Beat on the street: We chat to the buskers of Cork City

Donal O’Keeffe spent time in the run up to Christmas with buskers in Cork City. Here’s how he got on.

IT’S A cold evening on Cork’s St Patrick’s Street and the pavements are slick from a drizzly shower. Christmas decorations sparkle overhead, brightest white, icicle-blue, and berry-red.

Under the Rotary Christmas tree, Molly McCarthy, 15, is playing her guitar and singing a lively version of George Ezra’s ‘Shotgun’. Molly is using an amp, not excessively loudly. She’s very popular with passers-by, and makes a point of thanking every person who puts a coin in her guitar-case. Molly says she doesn’t care about the money, but she’s very grateful for their kindness.

Dylan Brickley

She has been asked once or twice to turn down her amp and she always obliges.

“Cork is a really great city. Most of the people you meet are really lovely and I love busking.”

Down Winthrop St, outside the GPO, Dylan Brickley is doing a credible impression of Ed Sheeran. He is a handy guitarist and has a good voice. From his guitar case he sells copies of his CD, Chasing Me Again, for €8.

Last year, in conjunction with Penny Dinners, he recorded a song called ‘Homeless’. Dylan, a graduate of marketing from the College of Commerce, says he’s concentrating for the moment on his music.

“Busking is a good starting point for any musician,” he says. “It gives you a good grounding.”

Back outside Brown Thomas, Molly McCarthy is singing a great version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ and a small crowd has gathered. A young woman dances with a small boy, to Molly’s delight.

Across the street, Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ is pounding out from Gentleman’s Quarters. The song has inexplicably — as of the time of writing — yet to be declared a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Some complain about buskers using amps, yet seldom note the aural effluent being pumped out elsewhere.

Molly McCarthy

Nearby, volunteers rattle buckets as they collect money for the Christian group Hope for the Homeless.

On the corner of Opera Lane, within calling distance of the Echo Boy, Shirley Scannell is playing her violin, accompanied by Ivan Reynierse on guitar.

It’s an impromptu session and they’re playing to draw attention to the collection. Ivan is from South Africa, but his granddad is Irish. He’s been in Ireland two years. Shirley says she’s busked all over Europe and she regularly busks around Cork.

Shirley Scannell and Ivan Reynierse busking on St Patrick’s Street, Cork.

“It’s all about spreading the light and the joy of music,” she says.

Outside the Moderne, John Dwyer sits on his amp, playing his guitar and singing a high, sweet version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. He hails from Dublin and has busked for 17 years, six of them in Cork. He loves the freedom to experiment busking gives him.

“You never play the same song the same way twice, and I try never to play the same song twice on the same day,” he says. “I would have enough of a repertoire to play for three or four hours without repeating myself.”

John feels amplification has its place, but some buskers use it carelessly: “You can’t just whack it up to 11.”

Because “nobody else plays it”, John launches into a plaintive version of Justin Hayward’s ‘Forever Autumn’.

“The summer sun is fading as the year grows old, And darker days are drawing near, The winter winds will be much colder, Now you’re not here…”

An elderly man, the worse for wear, wanders up to ask: “Are you related to Elvis?” John laughs and says he isn’t.

John Dwyer

“He’s alive on Mars, you know!” He veers unsteadily down French Church Street with a decided look of satisfaction on his face.

(Hayward’s song was part of the War of the Worlds soundtrack, adapted from HG Wells’ Martian invasion story. Was the Elvis fan onto something, after all?)

Cork singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke used to busk.

“Every musician should busk,” he says. 

With my electric piano (bought from Sheena Crowley at Crowley’s) I found busking great for my confidence as a performer and it really helped me hone my craft. Nowadays, I’m happy to join in on a slightly inebriated harmony after a late-night session with some of Cork’s beauts and characters.

Buskers can be a bit cagey about money, but one — who asked not to be named — said two or three hours might net €100. That might seem good, but the work isn’t easy. Another said they had invested in a card-reader, as society goes ever-more cashless.

“I just wish some folks wouldn’t equate busking with begging,” says O’Rourke. “Buskers can change the mood of people walking by, or soundtrack a walk or look or scowl or flirtation.”

O’Rourke has a point. Even when you’re at your lowest, someone playing their heart out with love and skill will remind you there is still beauty in the world. Buskers bring life and joy to our streets. Stop and listen, or sing along, but please be sure to leave a coin in the guitar case.

Getting their break on the streets

Fiachna Ó Braonáin

The Incomparable Benzini Brothers were the busking, partying wing of Hothouse Flowers.

Fiachna Ó Braonáin

With just an acoustic guitar, a few songs and a lot of neck, Liam Ó Maonlaí and I hit the streets in the summer of ’85, coming away each day with the price of a bowl of pasta and a glass of cheap red, as well as a round or two of creamy pints.

We also managed to pay the rent, and promote our more formal Hothouse Flowers gigs.

Back then the rules were unwritten. No PA systems, or licences or any regulation.

We were moved on often, but sometimes left alone with a knowing nod from the local garda. Some liked us, others didn’t!

In the end, it’s all about the art. If a busker is great, nobody will complain. If they’re repetitious, annoying and loud for loudness’ sake, people won’t stop.

But if, as the evening descends, someone is singing or playing their heart out in an original, beautiful and transforming way, well, that can change the world.

Jane Willow

I came to Dublin from Holland, seven years ago.

Initially it was only going to be for a year. Then I saw the buskers in the streets, and the open mic nights in Whelan’s.

I have a hate/love relationship with busking. The money can be very good, especially playing nights, but as a woman, I didn’t feel safe busking at night.

Also, if you believe in the song you’re singing, busking can be magical, but if your heart isn’t in it, it can be a terrible downer.

What I do miss from busking is the sense of community.

Every street-vendor, sign-holder, shop-owner and homeless person knew you. And most people were incredibly friendly.

They’d get you tea or coffee, or they’d notice you were doing something different.

That made me very happy, when people connected with what I did. It still does.

I came to busk, play open mics and stay for late nights in Whelan’s. I really enjoyed learning the craft of performance surrounded by brilliant Irish musicians.

Jane Willow’s debut EP Onward Still is on janewillow.com

Allie Sherlock (13)

This has been an amazing year for me. Everything blew up since I posted my cover of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket Flowers’. It’s had 8.7m views so far! I was invited to LA by Ryan Tedder. He’s the main singer in the band OneRepublic and a producer and songwriter. Then I went on the Ellen show.

I didn’t meet her before the show, and I was extremely nervous going on. During the break, she was just so nice and friendly. She said “You’re absolutely amazing”, and said I just needed to calm down.

I love busking in Cork, but lately I’ve been busking on Grafton Street.

The really good thing about Dublin is that you can only busk in one place for an hour. In Cork, you get people staying in one place all day and that’s just not fair.

It’s crazy and amazing. I got a five-year, three album record deal, and all because I posted a video of me busking on Grafton Street!

Allie Sherlock debut album is out in February.

Paddy Casey

I made a living busking, from the age of 13 until I signed a contract when I was 24. I’d left home, and I was living with my brother.

One of my first times busking, I went to Grafton Street around 2am. One guy begging predicted I’d make more money begging than I would singing!

I liked busking at night. There’s less noise on the street, and sound travels better. People are out for a pint and in good form.

The odd person might try to rob you, but I was lucky most of the time. Most people are alright.

Everyone uses amplifiers now, but if you can busk without an amp, it’s great training. You learn how to cut through the noise, and knowing how to grab people’s attention is a real asset when it comes to gigging.

Busking let me learn my trade and make a living. And it was fun. Busking, for me, was always about way more than making money.

Paddy Casey’s new album is out this month.


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