Sociology Sounds, the recent initiative by the people over at Sociology Source to identify and recommend songs for use in the sociology classroom seems like an excellent idea. Most of the songs recommended are American or British in origin, and while many of them address aspects of human experience that people in most Western countries can relate to, it got me thinking about music that particularly speaks to the Irish existence. The first song that came to mind was Ghosts of Overdoses by Dublin singer songwriter Damien Dempsey, an artist who writes in a voice that remains true to the working class culture in which he grew up. He is, for me, one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary poets, less bland than Bono and far more accessible than Heaney.
On the surface, Ghosts of Overdoses is a song about drugs and a youth culture based around drug taking. However, listen closer, and it is also a moving and insightful analysis of Irish urban development and the impact it has on the lives of those displaced by gentrification. It gives voice to people who usually appear in journal articles and lecture slides only as graphs and statistics.
Gentrification is a common phenomenon in cities around the world, but here it has been given a particularly Irish slant, tracing the history of Irish urbanisation (with the lack of real industrialisation is was the great famine, along with landlordism, subdivision and rural poverty that pushed people into Dublin). It also makes a direct comparison of life in Tenement Dublin, and in contemporary housing estates, where death by heroin or by tuberculosis are one and the same thing, both tragedies suffered by the powerless.
It is a critical account, blaming ‘those in power’ which resonates with contemporary Irish feelings towards their government. But it is also an insight into the emotional devastation brought by uneven social change, and it speaks for those whose story so often goes untold. The line ‘it’s every parent’s worst fear for their child to end up on smack’ is particularly poignant, even chilling, because – due to those very processes of economic change, urban planning strategies and gentrification that sociology students may learn about in class – in the real world, for some parents that fear is far more immediate and real than for others.
Ghosts of Overdoses can be found on the album Seize the Day, released in 2003 by Clear Records / Sony