David Hennessy chats to Dublin troubadour Damien Dempsey about how cocaine is destroying Irish lives and culture, why something has to be done about the housing crisis and why he got into a row when someone else used the term ‘plastic paddy’.
One of Ireland’s most distinctive voices returns to London to kick-off the St. Patrick’s celebrations this weekend. Since the release of his debut They Don’t Teach This Shit in School in 2000, Damien Dempsey has earned the admiration of performers as diverse as Sinead O’Connor, Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen. His style has been called ‘urban folk’ but he prefers to call it ‘Irish soul’. Dempsey has been lauded with Irish industry awards for his unique combination of traditional singing and modern lyrics that provide social commentary.
Damien plays the Electric Ballroom in Camden this Saturday night.
Damien told The Irish World: “I can’t wait to get onto that stage. I haven’t played since Vicar Street just before Christmas. I love the live music, I love the singsong. I love getting on the stage. I love the vibrations that we can create when we get everybody singing in the room, the whole audience singing as one. It’s magic. I miss it so I can’t wait to get out there and do it.”
Of course, Damien is no stranger to playing St. Patrick’s crowds in London as he has played here numerous times around the big weekend, including on the big stage in Trafalgar Square on parade day.
“I love it because it’s a lot of people who didn’t want to leave. They sort of had to leave Ireland and make their way, in sometimes hostile places. I feel a lot of love for the people who have had to leave Ireland and are still proud of their Irish heritage and roots.
“Nobody better say ‘Plastic Paddy’ around me because I got into a row one time with some fella who said that. I said, ‘Don’t ever f**king say that word, some of the best Irish had to leave, ya know?’
“And I say to people, ‘Ya know a lot of the best Irish were born out of Ireland?’ Like James Connolly. Phil Lynott was born on the island of Britain, Countess Markievicz, John Lennon, Jim Larkin, some incredible people of Irish roots. I’ve a lot of grá for the people who had to leave and go abroad. My people actually left, lots of them left but came back at some stage. For the diaspora, I have a lot of love.
“I think a lot of the plastic Paddies are in Ireland. The people you meet abroad have more love for Ireland and more knowledge of their history than a lot of people you meet in Ireland.”
Damien is known for his lyrics that look at modern, urban issues such as drugs. However, Damien has been shocked to see how cocaine has taken hold of Ireland. No longer the sole preserve of inner city areas like Damien’s native Donaghmede, the drug seems to have also infiltrated every small village in rural Ireland. It has inspired a new song of his called The Dirty Devil’s Dandruff.
“It’s terrible. It’s gone across the whole land, every small village.
“I’ve seen a lot of it around this neighbourhood that I’m from. It ran riot around us and I lost one of my best friends to it long time ago.
“I know about six people dead of it.
“People don’t realise it’s a silent killer. It attacks the muscles all around the heart. If you google and look at what it does to the heart, it’s terrifying. It makes all the arteries around the heart go into spasm and prolonged use weakens them and then people just don’t wake up. They go to sleep and they don’t wake up.
“It’s fuelling the misery of millions of people in South America as well. There’s a slave trade going on over there with cocaine and the violence.”
From once being a relatively safe city, Dublin has been no stranger to brutal gang wars for years with a brutal recent incident seeing 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods’ being dismembered.
“In Dublin, you never saw a murder. As soon as cocaine came in, it’s so violent. Can’t believe it, people are getting stabbed to death every night and beaten to death, shot, body parts. I’m friends with Irish-American cops and they told me what it did to New York when it came in. They saw it. It’s the very same here. It’s so lucrative. For a fella who hasn’t got much empathy and wants to make money, it’s the drug for ya.
“It ruins conversation as well. The Irish were always famous for going to the pub for a few pints and great conversation. It ruins it because people don’t listen on it. When they do it, all they want to do is talk.
“It’s f**king up our culture. I despise it to tell you the truth.
“For someone who drinks a lot, it’s the worst thing you can give them because they can keep up drinking through the day and through the night and through the next day as well. It’s lethal, lethal for the Irish.
“My mother is in recovery 20 years now, she’s in AA. She sees all the young people coming in. It’s all from cocaine. They all said they started off enjoying their few drinks. Start doing that and then you could stay up and keep drinking into the next day. Didn’t want to go to bed, don’t want to come down off it. Keep drinking and drinking and you could stay up for days and they just spent everything they owned.”
Would Damien agree with legalising drugs? “Crack, crystal meth, heroin, you can’t be selling it in shops and government making money off it. No way.
“But I think cannabis: Yeah, definitely, because the stuff they’re getting here is poison. They’re breeding it to make just a total head hit and it’s driving all the kids mental, giving them schizophrenia and psychosis and stuff.
“It’s very beneficial. I’ve seen it with people who are sick here. There’s older people here who are in pain. I’ve seen them getting proper cannabis and it’s really helping them. I’ve seen the benefits of it. I think they should legalise cannabis first of all just for people who are sick, medical cannabis should be legalised first. Then people will see the benefits of it.”
Damien has also been pleased to see Ireland’s recent protest vote in the general election: “I think the two main civil war parties are so far removed from ordinary Irish people that they don’t really get it. They don’t really understand what’s going on. They’re so far removed from the woman and man on the street that they need a change. I’d love to see a left wing coalition myself: Sinn Féin, the greens, People Before Profit and all them parties getting together giving an alternative.
“It’s been too long: 100 years of the civil war parties in government. I hope a change will come. It would be nice to see a woman leader as well.”
Damien has called on the government to provide housing and says this is one issue that shows how far removed the former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his government were so out of touch on. He says the musicians of the future will have no cheap place to live like a whole generation of budding performers had before.
“People can’t afford to live in their own country even when the economy’s good.
“I remember about 25 years ago, there was a scene around Dublin. I used to go to the International bar and lots of people used to play there like Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, Mundy, Paddy Casey, Declan O’Rourke. Christy Moore would come in the odd time, Luka Bloom and Gemma Hayes and Nina Hynes: Just great songwriters. They were all kind of living around Dublin in bedsits that we could afford.
“If you didn’t have much money, you could afford to live in a room around Dublin. That’s gone. They’re four times the price of what they used to be so artists can’t afford to live in Dublin and ordinary people on a low income wage can’t afford to live in the country anymore so something needs to be done. They need to say, ‘Landlords, you can’t charge that f**king rent’. And they have to build some social housing. Hard working people who are on low income wage, you need to build housing for them. They can’t just be for people who are from the same background as the politicians. That’s who they seem to just be looking after, people from the same background.
“It’s desperate. There’s always going to be homeless in the city but it’s families now, working families with kids: Children living in hotels and hostels and all. A lot of these people are working. It’s sick. Varadkar said, ‘Why don’t you just ask your parents for a loan of a deposit like I did?’
“He’s not with it. He said, ‘This is a party for people who get up early in the morning…’ There’s people on night shift as well, you know? He’s just looking after his own kind.”
It was in 2018 that Damien released Union, an album of duets that featured Maverick Sabre, Imelda May, Seamus Begley and Finbar Furey.”
Damien Dempsey plays The Electric Ballroom in Camden on Saturday 14 March.
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