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  • Chris O'Rourke

Tales From The Holywell



Damien Dempsey in Tales from the Holywell, directed by Conor McPherson. Image: Rich Gilligan


****

Damien Dempsey doesn’t have fans. He has disciples. His cathartic concerts hailed as worshipping at the church of Damo. Which likely makes Tales From The Holywell, Dempsey’s debut play, the Gospel according to Damo. Directed by Conor McPherson, Tales From The Holywell follows Dempsey through the trials, triumphs and tribulations of his journey from Holywell Crescent, Donaghmede to the Abbey stage. Baring his soul through songs and stories in a production that overflows with laughter.


Given McPherson's involvement, you could be forgiven for expecting another Girl from the North Country, McPherson’s brilliant play based on the music of Bob Dylan. But Tales From The Holywell bears a closer resemblance to Bono’s Stories of Surrender, or Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With Ghosts, being essentially an audience with Dempsey. A one-man show that straddles the uneasy divide between theatrical production and concert. As in all great one-person shows, story isn’t really the thing, which here is thin on the ground dramatically. Rather, it’s about an encounter with the individual onstage. Dempsey being, in terms of presence and personality, charismatically outstanding.

Damien Dempsey in Tales from the Holywell, directed by Conor McPherson. Image: Rich Gilligan


From the outset Dempsey addresses the oversized elephant in the room; not everyone gets his music. A working class hero for over two decades, by his own admission Dempsey is pretty much marmite who doesn’t write hits. Relaying anecdotes about false teeth, sugar sandwiches, and evangelical healers, Dempsey soon has the audience eating out of his hand. Never more so than when he strays into confessional moments whose hard won openness proves irresistible; talking about being bullied, beaten, depressed, suffering writers block. Several songs played live with musicians Lucia McPartlin, Aura Store, Rod Quinn and Courtney Cullen contextualise and vitalise the experiences. Till it all settles down into an easy, alternating stride, having nowhere to get to for not needing to go anywhere.


If Dempsey dominates centre stage, addressing the audience directly, it’s McPherson’s direction that makes all the theatrical difference in terms of pace, rhythm, and flow. Ably assisted by Paul Keogan’s lights and set adding depth and texture. Keogan’s frames within a frame, like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, see rectangles of light containing Dempsey and his musicians, as if to freeze them like pictures in a gallery, which they endlessly elude. Meanwhile Keogan’s shifting coloured backdrop marks and establishes mood. Similarly Sinead Diskin’s superb sound design in which haunting whispers of music are ever present. Like the steady trickling of water from a holy well.

Damien Dempsey in Tales from the Holywell, directed by Conor McPherson. Image: Rich Gilligan


A sacred space, like Holywell Crescent is for Dempsey. Being not just where he grew up, but a metaphor for a Celtic past fused with a colonial history steeped in social realism. His pick and mix spirituality full of ancestors, premonitions, tenement superstitions, of reconnecting with nature and the communal connectedness of song. The women in his family soothsayers, Dempsey, as bard, Irish royalty in the original sense of the word. This shy, hard man, later a budding artist, struggling through sacred singsong in find his own voice on his own terms.


If Dempsey's musical roots lie deep in Irish soil, it’s not the whole story. In his song Teachers, Dempsey cites Johnny Cash and Bob Marley, amongst others, as influences. Attired in Saileóg O’Halloran’s stunningly simple costume, it becomes perfectly clear: Dempsey is the man in black singing redemption songs. Incantations to liberate and redeem us from ourselves, or our situations, with several Dempsey favourites included alongside some newer works. Like Marley, Dempsey writes his soul, spirt, and colonised history into his vision for the future.


But then there’s those criticisms that have dogged him all his life, which he admits often got inside his head, taking him to dark places. Beginning with the songs. Where Marley wrote simple songs, Dempsey is often seen to write simplistic ones. Crowbarring lyrics into tight rhythmic structures on occasion, creating internal musical frictions. If fans claim his songs are disliked because they’re sung in his own voice, speaking of his own place, for others that’s just an excuse to excuse mediocre song writing; all first draft lyrics and plain chord progressions that haven’t really matured.

Damien Dempsey in Tales from the Holywell, directed by Conor McPherson. Image: Rich Gilligan


Then there’s Dempsey’s Northside Dublin, which sings the same old song. At its best it’s a place populated by a rogues gallery of caricatures from a Roddy Doyle novel. Salt of the earth types with a cutting wit, their casual violence and critical insults normalised. At its worse, it's Northside Dublin mythologised as the Irish equivalent of Trenchtown. A lawless, working class wilderness full of violence, crime, danger and despair. So bad it makes Compton look like the Riveria. A mis-representation that limits real representation, steeped in a prejudiced past. Where The Rare Aul Times meets Dublin Saunter in a romanticised, sentimentalised realism. An association many Northside working class people reject.

All of which only proves that Dempsey is a synthesis of conflicting and complimenting opposites. A shy, humble towering presence with a quiet, confident authority. Like Woodie Guthrie, Dempsey’s songs might not score Spotify billions like Bieber, but Guthrie was, and remains, the real, transformative deal. As is Dempsey, who sings from neglected regions of the soul. His world weary howl, his raw cry of the damned, the guttural grumble of those trying to rise, yet again. Like Emerson’s poet, Dempsey stutters and stammers to articulate his truths with such integrity even the polished seems raw. Declaring with a punk, DIY defiance; “Maybe it could have been sung and said sweeter, but so what? We're singing so we can break free.”

Damien Dempsey in Tales from the Holywell, directed by Conor McPherson. Image: Rich Gilligan


Persuasive? Not for everyone? If, as Dempsey claims, healing is what he does, the deep catharsis he and his fans enjoy is not always shared by others. Yet Tales From The Holywell is still mighty powerful stuff, even if it mostly preaches to the converted. As he leaves the stage to rapturous applause there’s something of the sage about Dempsey. The sage being one who humbly walks behind the future picking up jewels from the past dropped in the blind rush towards progress. A bard self-consciously speaking for an old Dublin and old Dubliners, channeling ghosts of the past into this technologically fractured present so the future doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Perhaps Dempsey will have the last laugh. Preaching how we should sing all our cares away. Grow strong. Perhaps, like the Nazarene and his band of misfits, Dempsey might begin by attracting a handful of faithful disciples then go take over the world. On the evidence of Tales From The Holywell, you wouldn’t rule it out. Joyous, uplifting, hugely entertaining, everyone should see Tales From The Holywell. Especially Dempsey's skeptics. Like him, hate him, you can’t help but love him.


Tales From The Holywell by Damien Dempsey, directed by Conor McPherson in an Abbey Theatre production, runs at The Abbey Theatre until February 18.


For more information visit The Abbey Theatre


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