‘When I was cold I’d go into churches and betting shops for hours to stay warm’
Homeless musician Danny Bracken to join stars for Rock Against Homelessness
Danny Bracken, a musician who is homeless, will be playing at Rock Against Homelessness concert in Dublin on April 7th. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
At a Lions Club event in Dublin in January, John Lowe, the investment consultant known as the Money Doctor, asked if anyone knew the words to Dublin in the Rare Ould Times. A 59-year-old man named Danny Bracken, who lived in a homeless hostel, joined Lowe and the band on stage. “He blew us away,” says Lowe. Lowe invited him to perform at the Rock against Homelessness concert on April 7th alongside such greats as Paul Brady and Finbar Furey.
“How could I say no?” asks the flat-cap wearing Bracken, who owns three guitars and a banjo, which he keeps in a hostel. He meets me in a city centre café. He hasn’t been well – he has been diagnosed with emphysema and rheumatoid arthritis and he has struggled in the past with depression – but he is chatty, warm company. “I’d talk to anyone,” he says. “I’d talk to a blind ass on the side of the road.”
When asked how he is, he says “great”. Then he laughs and says: “Well, I’d love to have a home.” When we first meet he’s been homeless for over a year but, he tells me, he’s had an ordinary enough life.
He’s originally from Offaly, where his father worked for Bórd na Móna and was, he thinks now, suffering from the same medical problems as himself. “He used to take to the bed.”
I got so I couldn’t lift my arm and I needed to get away from the meat-packing business.
“There were 10 of us at home,” he says. “I’d be thrown in with the bigger ones . . . My eldest sister Maureen is a beautiful singer. So I know songs I don’t even remember learning.”
He was a bit wild as a young teenager, he says, and he argued with his father. “School didn’t agree with me,” he says. “I’m mildly dyslexic. But I only found that out when I was older.”
Two of his sisters worked in Dublin and got him a job working in a pub in Ballyfermot. “I was homesick. I hated Dublin for almost two years.”
He would have liked to have studied carpentry, but he had no Group Cert, so he became an apprentice butcher. Then he got a job working on the killing floor of a meat-packing company. “The money was good,” he says.
He was married at 22 to “a lovely girl from Limerick” and they lived in Clondalkin. He was in a local music and drama group (“I’d love to do something like that again”) and a folk choir. He recalls how he and a few friends would sneak off for a few pints before eating “a load of polo mints and coming back and do the folk choir for midnight Mass”. He laughs. “The nuns knew.”
Manual labour takes a toll, he says. “I got so I couldn’t lift my arm and I needed to get away from the meat-packing business.” He later worked on the building sites, but he damaged his lower vertebrae after years there. “We didn’t think in those days.” And then, in the 80s, there was no work for anyone. He did Fás courses and studied community development.
I thought that if I was well enough and had a tent, I’d be better off in the Phoenix Park.
He had “three fabulous girls” by then (they now have families of their own and he sees them often). He and his wife eventually separated but they remained “wonderful friends”. She died 10 years ago and afterwards he became depressed. “I thought I was the weakest link. I thought she was the best for my girls. Bereavements are tough. I’ve had a number of them.”
He moved into a flat in Ballymun but he ran into problems. There were young men in the vicinity selling drugs. He didn’t like this and they knew it because “I opened my mouth”. He drank a bit too much then, he says, as a consequence of depression and loneliness. “Loneliness is a terrible thing.”
At the time he was hoping to move to the country “to get away”, but before this happened someone smashed all his windows and he left his flat. He became homeless for the first time. He slept in parks until a kind friend “dug me out of it”. He was living in a rented flat with his partner over a year ago (she now lives with her mother), when he became very ill and was hospitalised for 12 weeks. “We just couldn’t afford the rent. I ended up being admitted to Beaumont [Hospital] and I was hoping to get rent allowance or help with a deposit. Social workers got involved.”
He was released after 12 weeks into a homeless hostel on Thomas Street. He was on steroids and other medication. “I really wasn’t well. A lot of people said I shouldn’t have been there. I was high as a kite. I thought I was going to play for Ireland. I had no plan and I couldn’t sleep. And to be honest with you, after a night there, I thought that if I was well enough and had a tent, I’d be better off in the Phoenix Park. ”
The only privacy in that hostel, he says, was a bit of a blanket strung across the bed, and he was always on edge in case “someone would be off their head. They were strung out to hell on drugs and everything”. But he’s street savvy, he says. “I’ve learned to see what’s coming. At one stage a guy was smart and I talked to staff and got moved away from him.”
If it was cold I’d go into churches and betting shops to get warm. I’d stay for hours. No one ever told me to leave a church
He sighs. He talks about all the people he has met who have drug problems. “And some of them are nice young people, some of them very kind to me.”
The main problem he had, he says, was the terrible boredom. During the day between 9am and 6.30pm everyone had to leave the hostel and he would walk the street “like a zombie. It’s horrible. Then when the steroids wore off I was in pain and if it was cold I’d go into churches and betting shops to get warm. I’d stay for hours. No one ever told me to leave a church, but I was dozing off one day in the betting shop and I was asked to leave”.
Is he religious? “I have a blind faith. I was brought up Catholic but I’d call myself Christian today . . . I would walk along the river and when I see nature I say we live in a fabulous creation. So I believe there was a guy Jesus and he called on guys to follow him and they didn’t go to college, those guys, they were fisherman.”
His musical inspiration was always his siblings, particularly his brother, who died two years ago of lung cancer. “I would call him the Gallant John Joe. ‘You know what you are brother,’ I would say to him, ‘you’re a prince among men.’ He would ignore it, but he liked me saying that. He was a prince. Very, very gentle. I still miss him an awful lot, but he’d be the type of guy who’d say ‘Don’t go around moping over me’.
“Me and my brother and sister would sing over a cup of tea. He had a folder of songs. He’d collect them and I would learn them. It takes me a while to learn something. But when I learn it, I don’t forget it. I hang onto it”
I’m not ashamed anymore. I’m not the only person in this situation.
At one point last year, he says, he stopped playing music entirely. He nearly pawned his guitar and banjo. He once heard Finbar Furey saying that he played music when he felt down, and he hopes to ask him about this at the concert. “When I was depressed I couldn’t look at a guitar.” He also wants to ask Furey about a song he sings called Take me Home. “You know the way a song gets stuck in your head? Well that haunted me when I was homeless first.”
He didn’t tell his loved ones quite how bad things were. “You just don’t go near your friends and I wouldn’t want to be bothering my daughters. There is a shame. You don’t want to tell people where you’re at. And you don’t want pity, and there is a pain and a hurt and I probably sometimes said, ‘How did I end up in this situation? I must be thick. I must be stupid. If things had worked out differently, I would have owned my own home’.”
He smiles. “But I’m not ashamed anymore. I’m not the only person in this situation.”
He has since moved to a more settled hostel with his own room (“a single room is heaven”) and he has been regularly receiving medication for the pains in his joints and his lungs. His mood has lifted too, he says, and he thinks this might also be a consequence of some of the medication. He has nothing but praise for the people who work in hostels and hospitals (“I got medical treatments that you’d need to be a king to get in another country”). He’s playing more music. He often goes to shelters to teach music and to cheer people up. “I’m known for doing that,” he says. There are young people out there, homeless, with addiction problems, he says, who “could be great poets, actors or singers if they got the opportunity”.
He’s thrilled about performing at this concert and there’s even talk of him doing some recording. He’s a huge Paul Brady fan. “To meet him in person – I’ll think I’ve died and gone to heaven.” He’s thinking of singing The Town I Loved So Well or The Spanish Lady or maybe Dublin in the Rare Ould Times “because that’s the song that got me into this trouble”. And he’s hoping for a mild spring and to be relatively pain-free. “I’m just saying ‘please, please God, help me make it to the 7th of April.’ And I’m going to send a prayer to my brother to send me a few of his lovely tones.”
Then a few weeks after our first conversation, Danny rings me to say that they’ve found him a tiny bedsit to move to. It’s not ideal, he says, “a sort of granny flat really”, but he invites me around. “I couldn’t have people around at the hostel,” he says. “But I’m the boss again. One of the lads in the hostel, Pat – he’s in his 70s – turned to me the other day and said, ‘Any of us here, if we get homed again, we’d be very, very foolish people to come back this road’. And I said, ‘You’re right there, Pat, you’re right there’.”