Catch them where you can
BUSKERS: Our cities would be duller without them, but like everyone else, street performers have been hit by the recession. Still, they brave barking dogs, thieves and bad weather to brighten our days (mostly) with their performances, and they're out there in force this week
ON A COLD and gloomy winter afternoon, a crowd of about 200 gathers in a wide circle near the top of Dublin’s Grafton Street. From a distance, you catch glimpses of flickering flames and hear a young but deep and booming voice announcing tricks to an enthralled audience.
The voice belongs to a well built, dreadlocked, topless fire juggler named Ross O’Brien, also known as Ross Thiffairyan. (Say it to yourself again. He has dreads. Geddit?)
The 24-year-old, who is a native of Greystones, Co Wicklow, has been a street entertainer for the best part of five years.
“I’d like to call myself a circus performer,” says O’Brien. “But I don’t actually work in a circus. I want to learn as many of those skills as I can.”
From an early age O’Brien had an interest in performance; as a child he was smitten by magic shows, the circus and illusionism.
From learning the basics “in the kitchen with oranges”, he developed his talent in juggling clubs and eventually got into contact juggling, where crystal balls are manoeuvred around the body like a slow-motion pinball machine.
At 19, he felt confident enough to bring his show to Dublin and he met other jugglers who took him under their wings and gave him tips on how to improve. But it was his move to Edinburgh in 2002 that really got the crystal ball rolling.
“Going there was really helpful,” he says. “I would have been there every year for the Fringe Festival. I didn’t always take part in the festival, but in general, Edinburgh is a good set-up. They have two year-round spaces there for acrobatics and general circus entertainment, so the facilities are there.”
It was in Edinburgh that he first started playing with fire.
“There was a group of people I met through a juggling club in Edinburgh,” he explains. “And we used to go to a park called the Meadows and just perform tricks. So one day I picked up a poi, which is a sort of chain connected to a stick with a ball of fire at the end of it, and I just started swinging it. I was addicted straight away.”
Eventually, O’Brien found himself working with Te Pooka, a well-known Edinburgh group. He did corporate gigs and performed at festivals such as Glastonbury – an experience O’Brien describes as “just brilliant”.
He returned to Dublin to complete his degree in Mathematical Physics, which he thinks might turn out to be a good thing in the future, but performance is where his heart is now. And when his degree is all wrapped up he wants to take his highly entertaining show abroad.
“I hear Australia is a great place,” he says. “They’ve got a great circuit down there. The performers show you the ropes and help you out.”
He thinks Irish audiences are great, although you “do get people trying to spark off you occasionally”.
Another problem is the fact that facial hair and fire don’t always go together. “Well I’ve never been seriously burned,” he says. “I’ve never had to go to hospital. But I’ve lost the moustache and the beard a good few times.”
He admits that he has been thus far quite lucky in that regard, but puts it down to preparation. He has known people who have been hospitalised because of burns, but more often it is chemical pneumonia, through the inhalation of paraffin, that poses the greater risk. And what about the Garda? “I don’t really have any problems with them,” he says. “I mean the latest thing that happened was a guard came up to me and asked me to be careful of the lights, and I figured that was fair enough, but generally there’s no hassle. Sometimes they’ll say ‘no fire’ and I’ll say to myself, ‘okay, I don’t need to do this today’, but I have a magic show too, so I just move on to that.”
“The main legislation that would cover that area would be public-order legislation,” says a spokesman from the Garda press office. “It’s about people being able to go about their daily business, and as long as there aren’t huge numbers gathering, obstructing people’s passage, there’s a fairly relaxed attitude to it.”
The Garda points out that at this time of year it is a bit more heavily regulated because “you can’t move down Grafton Street with the choirs on it”, and so permits have to be issued by the local superintendent.
Jimmy Quinn, a 34-year-old Dubliner, who now lives in Bray, has been busking for the best part of 22 years. At one stage, during the economic boom, he was able to play full-time in and around Grafton Street and make a good living from it. But the recession has hit the trade hard.
“It’s pretty bad,” he says nodding towards the €4.50 in his guitar case. “I’ve been here for half an hour. Of course things are bad. People will say that things are okay because they want to keep up their morale, but if you were making €100 a day, you’re lucky to be making €30 now. Sure look down there,” he says, nodding down Grafton Street. “There’s plenty of people but they’re not carrying bags.” Sure enough, what is in front of us is a far cry from two or three Christmases ago, when few people walked down Grafton Street empty handed and spare change went straight into the busker’s kitty.
“I was talking to a well-known comedian the other day,” Quinn says. “And he was raking it in during the boom. He’s just not bothering any more. He’ll come back out when the money comes back.”
Indeed, Quinn isn’t as motivated to make the trek in every day and says that it has become a bit of a dog-fight. He is happier to busk in Bray, where he also teaches guitar part-time. “For anyone who was living off it, you come in now and you just do it for a bit of fun,” he says. “I’m doing it for practise and if I make a bit of money, that’s great.”
Quinn is a good friend of Glen Hansard, the by now legendary busker and star of the movie Once. The Oscar winner, who was discovered on the streets of Dublin before The Commitments, is one of many buskers who have gone on to bigger things. Others include Damien Dempsey, comedian David McSavage and, of course, Damien Rice, whose album Ohas sold more than two million copies worldwide.
Minister for Arts Martin Cullen recognises the contribution made by street performers in Ireland. “It’s a rich part of our performance tradition,” he says. “And one now immortalised with the success of Once. The street is the most critically challenging performance space in the world.”
So is it time to regulate and harness that unique performance space? Jimmy Quinn certainly thinks so.
“On a Saturday you come in here and there are 50 people,” he says. “There are too many statues handing out lollipops to kids. I think the actual quality of it has gone down over the last few years. Yeah, I think it should probably be licensed. I’d certainly pay for one.
“I should have the key to the city at this stage,” he says with a smile, before sitting down and breaking into a blues riff.
Licensing may well help the business and would perhaps make things a bit fairer but it won’t protect the busker from all the problems of the street. “Everybody gets robbed,” says 22-year-old Carla Brunell from Crumlin. “It actually happens quite regularly. I’ve had my nose broken twice.” Brunell, who first performed on the street at the age of 12, has always been surrounded by music. Her mother was a singer and her father a guitarist. So it was natural that she would become a performer.
“It was probably a bit harder when I was a teenager because other kids would be looking at you,” she says.
Brunell, who is currently living at home, agrees with Quinn that the recession has hit the busking trade and she is investing more of her time in the recording and gigging side of things at the moment.
Daithí Ó Cearúill of five-piece band Mutefish knows all about the robbing and potential violence but it’s not something he engages with.
“Yesterday I got a load of abuse off a dog who was barking at us,” he laughs. “And sometimes you’d get some drunken fella with a broken bottle. All you do is pack up, you just don’t entertain that.”
The weather is a bigger problem. Buskers’ weekly income is dictated by Ireland’s changeable climate.
“We keep our gear in a lock-up in town,” says the flautist. “So that if it’s a good day we’re ready to go. It’s the rainy days that would hold you back on the money.”
Ó Cearúill is the only Irishman in the band, which includes a Pole, two Lithuanians and a Ukrainian. It makes for quite a mix of influences and the first impression you get of their upbeat Celtic rock, with its sprinklings of reggae and jazz, is that Grafton Street is too small a stage.
Indeed, the band played in the Body and Soul section at the Electric Picnic earlier this year and are hoping to be asked back.
“We were really only together for about a week,” he says with a smile. “And we were busking down in Galway. One of the organisers saw us and asked us to play. So we did the Saturday night and it was brilliant.”
As well as busking “seven days a week if possible”, the band play every Thursday at Sin É on Ormond Quay. Like most street performers, Mutefish are extremely hard working and often play in pretty appalling conditions. It’s not something Ó Cearúill wants to do forever. And although he treats busking as his full-time job, he hopes it’s a stepping-stone to something bigger.
“I’d love to get on to the Late Late Showwith the group,” he says with a laugh. “We need something like that.”