Roddy Doyle wrote that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland and the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin”. Born in Donaghmede on Dublin’s Northside in 1975, Damien Dempsey is the voice of that underclass and the quintessential Irish singer songwriter.
An imposing six foot two, Dempsey is a former amateur boxer and a survivor of street gang culture. His youthful audience identify with a singer who has emerged from the rough working class streets with his powerful self-belief intact.
The optimism that he reaches for amidst Ireland’s industrial and social collapse is an inspiration to his burgeoning, troubled audience. His concerts can be almost spiritual occasions – his fans sing along to every word and look to him as a leader for expressing such intense social and cultural concerns. Dempsey is reminiscent of Terry Malloy, the prize fighter turned longshoreman in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront – a man whose conscience forces him to speak the truth, despite the consequences of his honesty.
The Times recently described Dempsey as “the Bob Marley of Ireland”; a comparison which holds true when one witnesses the devotion of his audience and his charismatic presence on stage. “Going to a Damien Dempsey show was like stumbling on a secret society,” observed David Sinclair. “The audience greeted him like a superstar.”
His singular stage presence was nurtured by the legendary Irish Folk singer Christy Moore who in mentoring a shy, young Dempsey advised him, “if you’re nervous, tell the audience you’re nervous.” Dempsey concludes, “the audience has always been with me. They feel what I feel.”
Since his first concerts in 1995 Dempsey has come to be regarded as the pre-eminent Irish singer songwriter. The Irish Examiner wrote that “he now stands as one of the most important and evocative Irish singers of all time.” Morrissey, who was deeply moved by Dempsey, declared that “to hear him sing is to realize the magnitude of his astounding voice and heart. The songs are true, and his is the best and often the saddest voice of this generation.” And it’s a generation that Dempsey is compelled to speak up for. “The kids have no religion now, nothing to look up to. I try to teach them about their history and lead them towards spirituality, give them some light and some purpose.”
Having played with Willie Nelson, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, Bob Dylan, U2 and The Pogues, Dempsey’s stage craft and voice has become so powerful that it prompted Bono to say “when he opens his mouth – it’s like the end of the world.”
After returning in the summer of 2009 from an extensive furlough in South East Asia and Australia, where he was invited by Brian Eno to perform a sell out concert at Sydney Opera House as part Eno’s inaugural Luminous Festival, Dempsey was asked by U2 to support them at the Croke Park concert in Ireland. He has begun recording his sixth album with John Reynolds. It promises to consolidate his position as one of Ireland’s greatest ever songwriters. As Shane MacGowan recently explained “It’s great music and it’s great lyrics. It’s angry and it’s humorous. He sees the beauty that is Ireland and that is Ireland’s past and that can be Ireland’s future.”
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