancestors. They’re just like old ghosts and you just have to breathe new life into them and they come alive.
“I want to get everyone in those showgrounds to feel on cloud nine, make them feel as high as they can. A natural high. Get them all singing. Singing is a great way to get people high. To get them all singing in unison, it releases endorphins. It’s great.”
Dempsey is no stranger to playing to huge Irish crowds abroad and has played to St Patrick’s Day crowds in Australia before.
“Years ago, [playing to large crowds] might have frightened me but I’m kind of ready now for big venues. It took me a while, the nerves used to kill me but I’m ready now. I’m kind of ready for anything now, I think.”
He recalls a memorable night in Sydney in 2013 when he played the Opera House on St Patrick’s Day.
“The Sydney Opera House have never seen a crowd like it. They were up on the seats with the tops off, arm in arm, singing the songs and they drank the bar dry in about 40 minutes. They had to close the bar because they drank every bit of alcohol, everything was gone so the Opera House (officials and staff) were just going around with their mouths open, just ‘what the hell?’
“They had never seen an audience like it but they were no trouble, just everybody in great form and singing the songs. I’ve done a couple of Paddy’s days there (Australia) and it’s always very emotional.”
The Dubliner’s music resonates very strongly in emigrant communities and he empathises with those who may have been forced to leave home.
“A lot of them have had to leave Ireland and maybe leave old parents behind that they’re worried about, but they’ve no choice. My parents are in their seventies and they wouldn’t be in great health, the thought of having to live abroad and not be around for them, I would find it very hard. I feel for the guys who have to be away.”
Having lived in New York and London as well as elsewhere in Dublin in spells, Damien now lives in his native Donaghmede: “I was always being told by people during the Celtic Tiger: ‘Buy a house now, get on the property ladder now. It will never go down’. I kind of felt there was a recession coming so I waited and then when the market was rock bottom, I had some savings and got a house in Donaghmede.”
Two recent Irish TV appearances have thrown him into the public spotlight even more than usual. He appeared on the Tommy Tiernan show where he spoke about battles with depression and his ancestry was explored on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?.
“I had ancestors in the Irish Citizen Army that fought with James Connolly and it went in depth into stories of other people who fought during the famine and were imprisoned with Daniel O’Connell.
“Then there was protestant blood on one of the sides which was a shock for a lot of people. Not to me, I don’t go in for all that really.
“Then my family went to America working in cotton mills over there in horrendous conditions. Some of them disappeared and some of them came back. I was in the school in Letterfrack getting the story of what happened to the children. I was in prisons in Dublin where Fenians were sent and City Hall where my great aunt took the building in 1916. Fairly interesting.”
His Australian tour coincides with the release of his ninth album, Union.
“It includes collaborations that I’ve done with people like Maverick Sabre who is a great singer. Imelda May is on it, Seamus Begley, Finbar Furey and John Grant. I think they’re all fairly powerful (songs),” he says.
Dan Sultan, the Irish-Australian indigenous singer, also joins him on the song, It’s Important.
“Dan wanted to come to Ireland, to Mullingar to see where his people came from. They asked me would I bring him on tour with me around Ireland. I hung out with him down there and he taught me a lot about Aboriginal culture. He’s a great old friend. I’m looking forward to seeing him when I get to Melbourne.”