March 3, 2015Feature

Street performing has come a long way since its humble trad beginnings. Now busking has become something of an art, with festivals celebrating the performers popping up all over the country. We talk to two archetypical Dublin street musicians about their experiences of busking in the city

Jimmy Cotter

Grafton Street has been described as the ‘Busker’s Carnegie Hall’ with more musicians, singers and entertainers plying their trade here than anywhere else in the country.

A man and his guitar

Strolling along the street on a chilly but bright midweek afternoon it’s hard not to be pulled in by the charm of one Jimmy Cotter. His interaction with passers by, his upbeat song repertoire and his infectious smirk make him the epitome of the Dublin busker.

“My father played the accordion and read sheet music so there was always music in our house,” Jimmy tells us. “When I was about nine years old I played a snare drum with my father’s Ceilí Quartet, from then I was hooked on drumming. As a teenager we formed a group and played at many local venues, then we formed a showband called The Visions. We played all the Ballrooms in Ireland, England and Scotland and many American Air Bases in England playing the soul music of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.”

It was when Jimmy picked up a guitar for the first time that his roots in busking really began. And since he bought his Yamaha folk acoustic guitar, he hasn’t looked back.

"When I finish busking I get to go home to my own bed. Whereas many people I meet don’t have that luxury."

“My experience of busking in Dublin has been wonderful. From the people I meet, the new friends I have made, the fellow buskers I have gotten to know and the homeless people I have befriended, the encouragement I get from people is amazing.

“The beautiful comments I receive about my voice and about my guitar playing, the smiles and looks of joy on people’s faces when they hear a song that connects with them is just amazing.”

Rough streets

Having been busking for around two years, Jimmy has gotten to see first hand the homelessness crisis in Dublin. He meets and interacts with people who are down on their luck and he says his heart truly goes out to them.
“When I finish busking I get to go home to my own bed. Whereas many people I meet don’t have that luxury, which is especially bad on a cold evening.

“Eoin, a homeless person from Castlebar, asked me to think of him and his little dog Bingo every time I sing ‘Only the Lonely’ by Roy Orbison. I met him on a cold evening when he was sitting in a sleeping bag just off Grafton Street. While chatting to him I mentioned I was famished, being a real gentle soul, he gave me bread roll and some muffins he had left over.”

"I arrived in Dublin with my daughters, Siobhán, Doireann and Síle in 1985 and needed to make a few bob."

Rooted in tradition

Maire Ní Bheaglaoich has been performing in different ways for years. It’s her childhood experience of playing her songs to the music hungry people around her that paved the way for her busking lifestyle.

“My parents bought myself and my cousin a piano accordion each,” she explains. “At age 11 I was sent to Dingle town on the bus every Monday for lessons. The locals found out very quickly, so they wanted me to play my tunes on the return journey on the bus. I was shy, but I obliged. My schoolteacher then asked me to play my tunes at school one day, so I did. Later, our neighbour Phil was getting married, so cousin Máire and I did the honours and played at it. I dont remember being paid! We got fed, people loved the music, and it gave us confidence. It was a very easy, informal way to do a “performance” in my own village, Baile na nGall.”

When Maire left Ballydavid in 1985 she decided to try her hand at busking to make some money on the side.

“I arrived in Dublin with my daughters, Siobhán, Doireann and Síle and needed to make a few bob. I tried busking, firstly on the piano accordion, then concertina. After getting some lessons I kept at it.

“There was a young medical student, Karen, playing tin whistle, we teamed up for years. She was very friendly and outgoing, I was a bit introverted. We got to know the other players, like a nice jazz outfit called the Burglars. We got a few gigs here and there.”

Busking today

According to Maire making a living has become difficult, but artists like herself have adapted.

“We have found that CDs are very useful. People like to bring home a sample of the street music, so for 8 euros, or a fiver, we let people have one, or sometimes we give a child the CD as a present.

“Irish people, and tourists, are very friendly and responsive to the music. While we will not get rich in cash, less is more, in one sense, we will never go hungry, or be lonely. Every day brings new surprises.”

“Six of us longtime trad-heads are in constant touch by text. We try to play together a few times a week, as a duo or trio. It’s a better buzz and gets kids dancing. We discuss what is happening on the street, as most of us feel the same about the hi-jacking of the local acoustic music.

Acoustic vs electric

With new bylaws permitting the use of amplifiers, what Maire describes as “karaoke merchants”, are able continue performing on Dublin streets.

“The only amplifiers years ago were very small, to give a mandolin a boost. Industrial-scale amps and industrial busking with karaoke-like equipment has been drowning out the acoustic, live, local music from the past. This type of performing is nothing to do with music or with Ireland. Councillors and politicians should appreciate their own culture, and put simple rules in place to enable the local voice to be heard.”

Pathways are alive

Whether you enjoy to be serenaded softly by trad music, be enthralled by a fireating unicyclist, or sing along with musicians like Jimmy, there’s no denying that the streets of the city are filled with talent.

Busking adds character and charm to the city’s most commercial areas. And for that reason alone, long may it continue.

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