Damien Dempsey on acting, racism and voting republican 10 years ago

Damien Dempsey on acting, racism and voting republican

Passionate about music, history and politics, Damien Dempsey is an Irishman of the old school. JOE meets Damo as he prepares to step into film.

By William Nestor

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He may be a Marmite performer for some, but Damien Dempsey wouldn't be the type to be overly concerned with the views of his critics. His music has taken him from Dublin Town to touring the US with Morrissey and now he has jumped at the chance to make a break onto the big screen.

Between The Canals, delivered to us from the Irish Film Board, follows three small time criminals from Dublin's north inner city as they each aspire to be somebody in a fast-changing society.

Dempsey's participation in the film triggered instant interest and JOE caught up with the Irish singer-songwriter to hear about his acting debut, voting left wing and combating racism in Ireland.

JOE: How's things Damien. So, you’re an actor now. How did that come about?

Damien Dempsey: I never envisaged myself as doing any acting. The director approached me and asked me to do it. He was adamant that I should have a look at it, so I went to a meeting. I didn’t think I’d be any use at acting, I thought I’d be a bit too wooden, but he convinced me I could do it.

JOE: So you won’t be hopping it over to LA anytime soon then?

DD: No. [Laughs] Well, I haven’t got any offers yet anyway. I don’t think I’d be versatile enough as an actor. I didn’t think I’d be able to do that part but it went alright.

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JOE: Between the Canals could be described as portraying the stereotypical lifestyle of Dublin youths caught up in underworld activities. As a Dublin man was that something you were eager to highlight?

DD: I suppose it’s fairly prevalent at the moment. That’s the life some young men are leading in towns and cities around the country. Even in smaller country towns there are a lot of young men getting into drugs and dealing and gangs. There’s nowhere in Ireland untouched by this sort of stuff right now.

Between the Canals trailer:

JOE: So did you get to the polling station last week?

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DD: I did yeah.

JOE: And how did you vote?

DD: I went Labour and Sinn Fein.

JOE: What’s your take on the outcome?

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DD: We have a few people a bit left wing that might keep the Fine Gaelers from privatising the whole country. It’s a nice slap in the face for Fianna Fáil. I think they deserved that. They were so arrogant and blasé. The amount of pay rises they took was ridiculous; I think it was 12 they gave themselves in 2001. They were taking the piss really, you know.

JOE: Do you think Sinn Fein will ever get into power?

DD: I’d say they might do. They keep getting stronger and stronger. The ones I know are great fellas. Larry O’Toole is in my neighbourhood and out of all the politicians I’ve seen he’s done the most work.

Dempsey on Irish history, racism and dealing with negativity

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JOE: On your music and, to be specific, your topics. You often sing about Irish history - do you feel some aspects of it, such as the Irish slave trade, have been glossed over?

DD: I never read anything about that in any history book – never in any of the school history books anyway. I think they’re a bit reticent to tell the youth the real history of Ireland.

JOE: Why do you think that is?

DD: When I was growing up it was because they felt a lot of kids would join Na Fianna hEireann. They didn’t want them to become Republican. They didn’t want any subversive people. Republicans were enemies of the State, I suppose, so they didn’t want to teach children the real history. But I believe when young people know their proper history they’re less like to be racist against black people coming in here. They’ll realise we have similar histories to people of Nigeria, the Congo and Rwanda.

Of all the people in Europe the Irish, the Scottish and the Welsh are the ones who have a similar history to South Americans, Africans and Aboriginals. For hundreds of years we were colonised. We were the only country in Europe that was really. We’re sort of unique in Europe.

JOE: Do you think racism is a major issue in Ireland today?

DD: I don’t think it’s as bad as people say. There are not that many attacks and there’s no national front. It’s not as bad as England, you know. People probably have an inkling about their history in the back of their heads.

Damo shows his support for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) to boycott Israel last year

JOE: Your music has obvously matured over the years, but how do you feel about your earlier work? Stuff like Dublin Town?

DD: I appreciate the poetry of the time. I was just looking at what was going on then. I was telling it like it was. I love Dublin Town now. I think it’s a nice bit of poetry. It describes who I was when I was that age and my aspirations and dreams for the future – wanting to educate myself and wanting the people around me to educate themselves.

JOE: You decided to go to Ballyfermot Rock School as a teenager and make a go of music. Was it a big risk to take at the time?

DD: Further Education wasn’t really an option for me because my marks were so poor in the Leaving Cert. I wouldn’t have got in anywhere because I just scraped the five passes – a lot of the stuff they were teaching me didn’t interest me anyway. For Ballyfermot you didn’t need very much to get in, apart from good songs really.

Music was the only way for me but I had to work. For a lot of years people were saying to me, ‘You’re flogging a dead horse’ and ‘You’re going nowhere with this.’ Family and friends, lots of people. I hadn’t a penny for years, so it was a hard auld struggle.

JOE: How have you reacted to negativity to your music down through the years? I mean, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

DD: I’d be stubborn, you know. If someone told me not to do something or that I was shit at it I’d do it even harder.

If someone said, ‘You’re very common there’, I’d sing commoner. When I think back at things people have said to me I think they’ve made me work harder. Putting me down just made me want to prove them wrong. A bad or hurtful comment can be good for you sometimes.

JOE: You toured with Morrissey at one stage. What was that like?

DD: Very interesting. I got to see his shows every night for free so that was a wonderful thing - to see how great and passionate a performer he is. He has amazing poetry and lyrics. It was good for me because it got me out of my comfort zone.

I had to go out in front of 3,000 Morrissey fans every night, just me and my guitar. I thought at the start of the tour if I can do this, I can do anything, I’ll never be afraid of another gig or audience again. I got out there and faced my fears. It did make me stronger and got me a lot of fans in America. Playing Radio City Music Hall and the likes did me the world of good.

JOE: As an Irish artist who holds true to his values and principles do you think you are one of the last left standing of your kind?

DD: Ah no, there are loads of heads. Jinx Lennon, John Spillane, the Saw Doctors – they’re just a few who have stayed true to themselves. I’m in good company.

JOE: You are indeed Damien. Best of luck with the film, we’ll be watching out for you at the Oscars next year.

Damien: Nice one. Take it easy.

Between the Canals is released on 18 March exclusively at the IFI. Tickets are available at the IFI Box Office, by calling 01 679 3477 or www.ifi.ie.