Special Report

From angry protest to quieting the mind

Damien Dempsey: The city has changed a lot in the 20 years since he released his first single, the rap-reggae anthem ‘Dublin Town’


Damien Dempsey is relaxing in the early summer sunshine in Iveagh Gardens. It’s an idyllic setting, peaceful and meditative – a good place, perhaps, to look back on the past 20 years of Dempsey’s life, and his journey from budding northside singer-songwriter to blossoming national treasure.

Dempsey is no stranger to Iveagh Gardens – he performed a headline show in these historic grounds four years ago. When he finished the concert, the audience didn’t want to go home, so they just kept the party going.

“The crowd came out to Harcourt Street, and took over the street and had a big sing-song,” he recalls.

On July 21st, the fans will be back to sing along with Dempsey’s best-known songs, and hear the fine tunes from his new album, Soulsun. The audience has grown with Dempsey over the past 20 years – and become more diverse, he says.

“There’ll be people here From Darndale to Dalkey, Tallaght to Malahide, Kerry to Derry. They’ll be from all over, and from around the world.”

The city has changed a lot in the 20 years since Dempsey released his first single, the rap-reggae anthem Dublin Town. And Dempsey’s own life has changed too since he enrolled in Ballyfermot rock school and began performing at Dave Murphy’s singer-songwriter nights in the International Bar in Wicklow Street. Back then, he admits, his mental and geographical boundaries were a lot narrower – he rarely looked beyond his stomping ground north of the Liffey, and seldom saw past his next high.

“We’d go into Talbot Street and go shopping in Guineys, and go into Henry Street. We got off the train in Connolly Station and wouldn’t really go southside. Wouldn’t go to Grafton Street.

“I met a great playwright named Jimmy Murphy [author of Brothers of the Brush], and he’d be bringing me into places like Grogans. So I’d be in Grogans, looking at the art, and listening to the conversations, and people talking, poets and playwrights and all, and that really opened me up. I started meeting new people who weren’t from where I was from, weren’t from Donaghmede. It just blew open my cranium altogether.”

Back then, finding a quiet spot to meditate was low on the list of priorities – Dempsey was too caught up in the hustle and bustle of life in Dublin town.

“The meditation came later,” he says. “Before that I was writing on buses, and walking around, and sitting in O’Connell Street, by the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, and writing there. I used to go libraries a lot. Nature wasn’t a big thing for me back then, but it became a big thing in the second part of my life. I’ve really gotten into parks now. And just being near nature, and even taking your shoes and socks off and feeling the earth under your feet.

“I’m a lot happier. I’m doing yoga and meditation now. I remember we were only coming into puberty and we were sniffing gas, sniffing petrol, sniffing Tipp-Ex and lighter fuel. And just trying to get our hands on spirits, and acid, speed, smoking hash – zero zero, that had opium in it. Just crazy stuff. But I’m seeing now that when you quiet the mind, you can get a better buzz than any of them, and there’s no downside to it.”

Dempsey’s music has evolved over the past 20 years as his songwriting horizons have widened. And his distinctive Dublin brogue has been softened by an extra layer of honey. One of the more striking tracks on Soulsun is a duet with Dido, Beside the Sea, that sounds like the sweetest sean-nos love-in.

“I just met her in Brian Eno’s house. He had this little get-together where he puts a song up on the screen and we all get to sing harmonies along. So Dido was there that night, and Annie Lennox was there. I nearly shat myself. And Annie says, ‘I love your album Seize the Day,’ and Dido says, ‘I love your song, You’re Not on Your Own Tonight. I play it every day.’ I was just going, Jesus Christ.”

The album’s finest songs, such as Family, Sweet Gratitude and Forever and A Day, are a long way from the righteously angry protest singer Dempsey used to be. In his early albums, Dempsey prodded at the underbelly of the Celtic Tiger, but these days he prefers to gently nudge listeners to a higher place.

He’s still appalled by the levels of homelessness in this so-called economic recovery, but is positive overall about the changes in Irish society in the past 20 years.

“It’s far more multicultural now, which I think is a good thing. The power of the Catholic church has gone now – they had us in a headlock for a long time. And 2015 was a great year for the Irish people waking up. The same sex marriage equality referendum, and the other big thing that happened that year was that 60 per cent of people stood up to the Government and refused to pay their water charges. So that was a good year for Ireland.

“Ah, you might get a song out of me about that year.”

And for all of us of a certain age who feel the last 20 years have gone too fast, Dempsey has some sound advice.

“I suppose you just have to be still in the mind. I have a song I’m working on, ‘give yourself a present by being in the present’. Get out somewhere, in the park, out of the city, out to the beach, beside a river or the seaside, and still the mind. And then your life won’t zip by you so quickly.”