Obituary: Christy Dignam (1960-2023)

By Drew Freyne

The death was announced today of Christy Dignam, the renowned lead singer of Aslan, at the age of just 63. Christy was a unique and beloved figure on the Irish music scene — a sincere artist and performer who dedicated his life to creating music that resonated with people; who never forgot or even strayed far from his roots in working-class Dublin. Through his powerful vocals and heartfelt lyrics, he touched countless fans and left an indelible mark.

Formed in Finglas in Dublin in 1982, Aslan quickly became a popular band, known for their soulful melodies and socially conscious themes. Their debut album, Feel No Shame, released in 1988, introduced the world to their sound and showcased Christy’s remarkable talent. Tracks like “This Is” struck a chord with listeners, capturing the struggles and triumphs of everyday life.

Throughout their career, Aslan remained steadfast in their commitment to social justice. Christy and the band spoke out against racism, using their platform to advocate for equality and inclusivity. Their music challenged prejudice and encouraged listeners to reflect on many other important social themes. 

Christy’s own personal struggles with heroin and other drugs in the 1980s, which caused much difficulty within the band — including Christy’s sacking as lead singer and its breakup for a brief period — also resonated with many people at the time when heroin was causing so much hardship in working-class communities. His battles with addiction continued in later years, too, finally becoming sober in 2008. 

Christy bravely and honestly spoke about the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of a neighbour, which was a major factor in his turn to drugs as a release from the pain of the trauma. This also resonated profoundly in an Irish society with such a horrendous history of such abuse, especially from church or state institutions. 

In addition to their work, Aslan demonstrated a deep appreciation for independent working-class music. They recognized the challenges faced by aspiring musicians from similar backgrounds and championed their efforts. Aslan valued the authenticity that comes with independent music production. They understood the struggles faced by artists lacking resources and connections and sought to uplift them.

Despite their impact and popularity, Aslan faced their fair share of challenges. Last year, the Department of Arts and Culture turned down Christy Dignam and Aslan’s application for funding from the Live Performance Support Scheme, a taxpayer-funded initiative. This rejection came at a time when the government imposed strict lockdown measures, effectively closing down venues across the country.

The irony is glaring. While a privileged circle of arts administrators comfortably secured their own interests, Christy Dignam was left struggling to make ends meet. In a public statement, he openly expressed his financial concerns, uncertain if he would be able to pay his mortgage or if he would have to resort to seeking employment as a delivery driver. It was an agonizing reality for an artist who had contributed so much over a span of 40 years.

This was not the first time that Christy and Aslan faced such rejection. The government and the Department of Arts and Culture repeatedly dismissed their pleas for support. Despite their immense contributions to our artistic landscape, they were deemed unworthy by those in power. Such instances reveal the stark contrast between the rhetoric of Ireland as a haven for artists, poets, and scholars and the harsh realities that many Irish artists face in their pursuit of recognition and sustenance.

Today, as we bid farewell to Christy Dignam, we remember him as a talented musician, an advocate for justice, a survivor of abuse and addiction, and, for all those reasons, a real working-class hero to many. 

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