Busking versus begging bowl

Buskers want official recognition to set them apart from beggars who are pretending to play music, writes Róisín Ingle.

Buskers want official recognition to set them apart from beggars who are pretending to play music, writes Róisín Ingle.

In Johnson's Court, a lane off Grafton Street in Dublin, a young girl sits with an accordion on her knee. It's just after lunchtime on Friday and there are a few coins in the plastic container at her feet. The notes from her instrument are monotonous, her fingers moving clumsily across the keyboard.

The girl doesn't turn heads. Why should she? She's just another busker in a city famous for buskers waiting for the rain to stop.

That is not how Maire Ní Bheaglaoich sees it. Wearing fingerless gloves and carrying a backpack filled with busking paraphernalia, the traditional musician brings me for a coffee around the corner to explain. Café Bell, in the cobbled courtyard behind St Teresa's church on Clarendon Street, is popular with buskers.

"You get to know the places you can go where they don't mind taking change," she says. It's a cosy cafe with a piano at one end of the room and a "bishop's special" advertised on a chalk board menu above the counter.

She's been busking for 20 years. "We are part of the culture," she says. "People like to go down Grafton Street and hear the music, it brings a smile to their faces, it lifts the heart."

Since last March though, she says, people like the girl on Johnson's Court having been making life "impossible" for buskers. "It's a racket," she says. "There are around eight of them being sent out with instruments they can't play. Their attitude toward us is aggressive. We want the public - who probably think they are real buskers - to know what is happening. They should be stopped from bringing their instruments into town and abusing the music."

Some of the buskers are so concerned about the issue that last November six of the 15 full-time Dublin buskers met community gardaí and Jane Boushell of the Musicians Union of Ireland (MUI), a branch of Siptu. Ní Bheaglaoich says beggars have always posed a problem for buskers but that the "latest scam is devious. Child beggars are being sent out by adults to make money. They don't have a melody between them and they are aggressive toward the musicians, driving three buskers off the street in the past few years. It's a racket and we need a strategy."

When asked this week about the legal position of buskers, a spokesman for the Garda press office is clear. "Asking for money is illegal, it doesn't matter if you are playing an instrument at the time or not," he says. "We are aware that it is part of the culture but our job is to uphold the law." However, according to Boushell, at the meeting in Liberty Hall two gardaí from Pearse Street were open about the fact that they work in co-operation with buskers to ensure music amplifiers are not too loud and that their audiences do not create an obstruction.

The musicians said they wanted to join the union so that their abilities would be recognised. Holding a union card, it was hoped, would distinguish them from beggars when complaints were made by shop owners. "At the meeting the gardaí were very positive about busking, saying it added to the atmosphere on Grafton Street," says Boushell. "The way we left it was that the gardaí were going to talk to their superiors about recognising musicians holding union cards. We are still waiting for them to get back to us."

In Britain, the situation couldn't be more different to our "yes, it's illegal but we turn a blind eye" approach. "Our vagrancy laws distinguish between buskers and beggars," says Gill Short of Nottingham City Council, which is gearing up to hold X-Factor style auditions for buskers to combat the phenomenon of beggars masquerading as buskers.

"Busking or street entertainment is legal, begging is not. Busking is about entertainment. Of course buskers want money for what they are doing but then they are providing a service for that money. The reason we are holding auditions for buskers," adds Short, "is so that we can distinguish between the beggar with the penny whistle and the skilled entertainer who enhances the atmosphere in the city."

IT'S SATURDAY morning, the rain falling steadily as Andrew Clarke takes up his usual spot under an awning in Temple Bar. He gets there at 9.30am to bag the pitch but won't start playing until noon, when the nearby food market starts to get busy. At his feet his two dogs - Scallywag and Rascal - are sleeping.

"On a good day you can make around €25-€30 an hour," he says. "It has paid for the kids' judo classes and drama lessons." He does around two hours a day, six days a week. He acknowledges that the idea of regulating busking is "difficult". "It's up to the gardaí's discretion at the moment - if the busking is causing an obstruction then they will move you on. There are also issues about using amplifiers, whether they should be used during the day and how high the levels should be allowed to go. The standard of busking is quite high at the moment but the new generation haven't learnt to sing without a microphone; they'll learn as they go along."

Is the idea of regulating buskers realistic? "We want regulation, but we want to regulate ourselves, which is why we are trying to encourage people to join the MUI," he says. He is not keen on the idea of permits along the lines of those that will be issued to buskers in Nottingham who pass the upcoming auditions.

"If you start introducing permits then a lot of people will disappear because they will lose their benefits. A lot of buskers are living on the margins of society. Any regulations will lead eventually to buskers having to declare their earnings, which would make life difficult for some people," he says.

He would hate people to think that people like him and Ní Bheaglaoich are trying to make artistic judgments about other buskers. "We don't want to be an exclusive club but we would encourage people to go to music classes, it's better than just sitting there pretending to play. We have spent years learning to do what we do."

Despite what the Garda says, he believes there is a legal difference between buskers and beggars. "The legal difference is that we are not asking people for money, we are just playing our songs and if people want to come up to us and give us money, that is their choice."

He starts playing his guitar. Some Chinese girls throw coins as he sings, his voice, low and rich, warming up the cold day.

Former busker Liam O'Maonlai spent a few years working the streets of Dublin in the 1980s, both alone with his tin whistle and then as a member of the Fabulous Benzini Brothers, who became the Hothouse Flowers.

"It's a very uncomplicated life," he says. "You are not spoilt on the street. You play your music and if people like it they pay. If they don't like it they don't pay. It's clean money. The street is a place where everything happens. In Ireland these days, everything is regulated and as a result everything is dry and dull." He feels that to clamp down on people who clearly can't play their instruments goes against the spirit of street entertainment.

"In busking there have always been people [about whom] you would think, 'well they could do that a bit better' and there have always been people who are just hustling. I can understand people getting annoyed, but at the same time it's just their way of making a living."

O'Maonlai says he was impressed when a few years ago some Traveller boys started trying to earn money through busking rather than begging. "Two of the guys had harmonicas and the third just jigged around a bit singing. They were chancing their arms but they were creating something quite extraordinary."

Niall, a busker in his 30s who plays bluegrass music on Grafton Street, feels the same.

"When I started busking I could hardly play, everything I learnt was on the street," he says. "I think it is morally wrong to point the finger at someone on the street trying to make money. Some buskers feel they are victims or heroes but it's hard to take the moral high ground about people who are in dire circumstances."

"The street community is like every other community," says O'Maonlai. "Everyone has their own angle. The conventional life some of us live is only one strand of life, it's not the only way. In Africa or India people are allowed to co-exist in all the different ways of life. In Ireland the other ways of life are often hidden."

The girl on Johnson's Court is not hidden but when you hunker down to talk to her, she looks as though she wishes the ground would swallow her up.

Where are you from?

"Romania," she says, looking down the street anxiously.

Do you like playing the accordian?

"I am not good, I only know one song."

What is the song called? There is a long pause.

"Romania," she replies.

The girl gets more agitated with each question and says her mother will be back soon, explaining "the queue is very long in McDonalds".

Shouldn't she be in school?

"Maybe I should," she says, before picking up her chair and her container and making as though to go home. A few minutes later she is back, playing the same three notes outside the church, eyes downcast. Hustling, busking or just getting by? It depends on who you ask.

Tomorrow in the Magazine: Louise East meets one-time Grafton Street buskers Rodrigo y Gabriela