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Damien Dempsey: earthily classy singer-songwriter, utterly classy life-saver


We knew Damien Dempsey was a powerful, gutsy songwriter and song interpreter (see Pete Sixsmith's pieceon his gripping version of Ewan MacColl's Schooldays Over.) We did not know he was also a life-saver.

After a show in the Irish town of Enniscorthy last weekend, he found himself diving into the River Slaney to rescue a teenage boy who would almost certainly otherwise have drowned.

Another excellent Irish singer, Frances Black, posted at Facebook that this astonishing feat made Damien a legend. Oddly enough, it didn't greatly surprise.

Back in 2005, I sat inside a Paris office and, in time off from being The Daily Telegraph's correspondent in France, interviewed Damien (on the phone) for an arts pages feature.

He came across as just the kind of rough-and-ready, heart-in-the-right-place character who, seeing someone in distress or danger, would leap to their aid. I shall reproduce the 2005 piece below, followed by a clip of the song Pete - and I - so admire. 

For more on DD's heroics, this piece from the Mirror will help: https://www.irishmirror.ie/news/irish-news/damien-dempsey-relives-incredible-moment-3751710





Image: Bruce Baker


From the Telegraph in 2005


As he prepares for his sold-out St Patrick's Day concert, Damien Dempsey tells Colin Randall about the long, hard slog for success

The supporting artist's lot is not, generally, a happy one. Rows of empty seats stretch into the distance, animated chatter is audible from the bars whenever a door opens, and most of those settled inside are impatient for the star to appear.

Damien Dempsey knows all about it, having cut his teeth warming up for a range of headliners from Bob Dylan and Morrissey to Sinead O'Connor and Christy Moore. But one of the reasons he is now judged, in quite rational circles, to be on the verge of a serious breakthrough is that he has a magical ability to use those small opening slots to make a real impact.

Not only did those straying into the hall find themselves wanting to stay and listen to the big, booming voice, but some of the stars Dempsey was paid, none too handsomely, to support also started wandering on stage to lend an admiring hand.

At 29, Dempsey has his third album of uncompromising songs, inspired by the Dublin Northside school of hard knocks in which he grew up, in the shops in time for today's St Patrick's celebrations. He marks the occasion with the second of two sell-out concerts in the Irish capital, this time topping his own bill.

Even the most ardent of the 1,500 fans who will see him tonight would not argue that Dempsey's more memorable lines are a bundle of laughs. Between glimpses of humour and hope, his songs introduce a bleak cast of junkies and dealers, shirkers and misfits, joyriders and alcoholics.

These are not characters you'd necessarily invite home for tea. But Dempsey writes about them with the force and simple eloquence of a natural poet. If the powerhouse vocals get him heard, it is his sharp observations of the bottom end of human experience that lie behind the confident predictions of success. I have always felt that if Bob Marley had been Irish, he would have sounded like this.

Yet here is a man who still lives with his father in his home city and is in the final year of a state back-to-work scheme that began four years ago at the giddy height of £80 a week and has now shrunk to less than £14. He has little idea of what it might be like to make pots of money and insists that he does not really care.

"It's a cliché maybe, but I want to get my music to as many people as I can," says Dempsey in his streetwise Dubliner's brogue. "It's never been about making loads of money or being famous. I have my life in perspective and know how lucky I am."

Perhaps more than anything, though, Dempsey is anxious to settle a few accounts. "There are people who have put me down, torn me apart, told me I'm no use. I had 10 years of being ignored or attacked. If I succeed, it shows them and anyone else that dreams can come true."

Some of Dempsey's adversaries may be in the music industry, but others are still living in north Dublin. Despite his parents' separation when he was young, he enjoyed a stable upbringing from his father, a panel beater who - uncommonly for their part of town - held down a regular job. But, after he bought his first guitar at 12, life changed. "I'd practise and practise, and I did something nobody did in those days of Madness and the Specials: grew my hair long. That, and carrying a guitar, made me a bit of a target for the local skinheads."

Unhappily for his tormentors, Dempsey was also a big, strong boy, 6ft 1in and 14 stones at 16. And, when he started training at a boxing club, he became more than a match for the hoodlums. "Once word got around that I was a fella that had done a bit of boxing, and once I'd smacked a few of them for giving me grief, they sort of left me alone." Dempsey boxed for Dublin as a schoolboy light heavyweight, and still enjoys sparring sessions. Morrissey also fancies himself in a fighter's gloves and occasionally squared lightheartedly up to him when they toured together. But boxing ultimately proved little more than a distraction for Dempsey, who had always approached training with less passion than he felt standing in his bedroom imitating disparate boyhood heroes - Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, all now dead "To make it in the ring, you have to want to kill the other fella," he says. "That wasn't for me. But boxing has definitely helped me, with all the temptations and heavy lifestyle of music.

"I grew up in the rave years and began doing Es and other stuff, drinking fairly heavily and going a bit wild. There was always boxing to bring me back on the straight." Now, he avoids drugs and measures his drinking, not least because "hangovers are so much worse the older you get. I find if I don't drink from Monday to Thursday, I'm in good writing form from Wednesday to Friday and can then make up for it at the weekend."

His first song, about Dublin's smog, was written at 14. Few issues are avoided. Unemployment, heroin dealers preying on the young and Third World exploitation may seem unexceptional targets for a contemporary singer/songwriter, but his thoughts on corrupt Irish public figures and the failings of the Roman Catholic hierarchy sometimes struggle to make radio playlists.

Quite how far Dempsey can go, with his often gloomy subject matter and a vocal delivery owing as much to rap, reggae and rock as to the Irish balladeering tradition, is open to question. He is relaxed about the future, thankful for the lavish praise of artists whose pictures used to clutter his bedroom wall.

"Christy Moore was the first to give me hope," he says. "He told me I really had something." Brian Eno, Shane MacGowan and Morrissey are admirers, too.

"If you had told me at 16 that I'd end up singing duets with some of these people, I'd have said you were mad," Dempsey says. "But do you know what the most brilliant thing was? Someone telling me that long after I'd finished a gig in Dublin, people who'd been there were still singing one of my songs a mile-and-a-half away along O'Connell Street."




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