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Tales from the Holywell: Four stars for Damien Dempsey’s Abbey Theatre concert residency

The singer-songwriter’s show, directed by Conor McPherson, combines absorbing self-portrait with compassionately intelligent vision


Abbey Theatre, Dublin


Since he emerged with an ear for politically scathing critiques learned from 1970s reggae, Damien Dempsey has always branded himself an old soul. “I only recently got into my thick head that I am an artist,” he says during Tales from the Holywell, his absorbing concert residency at the Abbey Theatre – not a kind of artist belonging to the elite but descended from the bardic traditions of early modern Ireland.

One of the dominant storylines in Dempsey’s set list describes a struggle with that vocation. In the period before Almighty Love, his 2012 album, he was frozen by writer’s block. It’s a tension eerily captured by Conor McPherson’s production, which positions Dempsey at the mic, talking about sitting depressed in his apartment, while the presence of a drunken musician neighbour is felt by an onstage pianist’s soft playing of Clair de Lune. It’s a grim version of Dempsey’s future.

In another respect, Tales from the Holywell proposes something audacious for an artist: a self-portrait. The compassionately intelligent vision Dempsey developed early in his career has lost none of its relevance. The outcry of his early song Colony – which he reveals is about his grandparents, who were battered by Ireland’s early-century crises – is seen quietening to a hopeful statement about the power of positive thinking to escape the tumult of history: “Inside our minds we hold, hold the key.”

Dempsey’s own trauma during childhood is traced between songs that are less familiar than his chart-toppers, receiving detailed instrumentations suggesting a chamber-pop alternative to the storm gale of his live performances. The neighbourhood brawls of Spraypaint Backalley are followed by the stark depiction of violence from earlier song Factories: “I’m awoken by a / Handbrake turn outside / I knew lads who died.”


Whether being provoked by dangerous attackers or by dismissive comments about his self-expression, a standout performance of Patience suggests a worthwhile fight – out of defence; out of taking control of your life as an artist.

It feels wise for Dempsey to deploy self-deprecation as a way of remaining grounded

If the second half of the production feels more unearthly, it’s because that’s what the past decade of Dempsey’s career has been. The eclectic, eponymous object of the 2017 album Soulsun is written into that familiar metaphor for depression as a dark cloud, clearing it from the sky. He speaks about experiencing premonitions, about serendipitous appearances of his father’s favourite songs after he died, and a near-hallucinogenic breakthrough removing his writer’s block. Similarly, the details of Saileóg O’Halloran’s costuming and Paul Keogan’s set prefer a vision board of gold-tinted, almost-mystical images.

For that reason, it feels wise for Dempsey to deploy self-deprecation as a way of remaining grounded, to joke about being too deep at a party when he opened a conversation with a woman by asking her thoughts about Northern Ireland. Not all such reminisces feel securely connected to the concert’s themes, resembling instead a jumble of anecdotes prepped for a memoir.

Yet, as he departs Dublin for dreamier worlds, it cannot be said this isn’t an accurate image of Dempsey.

Runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, February 18th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture