Damo Dempsey has been on the go for a while now.
That’s often easy to forget as he’s still in his mid-thirties playing traditional Irish music in a genre that is dominated by bushy-faced sixty year olds for the most part.
Another reason why people forget this is that he blends the traditional and modern with an injection of contemporary bite and social commentary.
When JOE catches up with Damo he explains why he makes the music that he does.
“I suppose some writers just aren’t interested in the lovey-dovey stuff. It just doesn’t do anything for them. Your ears pick up when you hear someone who is passionate about something and someone who teaches you something by what they’re saying in the song…something that enlightens you in the song.
Putting money where your mouth is
It’s all well and good singing about altruistic ideals, but often musicians have been accused of “slacktivism” and not actually doing something about the problems they sing about. Damo doesn’t want to be one of them.
Recently he got involved with Preda Foundation, set up by an Irish priest in the Philippines, that lobbies for rights of women and children to be respected, protecting them from sex-trafficking amongst other abuses.
Damo told JOE about the chance way he got involved.
“I’ve been doing gigs for Preda for a few years now. I first heard of them when I was me way to London and I saw this article in a magazine about this priest out in the Philippines called Shay Cullen.
"He had death threats against him because he was hunting paedophiles and breaking up paedophile rings and he had a big home for kids where he was teaching them music and drama.
"I thought ‘Jesus Christ! Now that’s a proper priest. That’s a man who believes in Jesus and the word of God. I felt he was like an antidote to all the scandal, all the bogey priests, the evil priests in Ireland who were getting away with all the stuff, while he was out there being a real priest.”
Soon after Damo was back on the circuit promoting a gig in the west of Ireland and found himself proselytising the work of Cullen in the local media. “I was down in Galway on the radio the week after talking about this priest. I felt like I wanted to do something to help him, you know?”
Listening to the interview was Philip Cribbin of Preda’s Galway branch. He resolved to go to Dempsey’s gig that night and get him involved.
He was pushing at an open door.
Dempsey has sung a few gigs for them now and this Saturday will take part in Preda’s ‘Run for Freedom’ in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Taking the show to Manilla
Through the charity Damo got to meet the founder-priest he so admired when visiting him in Manilla.
Shay Cullen took the singer to a depressing prison in Manilla to show him how kids were being mingled with the adults.
“Shay took me into the place where all the adults were, where all the kids were going to be put into and he just says ‘You could play the lads a few songs, they’d love it!.’ I was going f**k! They might not like my stuff – I was terrified.
"He just goes ‘Go on, go on, give it a go.’ So I get me guitar out and my mate Sean Regan had the fiddle and we just started playing songs.”
The effect was far from the one Damo had feared.
“Some of the prisoners started crying, some were singing along, they just got very emotional. They couldn’t believe someone was in singing to them!”
So it ended up being like one of the prison concerts of one of the great singer-song writers in Johnny Cash?
“Yeah it was a little bit, absolutely,” says Damo.
Another of the great musicians passed away in the last month, the last original member of the Dubliners, Barney McKenna.
At the start we said Damo has been around a good while now. He was a whipper-snapper compared to Barney who had been playing to audiences for over fifty years.
Indeed Damo was one of the members of the audiences that Barney enthralled and inspired to take up playing music as a kid listening to the Dubliners in the Grand Hotel in Malahide.
“I grew up with the Dubliners, that was the music I listened to growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. They were just massive,” Dempsey reminisces before continuing to talk about how their friendship progressed.
“Barney was very kind and very encouraging to me when I was starting and then later on I got to play with him and then later on again I got to do an album with him.”
Damo remembers one particular show they both played on.
“I remember we did the Phil Coulter show and it was my birthday, I was turning 29. The show had given me a cake and a bottle of champagne, fair play to them! We had it all in the dressing room and I go ‘Barney come on and have a bit of champagne.’
"He goes, ‘Naw, I don’t really touch the stuff anymore.’ So I says, ‘Will ya have a bit of cake then Barney?’
‘Nah, nah,’ he goes ‘I’ve got the ‘ould diabetes and that.’
"So I went out and played, done me bit on the show and came back in and Barney had a big glass of champagne in his hand and was munching on a big slice of cake with the other! He waited ‘til I was gone so he could get stuck into it!” laughs Dempsey.
But McKenna was so much more than a great musician and a rogue, elaborates Dempsey.
“He was a very intelligent man too, he would talk about the war in Iraq and he was very angry over it calling it ‘Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation’ – he was very well read and thought very deeply about things.”
Passing on the music
We get into a conversation of how Barney's death marks the passing of an era. Traditional music greats like McKenna, Ronnie Drew and Tommy Mackem have all met their makers in recent years.
Does Dempsey feel he is becoming one of torch-bearers for their musical and cultural legacy?
“I’ve got a responsibility to pass on songs that were passed on to me. They were passed on to me and I have to pass them on to younger people.”
He doesn’t want to be a dusty museum of old memories either though. Good music he thinks requires you to provoke thought and to focus on modern issues as well.
“I also am writing songs about what I see going on in Ireland today so maybe in fifty years time people will have an idea about what these times are like.”
He’s not alone in doing that, he points to other musicians on the circuit that he thinks can bear that legacy and fill the space left by the older generations.
“The people that I like that are around at the moment are John Spillane and Jinx Lennon, people like that. Captain Moonlight, RíRá – they’re alright and doing amazing stuff about Ireland and what’s going on at the moment.
"I suppose there would be young rappers too like Lethal Dialect and Costello. They’re writing very relevant stuff about what’s going on in Ireland today.”
Music for the people
Anyone who has been in at a Damien Dempsey gig, like the one this interviewer attended in Vicar Street last year, knows how intense the crowd can be. How does he characterize his relationship with his fans?
“We’re choir mates. We’re all in a choir and we get together and sing all our worries away.”
Damo goes on to tell how he heard some doctors are prescribing joining a choir to combat depression and stress. It’s a theory he ascribes to.
One upcoming event that might be causing a lot of stress for the Irish populace is the upcoming European Championships that Ireland feature in.
Damo is tuning up the choir for that too, as one of the main vocalists for the official Euro 2012 sing-along anthem for Ireland “The Rocky Road to Poland.” [See the below video]
And what football songs would Damo like this one to be compared to?
“Well I remember Euro ’88 when Ray Houghton stuck the ball in the English net as a teenager in me house in Donaghmede. I heard the neighbours from roaring from both sides of the road. So ‘Joxer Goes to Stuttgart’ was a good one.
I liked ‘Put ‘Em under Pressure’ and the way they mixed the traditional with the Horslips ‘Dearg Doom’ that was very good.”
And the song that annoyed him the most, of course has to be an English one.
“That ‘Vindaloo’ one was wrecking my head because it was playing so much, the video was great craic though, with Keith Allen in it!”
JOE meets... | Damien Dempsey talks Barney McKenna, upcoming Irish musicians and playing in a Filipino prison: