Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey on the Great Irish Songbook and the magic of St Patrick's Day in London
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Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey on the Great Irish Songbook and the magic of St Patrick's Day in London

WITH St Patrick's Day right around the corner, you can almost hear the sound of Ronnie Drew singing The Irish Rover already.

The Dubliners' classic will be one of many Irish anthems to be belted out of stereos in pubs and clubs the world over as Irish at home and abroad don their green garments and shamrock to embrace their nationality for a full 24 hours.

Now, one of Ireland's most popular contemporary folk singers, Damien Dempsey, will put his own spin on the great Irish songs of the past when he brings his The Great Irish Songbook tour to the UK this month.

Furthermore, the iconic Dub will take to the famous Roundhouse venue in Camden Town for a one-off special concert on Paddy's night, where he'll be joined by some of the more talented Irish musicians to emerge from the homeland in recent years.

Ahead of the tour, Damien spoke to us about the great Irish songs of the past that have inspired him, and his own memories of spending St Patrick's day amongst the London Irish in Trafalgar Square.

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IP: You're bringing the Great Irish Songbook on a tour of the UK, featuring songs from The Pogues and The Dubliners. What inspired you to bring this catalogue of music to a UK audience?

DD: It was the idea of a Manchester/Irish promoter named Simon Moran of SJM Concerts. He suggested it because he heard me doing a version of Rainy Night in Soho and thought it was good so he just thought these songs weren’t being sung very much in the UK anymore. He reckons there is still a market there for them and that a lot of people still want to hear them so he thought that I would be the man to take them around the UK and stick in a few of my own songs too. Hopefully, I can introduce some people to these old songs and some of my own along the way too.

IP: You've also got Damofleadh, your own unique celebration of St Patrick's Day, taking place on Paddy's night in the Roundhouse in Camden. You lived in London for a few years, what are your memories of Paddy's Day here?

DD: It was always Trafalgar Square and the great concert down there. I’ve sung at that a good few times. I always do my song Colony there which goes down well! It feels great to sing that song amongst the London Irish in Trafalgar Square. I think yer man Boris Johnson tried to ban the concert in Trafalgar Square a couple years ago but there was such an uproar that he had to back down. Ken Livingstone was always there and a great supporter when he was the Mayor of London but the Johnson fellow didn’t like it but he had to eventually back down.

IP: You were lucky enough to be at Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday party in Dublin back in January, where you performed three of his songs. Can you tell me what it was like to be there on such a special night for such a special man?

DD: It was magic! A beautiful night. There was so much love for Shane and the music he has written. I wanted to do Rainy Night in Soho because I had done it with the Dubliners which has been playlisted in America in Starbuck’s and all sorts but unfortunately somebody else got my song on the night (Bono and Johnny Depp). Anyway, I had to learn a few Pogues songs I didn’t know as well so I learned Body of an AmericanSick Bed of Cuchulainn and Streams of Whiskey. I only had a week to learn them so it was tough going but I realised how incredible the songs are and how hard they are to sing. But it's great because I now have these songs for the Irish Songbook Tour.

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IP: I listened back to one of the first songs you'd ever written recently, which was Cardboard City, a song about homelessness in Dublin. It occurred to me that its lyrics are as relevant today as it was 10/15 years ago. What role do you think Irish musicians have in these big societal issues?

DD: Well, I got involved with the water charges protests a couple years back and we made the government back down. They were trying to privatise the water but the people wouldn’t pay their bills so there was a real rebellion back in 2016 and the people stood up and were counted. Same with the church, the church told people not to vote for same-sex marriage and the people did it anyway. That was a real year for rebellion because the people stood up against the church and the state.

It just shows that when we come together we can make changes in the country. On the 7th April people like Christy Moore and many more are coming out on the streets to get the government to declare a housing crisis in Ireland and that’ll be a big day.

IP: You’ve lived in New York, Sydney and London in the past and now you’ve found yourself back in your hometown of Donaghmede, Co. Dublin. Do you feel more inspired to write music when you’re away from home and feeling a bit nostalgic about Ireland or do you write more when you’re back with your own community in Dublin?

DD: I went to those places just to let things percolate really. At the moment I’m feeling like before I do another album I might just have to go away somewhere for a while again and just do something different. I try to do that before every album. Change my life a little bit. Someone said its like if you’re up too close to a portrait or painting you find you have to move away from it a bit to see it better and that’s why I go to these cities and leave Ireland for a bit. I’m doing a collaboration album at the moment which is a bit easier. I’m doing some old songs and sending them to people like Christy Moore, Finbar Furey, Morrissey and Imelda May.

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IP: That's a talented list of names! There seems to be a great community for collaboration within Irish musicians at the moment.

DD: Yeah it's such a small gene pool that we run into each other a lot. We all sort of get on fairly well. Its great to be able to work with these legends like Finbar and Christy and John Sheahan. It's great that these people are still around. They’re still motoring on and playing amazing gigs so you have to grab them while you can.

IP: You’ve championed burgeoning Irish musicians in the past. You brought David Keenan on tour with you a couple years ago and now he's flying it. What place do you think folk and trad music has in the future of Irish music as a whole?

DD: I’d like to see present-day musicians incorporating it more into their own stuff because we have such a treasure trove in Ireland of old music. David does it very well.

IP: Are there any spots in the UK you really look forward to coming back and performing in?

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DD: There are a few new ones on the tour. I haven’t really played in Leeds or Sheffield. I've only really played those places when I've been supporting other bands. I've always had a great time in Newcastle and Birmingham in the past. Warrington, I haven’t played before. There are a few places I haven’t got to with my own show. I’ll be hoping it’ll go down well there. London’s always magic on Paddy’s Day. It's like Vicar Street in Dublin there’s a different vibe to it you know.

I’ve never played the Roundhouse before. It’s a big venue so we’re taking a chance but we have Jerry Dammers from The Specials doing a DJ set, Wildwood Kin are great harmony singers and Beoga will have the place rocking. Morrissey and Marshal, of course, are two of the best singers to come out of Ireland lately. Yeah, it’s going to be some show I can’t wait!

You can find more information about Damien Dempsey's The Great Irish Songbook tour here.