The music of St. Patrick’s Day, if it is political at all, tends to pick at old wounds and recall even older fights. That doesn’t make it bad – a good many of the old rebel songs are brilliant — but it can make the tunes a tad redundant.
There is nothing redundant about Damien Dempsey, however. The 28-year-old Dublin songwriter, whose first U.S. album, Seize the Day (Attack) was quietly released last fall, explores the harsh realities of contemporary Ireland with an eye and an ear that owes as much to Bob Marley as it does to the Clancy Brothers.Dempsey’s music is Irish to the core – as Shane Mac Gowan of the Pogues says of his Celtic comrade, “He sees the beauty that is Ireland and that is Ireland’s past and that can be Ireland’s future.” Yet, just as Marley made the Jamaican experience universal, so Dempsey sings a global song.
Seize the Day is packed with remarkable tunes, but the standout is “Celtic Tiger,” an unblinking examination of the growing gap between rich and poor in Ireland that takes its name from the label attached to that country’s “new economy.” But it could have been written about any developed country where the promise of globalization is turning out to be a nightmare for those who did not begin their journey on the upper rungs of the economic ladder.
Now they say the Celtic Tiger in my home town
Brings jewels and crowns, picks you up off the ground
But the Celtic Tiger does two things
It brings good luck or it eats you up for its supper.
It’s a tale of two cities on the shamrock shore
Please Sir can I have some more
‘Cos if you are poor you’ll be eaten for sure
and that’s how I know the poor have more taste than the rich
and that’s how I know the poor have better taste than the rich…
With Sinead O’Connor adding shimmering background vocals, Dempsey growls: “Hear the Celtic Tiger roar — I want more,” as he angrily observes that with Ireland experiencing “the fastest growing inflation rate in the world… a couple with kids can’t afford a place to live.” There is no smarmy nostalgia here; Dempsey is calling out the destroyers of the Irish sense of community:
We’re being robbed by the builders and the fat cat government
A league of greed and they don’t even need for a thing
It’s a sin
But it’s the nature of the beast
You’d better go and find a priest and confess
Because your greed is gonna leave you soulless.
One of the most astute assessments of “Celtic Tiger” came from the BBC reviewer who said, “As a pop-political barometer, the song merits comparisons with ‘Guns Of Brixton’ by The Clash and ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials.”
But the truest measure of Damien Dempsey’s music is that, in exploring the struggle for Ireland’s soul, Dempsey finds a global groove that speaks to those who live far beyond the shamrock shore — and to those who will be listening long after St. Patrick’s Day.
John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com