Peeling Away Layers

Tales from the Holywell (Photo: The Abbey Theatre)

Peeling Away Layers

Damien Dempsey's 'Tales from the Holywell', a theatrical production directed by Conor McPherson and telling the story of the singer's development as an artist, is currently on a sold-out run at the Abbey Theatre. Brendan Finan reviews.

Class and class struggle are never far away in Damien Dempsey’s work, and neither were they far away in the stories he told on stage at the Abbey, where his new show, Tales from the Holywell, is enjoying a sold-out run. His parents, he tells us, ‘had to save up to be poor.’ Early in the night he described coming to terms with his identity as a working-class artist – although there was a sense of discomfort with that label, or maybe just of reflectivity, of a public exploration of what it means to him. He described how taking up martial sports – karate and boxing – helped him combat the feeling that his career was a lazy one, and about his struggles with writer’s block. ‘I’m an artist, but I’m not middle class,’ he said at one point, adding with a grin, ‘I’m upper class.’

Directed by Conor McPherson, Tales from the Holywell is billed as a theatrical production rather than a concert, and not without cause. Dempsey spends most of the show’s two hours talking, telling stories of his life growing up on Holywell Road in Donaghmede and becoming an artist. Alongside him onstage were the violinist Lucia McPartlin and double bassist Aura Stone with Rod Quinn on drums and Éamonn de Barra on piano. They provided harmonic and rhythmic support when he played and, when he spoke, a gently ambient background, occasionally drifting into tunes or motifs – a little nostalgic touch of Clair de Lune as he described his childhood, or Rhapsody in Blue as he talked about living in Brooklyn. In a sense the show was a live, accompanied memoir, a series of sketches of a life. Dempsey is a skilled raconteur, engaging and funny, and his stories paint a sincere (if sometimes sentimental) picture of Dublin as he has experienced it.

With fans in mind
Dempsey’s fans are a devoted bunch, and he knows it.
Tales from the Holywell is made with fans in mind, with a sense that everyone in the room is already with him. He describes his music as ‘like Marmite’, and the process of current fans recruiting new ones through a relentless process of proselytisation. And certainly for the audience in the Abbey, there was no sense of a need to win them over. They were his people already.

The songs he sang were something of a career retrospective as well, the better-known ones (not necessarily famous – ‘I don’t write hits, I write healers,’ he said) spread through the concert. Dempsey’s music is always intimate and sincere, so there was nothing particularly new there at the Abbey; but the conversation was introspective, and sometimes lit the songs in a different light, reflecting their creation or magnifying the stories they tell. Songs like ‘Colony’, with its message of solidarity and colonial oppression, hit as hard as they did two decades ago, while others like ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ provide intimate catharsis.

The stage design, like Dempsey’s songs, is simple and direct. It’s also deeper than it may initially seem; early in the show I found myself wondering to what extent McPherson was involved at all for what felt, broadly, like a gig with more storytelling, and it wasn’t until describing it afterwards that I realised how integrated it was. Two translucent screens overlaid the stage, each rising in turn at the beginning. Behind them, though still visible from the outset, were five smaller screens, each obscuring a performer. As the first song began, Dempsey’s rose and remained raised; at the end of each half, the others rose, revealing the other musicians. And, apart from some lighting and a flat coloured backdrop, this was more-or-less it. It was distinct, though, and carried a clear metaphor: of raising barriers, or peeling back layers.

Throughout the show, Dempsey reflected on his knack for getting people to sing. It seems that singing together was the point, although a note went out from Dempsey before the gig that this would be ‘an intimate listening vibe, the exact opposite of what we usually do together en masse.’ The show bottled up the audience’s instinct to sing along, and let it out in a cathartic and memorable ending. As the audience sang at last, the backdrop was raised, revealing those same five rectangular frames. But now the frames held not screens but mirrors; above them a blazing light directed at the audience, showing Dempsey’s fans in full song.

If Dempsey is to be believed, then my response to his music is unusual, in that I don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. (I feel the same about Marmite, come to mention it.) But I like what he does. He described family sing-songs, where some people had ‘shattered, out-of-key voices’, and how to him they were always the best singers because of the passion and experience in their song. He clearly has a special relationship with his audience, and if he gives voice to their songs, he also gives song to their voices, and there are few nobler ambitions than that.

Visit https://damiendempsey.comFor upcoming Abbey productions, visit

Published on 15 February 2023

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit

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