- 16 Feb 23
“I don’t write hits, I write healers,” says Dublin hero Damien Dempsey at the beginning of the Conor McPherson-directed Abbey Theatre production.
It's hard, if not absolutely impossible, to ignore the heart permanently fixed on Damien Dempsey's sleeve. For Dubliners, the Donaghmede singer-songwriter has become a staple of loyalty to his community, dedication to diving into the nation's harrowing history and respecting the storytellers who came before him.
Late last year, it was announced that Dempsey and Conor McPherson had teamed up to bring Abbey Theatre audiences Tales from the Holywell, an intimate theatrical reflection on the musician's life and career from January 30 until February 18 (this Saturday). The result is a sprawling evening of memory, introspection and some of his most beloved hits - songs the audience embrace with familiar warmth, though given the setting, can't belt along to until the finale.
While it presented a foil to Damien's adored Christmas shows at Vicar Street, which have become praised as a mass-like, spiritual experience of ultimate catharsis; the Abbey Theatre stage is a whole different beast. The singer references the often-patronising tone of those noting the alternate, often upper-class space of theatre and comparing his own roots. He maintains a natural, positive vibes-only attitude throughout the show despite this, often making jokes about his "porcelain, delicate upper class hands".
Threading a needle of his early life stories through to adolescence, commercial success, working with John Reynolds, Sinead O'Connor and more; Dempsey describes the passing of his tough dad Francis ("Franko") during the Covid pandemic with tongue-in-cheek wit and nostalgic, but complex, love for a hard-working Dublin man who worked as a panel beater.
The best moments were the most personal, shining a light on Ireland's deep-rooted trauma from colonialism, the Mother and Baby Homes or Magdalene Laundries, clerical abuse, industrial schools and further scandals that have caused generational wounds that remain to this day. Describing the period when his mother left their home when Dempsey was 15, he noted that many other women on Holywell Road followed suit, kicking their partners out or leaving themselves. It was an act of bravery, one that was exceedingly rare for women in the time before divorce was legalised.
Other tales recount his era of bartending in New York while songwriting during the day, discovering the bizarre God Channel and messianic preacher who claimed he could make a wheelchair user walk again. The hilarious vignette features Damien almost choking on crisps, imagining his family back in Ireland hearing of his surreal fate.
Meanwhile, Paul Keogan’s effective stage design created LED squares that surround Damien's brilliant backing band like halos. The ensemble of violin, double bass, percussion, and keyboards appear behind individual hazy screens, like holograms haunting the stage with their talented presence.
They play hints of Debussy, Andrea Bocelli, Hot Chocolate and 'The Rocky Road to Dublin' behind "Dinkle" Dempsey as he tells his truth, but burst into action impeccably when needed.
The penchant for the supernatural comes through in the 47-year-old's description of his granny's premonitions, which he says passed down to him. His story of saving a drowning man after having a dream the night before was somehow injected with humour - "I can see the headline now, 'Damien Dempsey attacks drowning man'," he joked, referencing the grip of steel the man in distress had when he grabbed onto Dempsey for safety and almost pulled him down too.
One of the most moving stories traced his grandfather's experience of Letterfrack in Co. Mayo, a hauntingly grim industrial school. He was sent there after climbing a tree for the crime of "wandering", where he was left to suffer unspeakable cruelties for four years. Vividly describing his father's own ability to explode in anger and yell terrible things at him, he described how the ghost of the priests at Letterfrack was passed down through the family. Telling his own self-doubts and hate-fuelled thoughts of worthlessness to burn in hell earns him the biggest cheer of the night, deservedly.
In between stories of his brothers Gary and Emmett convincing him that tiny leprechaun figures were behind the controls inside the record player and making sugar sandwiches during the Pope's visit to Phoenix Park, he sprinkles in renditions of 'Negative Vibes', 'Factories', 'Patience', 'Spraypaint Backalley', 'Colony', 'Canadian Geese', 'Soulsun' and more.
Consistently paying tribute to the good-humour and slagging of his community, he also tells of his nerves before a Christy Moore show where he was set to appear for two songs in front of 10,000 people. "I almost walked in front of a car to get out of it...a small, slow-moving car..." he smiles. He walked out trembling before a woman in the front bellows "He's like Elvis" and calmed his jitters, reminding him of the wit-filled west Cabra sessions.
He also doesn't back away from discussing his experiences with bullies, violence and depression. After writing 30 tracks in a Patrick Street lonely flat before John Reynolds in London admitted to feeling uninspired by them, the dark clouds only parted after he went to listen to trad sessions in local Dublin haunt Hughes' pub and reinvigorated his love for historic storytelling.
John Hurt crawling towards him on all fours during a hotel singalong with the Hothouse Flowers in London is another gem of a story, which he told at his Up Close and Personal show with Hot Press, examining 2003's Seize the Day.
While certain moments slightly sway into the oft-explored cliche Dublin storytelling territory, noting Joyce, Kavanagh and other heralded Irish writers, his passion and ability to keep the crowd in the palm of his hand is the gift he'll forever wield. Healing is his goal, and Cabra singalong sessions provided the means for his education in ritual.
The power of communal experience is at the core of Dempsey's craft, and voices from every seat of the Abbey Theatre belted out 'Sing All Your Cares Away' as an epic conclusion.
"We grow strong or we fall," the crowd screams back to him as he conducts, beaming at the people already standing for an ovation. Self-confessed "Marmite", you either love or hate Damien Dempsey, but his fans will sit on your chest and force you to "click" with him eventually. After hearing his Tales from the Holywell, we don't need the latter tactic.
Catch the show before it finishes its run on February 18th (Saturday).