Saturday, 14 March 2020

Dempsey's Lot Part Three - Who do you think you are? Origins and early memories

Part three of Pete Millington's biography of veteran Irish folk musician, Tommy Dempsey. 

And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow.

From Madam George by Van Morrison

I was actually born in Glasgow but had to leave there when I was just six weeks old… I just couldn’t get the bookings

Tommy Dempsey 2019

As I sat down at the Dempsey family’s large wooden kitchen table whilst Tommy made coffee, we began conversing about our respective ailments and the challenges of the aging process, at which point I had to remind myself I was talking to a man 25 years my senior. Ailments or not, Tommy exudes a passion, intellect, sanity and enthusiasm for life which  relatively younger folk like me can only wish we might have when and if we hit, let alone surpass the landmark of 80 years of age. 

I asked Tommy when and where was he born? Having always known Tommy to be a Dubliner by origin, like my grandparents who had attended his concerts partly because he was, like themselves, a Dub in Brummagem, I wasn’t expecting his answer:

I was born in Glasgow in 1936. My father was killed in a motorcycle accident just before I was born. All my people were from Belfast you see, Northern Ireland, so my mother was shocked and what she did to try and get over it was to go to live with her father who had relocated following the death of his wife, my grandmother, who had herself died tragically in a road accident when alighting from a tram, and he was   living in Glasgow. She went over to have a break and then thinking it over she didn’t want to go back to Belfast at that time, things were not happy, as they haven’t been for a while. So she went to some friends in Dublin and lo and behold settled down, so from the age of 6 weeks I was reared in Dublin with a strong influence from my great-grandmother.

With one foot in the north and one in the south, so to speak, Tommy found himself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place:

When I was in Dublin I was getting stick because I came from the black north, so I went to Belfast for a year or so and went to school and was getting stick there for being a ‘dirty Dubliner’ as they called it, so I couldn’t win. I had no brothers and no siblings to back me up. I got it going and coming, you talk about racism well you wouldn’t believe it!

When I was a bit older I went to the Isle of Man for a season, I was trying the catering because my mother and father were both in the catering business, that’s how they met. My mother worked at the Four Courts Hotel in Dublin, she was the waitress in charge of the jury because if they weren’t allowed to go home or had to stop over she would look after them and all this carry-on. I went to the Isle of Man for a season and I came back and went to Belfast – I was a bobbin’ boy in a mill. Funny enough the other night on television they were talking about this industry and they showed you some old film of the linen mills, where the women were walking around in bare feet because the ground was soaking wet.

My aunt was what they called a dorkin’ mistress in the dorkin’ room where all the yarn was spun and the air was soaking wet and humid. The folk term, and there is one song at least about that, was the “greasy belly dorkers” which was what they called the poor girls. They wore a leather apron. And my Aunt got me the job, God forgive her, she brought me in, will I have a look? And I thought “my God!” Alright I’d have been about 16 then, 15 possibly, it was like something out of Dickens. It really was. The lack of light, the dimness of the place, the noise!

But even in the hellish noise of the Belfast linen mill, Tommy had a sense of the rhythm of the machines. He was reminded of this by the television programme he had watched recently: 

What it was, they were talking about clog dancing and the music. It was part of one of these Who Do You Think You Are? programmes and the music for dancing was supposed to relate to the tempo of the machines.

Even as we sat drinking coffee in his kitchen on a lazy summer afternoon in June, far from the madding crowd, I was constantly aware of Tommy’s innate sense of rhythm as he would frequently break into short bursts of finger percussion upon the wooden table surface, as if playing an invisible bodhrán. 

I asked him “So did you grow up with music Tommy?

Yep. My great grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, gave me a number of songs as a kid. I absorbed it from her, but at school we had a teacher who used to teach us … well you couldn’t call him a music teacher because the school I went to in Dublin …well anyway it had a roof on it! So anyway he used to give us these songs and in the back of my mind I thought, “this man composes all these songs to annoy us by getting us to learn them”. But lo and behold if he had composed them himself, he’d have been worth money because some of them were really, really old songs.

It’s funny because I always had a memory for the words of songs but as a child that didn’t lend itself to an awful lot else. Me mother used to say “Tommy if you had the maths-ability, memory-wise, that you have for the music, you’d be well away in academic life”. But in my life it’s been very rewarding to me in an awful lot of ways.

I asked Tommy if his memory for the words of songs and the narrative therein conveyed, reflected the tradition in Ireland of passing on story by word of mouth? Tommy answered my question with anecdote:

I bought my mother an accordion many years ago off a bloke I knew in a club. She could pick it up and play a tune, maybe not exact, but she could play it. She had it in her as well. And my great grandmother was crazy about dance and music. I used to take her down Moore Street in Dublin shopping on Saturday and she always wore this dark shawl with frills and my mother used to say “Grand-mother, will you not let me get you a lovely new black coat?” and she’d say “yes alright”. So my mother got her the new coat and she still wore the old shawl.

She still had that bit of the old ways, she always haggled for food but the thing is we’d always end up at a certain part of Moore Street, near the top where there was a pub she liked. Now Great Granny wasn’t a boozer but she always went in the snug and she’d say “go out and get John for me” and there was this fellah outside, it’s funny how life goes because years later The Dubliners collected songs from this same man, he used to stand outside in an ex-army/navy surplus store cape, his head came through like out of the top of a rubberised tent and he would pull back the cape and play the accordion.

I never saw him without the bloody mac. And my Great Grandmother would say “come in John and what are you having to drink?” and she’d supply him his drink for him to play music for her. And people used to call up to the flat in Parnell Street where we lived, and one was a banjo player, and one pair were a husband and wife – he played the harp and I can’t remember what she played. And they used to do the queues as well, the cinema queues and up near the Dail Eireann, just down from Stephen’s Green, they had a pitch there. It wasn’t a bardic harp, which is the smaller one, this was what you used to have in drawing rooms of wealthy people, it was a decent sized harp. She’d  invite them up, she’d probably pay them but she used to have them up every so often. And what did I do as a kid? “I’m getting out of here before these buggers come up” Just shows you doesn’t it? You think what a wasted bit of time and knowledge that was.

You don’t appreciate it as a kid because you’ve got other priorities. But no one knew what the hell you were talking about with ‘folk’ music  anyhow. If you had a party, people would sing certain songs, but if you sang some songs that were a bit longer, more like your traditional songs, it was called “come all yers”. Well “come all yers” means “join in”. I even saw a folk club one time in the Midlands which took the name come all yer - The Come All Yer Club. “Join in! Come all yer”.

Tommy continued to tell me about his early life after he left Belfast and returned home to Dublin for a while. But finding that work was in very short supply he left Ireland once more, this time to work in Wales.

I must have been about 17. I’d worked on and off since I left school at 14. Then I was offered some work here in Birmingham, a cousin of mine said he could get me a job and I came over to Birmingham and that was the last move. Because I intended, if I moved again, I’d go to America but I settled here and got such a crowd of friends around and what have you and now we have our family in Birmingham. I used to say “bloody Birmingham” and Mum would say “Ah! Ah! Ah! That’s the place you’re learning and living in, this is it”.

I asked Tommy about his first impressions of Birmingham and he replied in customary style with an anecdote:

My daughter said to me one day, “have a word with our son Jamie” (she’s a linguist, she was always interested in language), “he’s getting very Brummie”. Like an idiot I took her advice and I said “son, do you not think you’re getting very Brummie?” and he looked at me and replied “and Granddad do you not think you’re getting very bloody Dublin?”

So if you said anything in our house that was anti-Dublin or anti-Irish, that was one thing, but the same applied to the Brummies. You didn’t beat the Brummies. I got stick and rightly so. But then I got a footing in Birmingham.

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