‘He was very proud of slavery and murder and robbery’: Damien Dempsey lets fly at Boris Johnson as Irish fans floating on air in Iveagh Gardens
“I wasn’t a fan of Boris Johnson,” Damien Dempsey told Independent.ie before his sold-out show in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin on Saturday night.
I remember him talking about how great he thought the British Empire was. He was very proud of slavery and murder and robbery of people’s lands and subjugation of different nations – and how they dismantled all our language in Ireland and our customs and tried to make us English.
“Anyone who is proud of that I wouldn’t really get on with it. Anyone who is proud of 400 years of British colonialism like Boris Johnson I’d have a bone to pick with. Anyone who is proud of robbery and murder I’m not a fan of.”
What is he a fan of?
“Nature,” he says.
“I went for a swim in Portmarnock earlier today. I think if more people were fans of nature the world would be a better place. People would be more at peace in themselves. They’d be more conscious of looking after the planet. That’s the biggest thing in Ireland – the divorce from nature,” he continues.
“We had a lovely Church when we first got Christianity in Ireland. It was very pagan, a pagan form of Christianity. But the Roman Catholic Church didn’t like that because they wanted us to be like their Christianity. So, they sent Henry II here to take that country over. They sent the English and came and took our country basically. I wouldn’t be a fan of Henry II or the Roman Catholic Church. I’d prefer we had our own church here – an Irish church – and cut our ties with Rome.”
What does he think of Pope Francis?
“He is just a part of that whole system. He seems like a nice fella, but I’d cut all the ties with Rome. They haven’t done us any favours in the past. We should have our own spirituality here that is in touch with nature again. Root the church more in nature like it used to be. I think it would be a lot better for Ireland. We’re a Celtic pagan race.”
Two hours after our chat, on stage in front of 8,000 fans at the Iveagh Gardens, Dempsey is again taking aim at Rome with Chris And Stevie, a bittersweet homage to two Donaghmede friends whose lives ended tragically, lost to suicide.
“In Celtic times, it wasn’t seen as wrong,” Dempsey sings.
“Til the Roman Empire with the shame came along,
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“They called this love evil and they done much harm
“But if you’re hurting no one, you’ll be in God’s arms.”
The keyboard sound at the end with him singing “I’m missing you today” lived beyond the life of the song last night.
Dempsey was in confessional from the microphone between songs too. “In my teens,” he told the crowd, “I got very depressed. I reached out to my mammy and she helped me out of it. She helped me start to feel the spirit within.”
“She’s over there, “ he said pointing at his mother.
“She’s a great woman,” he said before addressing her directly: “I would be nothing without you. Love you, mammy. I reached out to you and I felt better. It is important. The message of Chris And Stevie is about trying to get people to reach out and tell somebody when they are feeing low. Tell someone if you are not feeling great. I did.”
At his best, Dempsey’s live shows are some kind act of public communion and mass, a shared healing between him and his audience.
Last night was a near-religious Saturday service from the manic street preacher from the Northside of Dublin.
“There’s so much trauma out there. Music can help and heal this trauma,” he said in director Ross Killeen’s 2021 documentary film about Dempsey’s music and his fans, Love Yourself Today.
There were men and women patting their chests where their hearts were like Dempsey does onstage when he sings. They sang the words like they were their own, their pain, their struggle, and ultimately, their redemption.
Up on the stage, Dempsey encouraged them to sing. This was their song as much as his. “When we all sing together it is like all of us meditating at the same time, arm-in-arm, dancing. It creates an incredible vibration and feeling here tonight. There is no damage done with meditation or a sing-song when people are singing along. There is no damage in telling people to love themselves.”
t is easy to see why Dempsey is the poet laureate of Ireland’s dispossessed — as much as Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC or Christy Moore — righteously raging against the Civil War parties, class war, corporate greed and people not being able to afford to buy a home in Ireland.
“If anyone ever tries to give you verbal abuse and puts you down, tell them to fuck off,” he said before launching into Negative Vibes. The crowd bounced to its Celtic reggae groove in the dipped crater of the Iveagh Gardens, a natural amphitheatre for the Donaghmede druid to demonstrate the profound power of live performance.
Next up, Serious was edgy, folked-up post-punk.” I have been feelin’ really low lately,” he sang, “Feel the whole fuckin’ world is against me and they hate me.”
He shifted the mood then. “We have one happy song,” he joked. “We’ll get it out of the way now, he said introducing Your Pretty Smile.
By the end of the song, he was complimenting people in the crowd for their “good movement” and “ some lovely grooving there.” He then shifted into showman mode, telling the crowd the story of how when he appeared on the Tommy Tiernan Show on RTÉ he walked on carrying a spear only to trip, and almost killed the host.
“It would have been great television, imagine the ratings,” he said, leaving the audience in fits of laughter. With the sun going down, he declared: “Let’s have a hooley. I want to see you all hooley-ing.” A riot of hooley-ing ensued when he and the band played Rocky Road To Dublin.
“Does anyone want a sing song?” he asked afterwards.
The singsong that came with Paddy Works On The Railway was like the singsong that Dempsey as a young boy had at granny’s in Cabra or at my uncle’s in Coolock but on a somewhat grander scale.
It was a joyous moment as everyone danced and sang about “digging ditches”, “pulling switches”, “dodging hitches” wearing “corduroy britches” while working on the railway in Crewe in England in 1842.
He then made a joke about, Nelson’s Pillar, in Dublin city, being blown up in 1966. “Nelson must have had a bad pint,” he said. It was wit on a par with then-President of Ireland Éamon de Valera, who was alleged to have rung the Irish Press newspaper after the bombing to recommend the headline: ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air.’
Last night – courtesy of spiritual ballads like Not on Your Own Tonight, Sing All Our Cares Away, Love Yourself Today and Almighty Love – Dempsey had 8,000 fans leaving the Iveagh Gardens floating on the air.
De Valera would have been proud.