Ireland is on the way back says Sean Penn, who was in Dublin on Friday to present a human rights award to a prominent women’s rights campaigner, Noorzia Afridi of Pakistan.

Why was an American actor in Ireland to present an award to a Pakistani activist? The event was hosted by Front Line Defenders, an Irish-based group chaired by billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien that aims to protect at-risk human rights defenders. Penn is a big supporter of their mission.

Penn visited Ireland without his girlfriend Charlize Theron, no stranger to the Emerald Isle herself as she dated Irish actor/writer Stuart Townsend for nine years prior to their breakup in 2010.

Sporting a youthful mop-top hairstyle, Penn, 53, seemed in good form during an interview with Dublin’s Newstalk radio station. He talked about Ireland’s capital city when he last visited for a film shoot in 2010, and was disturbed at the toll of the Celtic Tiger crash.

“I have spent a fair amount of time over the last 30 years coming back and forth to Ireland, significantly Dublin but throughout the country, and I had seen previously the life of the city more than one or two nights a week.  When I came back this last time [in 2010] it was dark and quiet most of the time and the pubs were empty. It really, really struck me,” he said.

There’s a decent amount of logic to Penn linking dead Irish pubs to a moribund economy, and he said he was happy to hear that Ireland is on the upswing.

“This is my first time back since then and I understand that things have improved significantly and I’m looking forward to sharing in the improvement this evening with my one night in Dublin,” he said.

The Oscar winner did exactly that in high style with none other than Dublin’s most famous A-list host, Bono, and another cool visitor, singer Julian Lennon, John’s son. The three amigos enjoyed a meal at the Clarence Hotel, which Bono and U2 bandmate The Edge used to own, before moving on to another bar in town for a nightcap.