Busker with a free spirit and heart of gold

 

Arthur McGonigle:Arty G, a busker and character known to all in Omagh, has died aged 59.

A campaign is already under way to have a statue erected to him and his companion, Gizmo the dog, whom Arty reputedly found in a wheelbarrow in Japan.

Arty, whose real name was Arthur McGonigle, was an institution in Omagh and part of the town's identity. He had a treasured place in the heart of the community, across all ages, classes and creeds.

After his death, a neighbour tied a guitar to the railings outside his flat. It was rapidly covered with written tributes, and surrounded by wreaths.

Within days, more than 1,300 had registered as fans on the Arty G RIP internet site. Many such tributes, together with film footage of his funeral, may be found on a Bebo site, http://www.bebo. com/Profile.jsp?MemberId=3362920752

Not surprisingly, Arty's funeral was one of the largest seen in the town. Within days of his death, funds were being raised to erect plaques in his memory in the town centre and in the estate where he lived.

A week later, dozens of young musicians held a Busk-a-Thon to raise funds.

This culminated in a fundraising gig attended by hundreds of people, at which local bands played free. Campaigners, who have the support of the chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee, Barry McElduff, hope eventually that the statue to Arty and Gizmo will grace the town centre.

Arty G's regular spot was outside the Northern Bank. His presence gave the town centre an originality that centres of many other Irish towns are losing.

The authorities recognised his uniqueness and tended to ignore his breaches of legislation prohibiting street drinking.

Arty G didn't even have to sing. When he was there passersby threw money into his hat or bought food or a hot drink for him and Gizmo. From his takings, he often bought sweets or food for young people he saw as more unfortunate than himself.

When his guitar was stolen, it caused outrage in Omagh and staff at the Northern Bank bought him a new one.

Arty G had a wholly original take on life. "Have you ever walked through the desert eating ketchup?" he once asked.

Gizmo, a similar free spirit, adopted him about a dozen years ago. The origin of their relationship is not entirely clear. One Bebo fan insists they met when Arty was touring Japan with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

Arty G was a survivor of the pioneering days of Irish rock music. He was recognised as a superb blues guitarist.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he played with blues band Warmth.

Warmth's major gig was the Pop For Peace concert in Belfast in 1970, which brought together bands and fans from across the community, but failed to stop the developing Troubles.

To earn a living Arty G also played with showbands. In 1971 he moved to London in search of the big breakthrough.

Tragically, it didn't happen and his health never recovered from the effects of his London years. From the mid-1970s he turned to busking and appeared at a number of festivals.

As well as in Omagh, he had regular pitches in Enniskillen and Bundoran, and sometimes ventured farther afield. When travelling by bus, Gizmo accompanied him, having been trained to hide in a special bag.

Arty G narrowly escaped death in January this year, a neighbour rescuing him from his burning flat. When death did come, it was sudden: waiting for the bus into the town centre to go busking.

Showband legend Brian Coll was a neighbour, and summed up his life.

"He was an exceptional, intelligent and witty guy," Coll said. "He brought so much happiness to a lot of people, and did so little for himself."

Arty G was predeceased by his parents, Patrick and Kathleen McGonigle, but is survived by his brothers, Gerry and Tony, and sisters Marie (McCourt) and Gay (Tarrant).

He is survived also by Gizmo who lives now with a family in the Gallows Hill area of Omagh. When out walking, he is stopped regularly by people who know him.

Arty G (Arthur McGonigle): born July 6th, 1948; died November 3rd, 2007