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Damien Dempsey: ‘I see myself as a druid on the edge’

He has a busy year ahead, with a just-announced summer show at the Iveagh Gardens

Damien Dempsey: “People thought I was a joke act or a gimmick.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Damien Dempsey, the charismatic singer with a repertoire of striking, honest songs, is surprisingly shy. He’s warm and insightful whether discussing the idiosyncrasies in Shane MacGowan’s lyrics (he performed three songs at the recent birthday concert) or the power of group singing, but he seems genuinely reserved. Such shyness is, I don’t need to tell you, rare in famous people.

He was always shy, he says. “I don’t know why… If you get three kids in a family they all have different personalities, don’t they? Even with dogs in a litter of puppies some are very forthright straightaway and some are real timid. Maybe you’re just born like that.”

So were there things he wanted to say as a kid but was too timid to say? “I’d still be like that,” he says, “scared to speak out in a room. I still carry the shyness. It never left. It was a huge challenge to get up on stage, a massive challenge.”

When did he first play in front of strangers? “The 2FM/Yoplait song contest when I was 16,” he says. “That was terrifying... I sang Cardboard City about the homeless people I saw around Dublin at the time.”

Where did his social awareness come from? It was there from the start, he says. “The first song I wrote, when I was 14, was about smog. It was the late 80s and even around Donaghmede the smog was bad. You’d go out with a white t-shirt and when you came back it’d be black... I was writing about the things I saw.”

Why? “Yo MTV Raps was on and I’d hear all these guys talking about where they were from so I started writing about what was around me… And folk music has always commented on what’s going on at the time in the place you’re living.”

Is that observational tendency also connected to his shyness? “Yes,” he says. “People were more vocal than me but I’d be listening and watching, the eyes peeled and the ears open.”

The shyness wasn’t the only thing making a future in music look doubtful, he says. “Singing never came easy to me because I’ve always had this allergic rhinitis,” he says. “On my mother’s side all the men have it. They’re always…” he does an exaggerated sniffle, “it’s like you have a yearlong chest infection and my septum was over here as well.” He pushes his nose to his left and laughs.

Why was that? “Just growing up in Donaghmede. It got a few hits over the years. I got an operation there recently and I can breathe through my nose now.”

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Dustin and sing-songs

There was some music around him growing up, he says. “I was learning from sing-songs in my granny’s in Cabra and my other granny in Irishtown… and my house and other houses on the street… And you’d be there with the guitar asked to back people. That was a baptism of fire I can tell you, someone totally out of tune and out of time and you’re asked to back them.”

Did he feel like he was different from other singer-songwriters? “I remember being at a house party singing ballads… and someone said ‘Sing one of your own songs’ and I changed my accent, I put on a sort of Jimi Hendrix accent and a lightbulb came on and I thought, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

He sang with his own accent after that. “[At first] people thought I was a joke act or a gimmick. And Dustin was around at the time and that didn’t help.”

He was compared to Dustin? He laughs. “Yeah.”

Damien Dempsey performing at Shane MacGowan’s recent birthday concert at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

Was that not just classism? “Yeah. I was getting a lot of stick over it, even from people from working class areas. They were ashamed of their own accents, I suppose. But the more people said it to me the harder I did it… I’m stubborn.”

The first few years of music, after he completed a course at Ballyfermot Rock School, were so tough he nearly quit. He did bar-work and construction work and a CE scheme where he taught songwriting to troubled kids. “The dole kept me going for a good few years,” he says. “That’s why I don’t mind paying taxes… I kind of saw the Celtic Tiger wasn’t trickling down. Lots of my friends got jobs in multinationals but they were on assembly lines Sellotaping batteries together doing mad hours and they couldn’t have a union… I smelled a rat with the Celtic Tiger and a lot of people were giving me stick for that. ‘What’s wrong with you? We’re finally after getting a rung up the ladder.’”

He doesn’t want to be typecast as a protest singer, he says, but “injustices really get to me”. A few years ago he worked with the street artist Maser on a project about homelessness called “They Are Us” and he sang at Right2Water protests. “I thought 2015 was a great year for peaceful rebellion in Ireland where they tried to push the water charges on us… And two thirds of the people wouldn’t pay them. That was real rebellion. That was like France or something. The same year the church said, ‘Don’t bring in same sex marriage’ and we did anyway… I’ve written a song about that. Don’t forget that year. We stood up to the church and the state which we hadn’t done since the formation of the 26 counties.”

And then there was Home Sweet Home, where he was numbered among the artists, activists and homeless people who occupied Apollo House on Tara Street. “I was doing these powwows with Dean Scurry and Terry McMahon and John Connors getting together and thinking how we could use our name and make a bit of a change… It was very empowering for people to see the likes of Jim Sheridan and Glen Hansard and Brendan Ogle all up there on the TV fighting for people who have no rights and are freezing to death on the street.”

Acting and yoga

He has a busy year ahead. As well as a just-announced summer show at the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin, he’s planning a St Patrick’s weekend “Damo Fleadh” in London with artists such as Wildwood Kin, Beoga and Jerry Dammers. He’s also pulling together a collection of duets (featuring, among others, Morrissey and John Grant) and plans to tour “the great Irish song book” around the UK. “I’ll take a song like The King’s Shilling and then I’ll do my song Chris and Stevie and I’ll explain how I used the same phrasing... That’s been done for aeons. You take a folk song, take the phrasing and put your own lyrics in, change the chords and melody and breathe new life into the bones.”

After releasing his last album, Soulsun, he said he needed to “restock the pond and leave writing for a bit”. He read, had conversations with friends and started an acting course run by the director and actor Terry McMahon. “We had to get up and tell three jokes... I found that very daunting. That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The native Americans have been saying for a long time that the earth can heal you. I’m trying to get into the indigenous teachings of the older people. Ancient wisdom

Is acting very different to performing music? “Sometimes you have to act when you’re performing,” he says. “You might be in the horrors, might be really depressed but you have to forget that and act through it. And sometimes I’d be acting because I’m very shy but you have to get up there and be really confident. I’d be very self-conscious. I worry too much about what people think of me, I realise.”

He’s been writing a lot again, he says, and in his time off he does yoga and swims at Dollymount Strand. “Grounding is great as well. Getting your bare feet on grass. We don’t put our feet on the earth anymore. The native Americans have been saying for a long time that the earth can heal you. I’m trying to get into the indigenous teachings of the older people. Ancient wisdom.”

He has rediscovered spirituality, he says. When we meet he’s completing a fast and he talks about how his mother and grandmother called themselves “white witches and would know things before they happened. I think I have a bit of that myself”.

Later he says, “I see myself as a bit of a druid on the edge of the settlement”. He laughs. “In Donaghmede.”

He still lives in Donaghmede because he appreciates the sense of community there. “I’m in the posh part now, in a detached house. I used to be in a block of eight houses where my Da lives. If you sang a few tunes the whole block would hear. That was a nightmare for the neighbours. Then I got an electric guitar making it worse. I think they’re happy I have my own detached house.”

Yes, despite the fasting, spirituality and self-reflection, Dempsey isn’t averse to a late-night singing session. He even has a hangover cure, he says. It involves cracking a young coconut in half and adding a sachet of Dioralyte to the milk. “I drink that before I hit the hay and I’m grand.”

Damien Dempsey plays the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on Saturday, July 14th Tickets go on sale Thursday, February 8th