Leonard Cohen and Ireland: he saved the last dance for us
Concerts between 2008 and 2013 demonstrated rare bond between artist and audience
Leonard Cohen on stage in Kilmainham on Friday, June 13th, 2008. Photograph: Dave Meehan
There were times between 2008 and 2013 when it felt as if Leonard Cohen had upped sticks, moved to Ireland and taken up permanent residence at the Gresham Hotel, his lodgings of choice in the capital.
In those five years, Cohen performed 12 shows between venues in Dublin, Belfast and Sligo. These concerts demonstrated the kind of bond between artist and audience that is often hyped and talked about, but rarely experienced.
There were some milestone performances during that run too, especially the first shows in Kilmainham and the 2010 shows in Sligo. Here was a performer in the autumn of his life, yet performing at the peak of his powers.
While that flurry of shows came after Cohen resumed touring following a lengthy layoff, he was also a frequent visitor to one particular Irish performance space in the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dublin’s National Stadium was Cohen’s venue of choice. Best known these days for its boxing connections, the Stadium hosted many atmospheric music events long before venues such as Vicar Street or the Point came along and took up the slack.
Cohen opened his 1972 European tour in the venue on the South Circular Road on March 18th. It was, as anyone who has seen Tony Palmer’s documentary Bird on a Wire documentary on the tour, a chaotic time for the singer who was in a particular fragile state of mind as he travelled around Europe. Aside from Suzanne, Famous Blue Raincoat and So Long, Marianne, that night’s set featured Kevin Barry, a song Cohen said onstage he’d waited all his life to sing in Ireland.
Cohen returned to the National Stadium for shows in May 1976, December 1979, March 1985 and June 1988. It would be 20 years before Cohen returned to play in Ireland, though he was the subject of Came So Far for Beauty at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2006. Produced by Hal Willner, this show featured Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Antony & The Johnsons, Nick Cave, Gavin Friday, Jarvis Cocker, Mary Margaret O’Hara and others interpreting Cohen’s songbook at the Point Theatre.
The real thing showed up two years later for three magical evenings in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham. Those Dublin shows were part of a lengthy tour that saw Cohen receiving perhaps the most attention he’d ever enjoyed during his long career. He certainly wouldn’t be able to fit all his Irish admirers in the Stadium any more.
A year later, he was back for four shows in Dublin’s O2 Arena and headed to Belfast for his debut in the city at the Odyssey Arena.
The following year, the Canadian was again Ireland-bound, this time for shows at Sligo’s Lissadell House, an engagement that came with a special energy because of the venue’s many connections to Cohen’s hero WB Yeats.
He recited lines from Yeats about Lissadell during the show, referenced Yeats during Hallelujah and spoke about being “so pleased” and “privileged” to be performing “in the shadow of the great house where the great master poet walked and fell in love and broke his heart”.
Cohen’s final Irish shows were at Dublin’s O2 Arena in September 2013 and recordings from those shows became Live in Dublin, an album released the following year.
Cohen signed off on that occasion with three encores, finally leaving the stage after renditions of I Tried to Leave You and a cover of The Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me.