Busking in Dublin

Grafton Street has provided a soundtrack to Dublin for decades, most of those sounds coming from Buskers. These artists and performers have become part of the musical heart of the city. I spoke to some of the buskers that keep street music alive in Dublin.

Dylan Harcourt has played for a year and a half in Henry Street, moving between Grafton Street, South King Street and some side streets. Suffolk Street, where the Molly Malone statue is now situated, is now his regular spot after 5 years of busking. He has busked in Italy with Orla Kenny and a regular visitor to Berlin.

Why did you start busking?

“I always wanted to play music, I left school at the age of 17. I didn’t play the guitar at the time, but I was determined that I was going to do it, and just a month later I bought a guitar.

I don’t know what one thing made me want to busk, I had other friends that were having fun with it. But as soon as I started, it took over my life.”

“I mostly busk covers, do some songs for myself, but in general the public love the covers the most. In Temple bar, all amps have been banned since 2016, so unless you’re an acoustic busker, that doesn’t really exist anymore, and I don’t busk there anymore.”

You can play for one hour in the same spot on Grafton Street, on Henry Street you can play up to two hours in the same spot.

“There are other locations where you can hear artists busking, O’Connell street, Talbot Street, Howth, Dun Laoghaire. But there are certain spots that I won’t play, as I don’t and won’t make money there.”

Why is that? Is there a formula?

“I don’t know, not sure if it’s the luck of the draw. But funny you say that, I was talking to Paddy Finnegan (Paddy The Busker) the other day, we always think we figured it out. We could make really good money for a month, everyday, I thought we cracked the code, I thought I figured out what works and what doesn’t. But then we could go back to the same location, play the exact same thing in the exact same atmosphere and not make anything. I don’t think there’s a good or bad spot, it’s how you fill that spot.”

Who are your biggest fans or tippers?

“Irish people are the centre of it all, but I’m sure some of them are bored of it. But for tourists it’s exciting, they’re in Dublin, they’re seeing a busker. I suppose we’re giving them a moment and a memory which adds to their Dublin experience, something they bring home with them.

That’s probably why they buy CD’s, a memento of their experience”

Temple Lane Studios is where a lot of buskers stored their equipment.

“The space in Temple Lane studios saved us time, we could leave our amps etc there, so they wouldn’t have to bring them in and out of town. I have a lighter setup now, so I don’t need to rely on the lock-up facility. But there are some people who have equipment down there, and are unable to gain access to it due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so it’s closed up.”

What did you do during the pandemic restrictions?

“During the Covid-19 restrictions, I was writing a lot, hosting live streams and anything else I could fill my day with. When I was doing music live streams, I was singing into my phone, which I didn’t find enjoyable at all.

Do you think it would be strange if there were no Buskers?

“I think the idea of having no buskers in Dublin would be very bizarre to me. Not only is it the sound of Dublin, it is a sound of Europe. There are very few musicians in Dublin that haven’t busked at least once”

What was your first experience of busking?

“I sang out of key for the whole song, I was so embarrassed, it was nerve-racking. When you first play, you feel that more people are listening than actually are. But over time you become numb to who’s listening or who’s paying attention to your music or songs.”

What about the idea that busking is begging?

“There has been a perspective shift, because some people that started out busking became famous or very successful. When Glen Hansard won an Academy Award (Oscar) with Markéta Irglová for his music from the film Once in 2007, only then do I think the view changed, when Hansard really came to the global public eye. People discovered he was a busker, then they realised that other bands like U2, which are one of the biggest bands in the world, also busked at some point.”

It’s an organised business, and you will need a license from Dublin City Council

Busking is far more organised these days; permits need to be obtained, noise guidelines followed, and you’re not allowed to occupy the same slot for longer than an hour at a time. Permits are €20 for a visitor or for a resident, €60 for an annual permit or €30 if you’re not going to use an amplifier.

What about the dangers of being on a street?

“I’ve had money stolen, guys trying to attack me, it just happens, some people are desperate. There’s no particular area that is worse than another, it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although, most of the time I get my money back, when I was younger, I was intimidated to fight an older guy. But it doesn’t happen that often.”

Is it a route to fame?

“No, a lot of people get famous, but I can promise you Ed Sheeran, Glen Hansard, Damien Rice and Dermot Kennedy, who was a long term busker and is doing really well now, none of them got famous from busking, it doesn’t happen, unless you’re Allie Sherlock, which is a once in a decade sort of thing. I think busking is great to improve your work ethic, and to make you better at singing for the long term, so you can go on to proper gigs and shows. But you should be doing it for the enjoyment of it, as it will thicken your skin if people tell you ‘You’re crap’ but equally you’ll learn no to overly absorb when people tell you you’re really good.”

Any personal lessons?

“Not all music is for everyone, wanting everyone to like your music is naive and ridiculous. I think it humbles you and gives you a more realistic view of the world. When you are standing still on a busy street, you see everything, life just moves around you and you see some pretty mad things. Busking is a spin the wheel sort of thing and you just have to hope you get that thing that you’re looking for on the wheel.”

#Deserted Grafton Street

The term busking was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860’s

The term busking was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860’s in Britain. The verb to busk, from the word busker, comes from the Spanish root word buscar, with the meaning “to seek”. The Spanish word buscar in turn evolved from the Indo-European word *bhudh-skō (“to win, conquer”).

In medieval France buskers were known by the terms troubadours and jongleurs. In northern France they were known as trouveres. In old German buskers were known as Minnesingers and Spielleute. In obsolete French it evolved to busquer for “seek, prowl” and was generally used to describe prostitutes. In Russia buskers are called skomorokh and their first recorded history appears around the 11th century.

The first recorded instances of laws affecting buskers were in ancient Rome in 462 BC. The Law of the Twelve Tables made it a crime to sing about or make parodies of the government or its officials in public places; the penalty was death.

Paddy started to play at the age of 14

To get another view on busking in Dublin, I spoke to Paddy Finnegan, known as ‘Paddy The Busker’. Paddy lived in Galway for 5 years and Ibiza for 6 months, starting to play the guitar at the age of 14.

How did this all start for you?

“I left school when I was 16, I got through my first term in college, then I decided I wanted to become a full-time musician. The easiest way was to buy a portable amp and a microphone to allow me to work on my songs. Since then I have been playing for the past 10 years.

Busking is my own little workshop

“At the moment, I feel I’m honing my skills until the moment is right for me to face the real world, busking is my own little workshop. There are a lot of different songs that give off different vibes to different people. When I play Frank Sinatra songs and other old school music a lot of the older audience like to see their music being rejuvenated. Although I try to stay away from songs that the crowd enjoys, but I don’t enjoy, because I feel like it’s a contradiction of why I’m really there.

Is there a comradery amongst buskers?

“I think it’s more generational, back in the day, I would have known every busker around town, we were all looking out for each other, but because there is an age difference, which for me, is 4 or 5 years in that difference. It was a bit different back then. But we all see all walks of life, all sorts of funny stuff going on.”

The moment Glen Hansard surprised Paddy the Busker (Paddy Finnegan).

Paddy was singing the Oscar winning song ‘Falling Slowly’, written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.

So how does it work in the locations around Dublin?

“In Grafton Street, you’re allowed to play for one hour in the same spot, Henry Street for two hours. It’s first come, first served, but you have to be queuing up until the person has finished their set in order for you to take over that spot.

Busking has become very popular, especially in Dublin, are there too many busking?

“There’s a lot of musicians out at the moment. I can understand that there might be a bit of competitiveness on the street nowadays because of the sheer numbers, compared to what it was ten years ago. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but Dublin isn’t growing in size.

Make sure you live your life first, because fame and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle isn’t for everybody

What about fame, is busking somewhere you can find it?

“Yes, I think so, I don’t think it has got any harder or easier, because if you have talent, it will be recognised. If you busk on a Saturday with other talented people, you won’t be recognised, but if you are out on your own and you’re genuinely talented, you will be picked up, you will be recognised. But make sure you live your life first, because fame and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle isn’t for everybody. For example, I had a friend last year that took his own life, he tried to adopt the busking life, tried to give it his all. A lot of people don’t want to turn their back on their dream, but also they don’t have the sticking power to grind away at it. This guy started out loving music, and then ended up hating life.”

What advice do you have for anyone thinking of busking?

“Well first of all, get your batteries from Flying Tiger. They will sell you four AA batteries for a euro, that’s my first bit of advice. Secondly, try and get in early. It’s a lot more enjoyable for you as a musician to play for a crowd that wants to hear you. In the mornings when there are less people in town, you don’t have to shout over crowds of people. Always try and be polite to everybody, but take busking with a grain of salt. Your art form starts off in your own bedroom, it doesn’t start off on the streets, so before you start taking outside opinions, be sure you know who you are before you leave your house to go on the street.”

Notable artists that have busked include; Tracy Chapman, George Michael, Rod Stweart, KT Tunstall, T. Rex, Tones and I, Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, U2, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Paddy Casey, Keywest.

Karl Ffrench
Karl Ffrench

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