Irish music star Damien Dempsey's spiritual connection with Aotearoaby James Belfield
Damien Dempsey’s music recounts Ireland’s traumatic history, but it resonates half a world away in New Zealand.
Dempsey was given a pōwhiri and sang some of his songs, including Colony (“Greed is the knife and the scars run deep/ How many races with much reason to weep”), and swapped stories with his hosts about their mutual histories. He gave the marae an album by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners (“my spiritual leaders”) and caught the last ferry back to Auckland having felt right at home 18,000km from Dublin.
“I’m trying to heal traumatised people with my music – and in Ireland, because of the colonisation and what the Catholic Church has done to people, there’s a lot of trauma.
“So, the music is there to give hope and strength. And when I went to Waiheke, the Māori guys I met taught me about their history and, more importantly, how they view their ancestors. All that got me to look more into my own ancestry. Now it makes me stronger to know they’re inside me, and all my problems seem smaller.
“Because a lot of the scandals in the church have come out and people are pulling away from spirituality, it just leaves a void, and that’s dangerous.”
At home, Dempsey, all 1.9m of him, is something of a national treasure. He’s a big enough celebrity to have just featured on Ireland’s version of the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?
“It’s a barrel of laughs. It’s industrial schools and workhouses, cabin ships and child labour and suicide and alcoholism, so it’s great craic,” he told a local paper. “It’s a fairly rough old history, to be honest, and a lot of poverty.”
His forthcoming duets album features long-time supporter Sinéad O’Connor, Morrissey (also a professed fan), John Grant, Dido, Imelda May, Kate Tempest as well as 72-year-old folk legend Finbar Furey. It will be his eighth studio album since 2000 debut They Don’t Teach This Shit at School, which introduced his blend of traditional and modern styles.
His live shows are peppered with classics such as Rocky Road to Dublin or nationalist rebel ballads like James Connolly. His own tunes are just as hard-hitting, with themes around Ireland’s economic boom-and-crash (Celtic Tiger) or friends’ suicides (Chris and Stevie). Musically, they might be folk music but they are as likely to draw on his love of ska, reggae, Elvis and rap.
As well as having O’Connor as a sort of musical fairy godmother since his 1997 debut single Dublin Town, he’s had help from Irish folk-godfather Christy Moore. After Dempsey couldn’t sing and earn for two months – he’d bitten his tongue during a beating outside a chip shop – Moore invited him to play with him at Dublin’s 10,000-capacity Point Depot.
“I was so nervous that I was shaking like a leaf … it was like my right leg had a mind of its own – there was even a woman down there in the front row and she was shouting up at me, ‘You look like Elvis’. I thought she meant my looks, but it wasn’t that – it was the way that right leg was shaking.
“But playing that show was a great boost and kept me going – and when someone you really respect and love gives you that sort of boost, it makes you think it’s something you can do for younger acts now.”
Dempsey still lives in the North Dublin suburb of Donaghmede, where he grew up, to be near his elderly parents: “I want to be around for them because they were around for me.” He’ll be back for Christmas, playing a four-night stand at Dublin’s 1000-seater Vicar Street Theatre, though some of his touring has taken him to less salubrious venues – he’s a frequent performer in prisons.
Playing to inmates, he says, has given him a new perspective. “I was always so nervous about playing, but I’ve even played in prisons in the Philippines and when you go there it’s scarier than the actual show,” he says. “Playing those shows has made it easier for me to play to music fans and given me a lot of confidence.”
Damien Dempsey is touring New Zealand as part of the NZ Irish Fest, playing November 15 at The Fox & Ferret, Christchurch; November 16 at The Tuning Fork, Auckland; November 17 at San Fran, Wellington; and November 18 at The Dubliner, Methven.
This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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