As the annual street festival heads to Mullingar, we speak to some performers about the joy, fun and vulnerability associated with their art — and why it is not for the faint-hearted
Place yourself in the centre of a city of a town. Perhaps you’re searching for a birthday gift, or you need to get a key cut. You are distracted, edging on stressed, and you hear — or see — something unexpected; a street performer, or a musician, and it stops you for a moment.
The urban environment can be inspiring. At its best, it inspires imagination and creativity, at its worst it provokes frustration and protest. Our main thoroughfares are places of flux, of transaction and consumption. But what if you could interrupt this fast pace, even for a moment? This is the role of the street performer, to surprise their audience in the midst of the chaos.
“You’re giving people a break from the everyday,” says performer Nicola Moran, a trained jeweller as well a dancer, contortionist and an acrobat based in Dublin.
Moran uses the urban space as a starting point and her work evolves from there. “The spaces are the catalyst — they spark my imagination,” she says. For her, the spectators become part of the artwork, they ask questions, tell stories and, through this interaction, the viewer begins to look at the space anew, “People often say, oh I’ve walked the streets so many times, I’ve never noticed the spot that’s there,” she says.
Her goal is to create art that breaks down the barrier to access for communities who feel isolated from or intimidated by arts institutions. It can also be, she says, a fantastic way to engage people with sensory issues who are not always in a position to attend a generic theatre space.
During lockdown, restrictions prevented her from showing a project in a venue in front of a large audience, so she decided to stage a pop-up performance about the ethics of gemstone mining. She designed a melting torc, held it at her neck and walked down one of the main shopping districts in Dublin city.
“It didn’t matter that the audience didn’t necessarily understand, for them I think it represented pain or discomfort, or something in the ether,” she says. As she made her way down the street, an onlooker began to narrate her steps. As she walked from a shaded part of the street, he began to exclaim: “She’s going towards the light — she’s stepping into the light.”
As Moran tells this story, she sounds invigorated by the participative nature of her performance, how audience members could step into the story. “That’s what makes the difference, they’re part of the performance,” she explains.
For Joe Connaire, chairman of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann organising committee, traditional music lends itself perfectly to outdoor performance.
“In the traditional music world, you have so many variations of instrument, so many different sounds. When they come together, it creates a beautiful feeling,” he says. “Everything on the streets is mic free — it’s the true sound of the instrument.”
Connaire has played the banjo since he was 10 and he teaches music in his hometown of Mullingar, where the Fleadh Cheoil will take place for the first time since 1961. Traditional music and culture is part of the town’s heritage: the first ever Fleadh took place here, organised by the organisation now known as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. This year, Fleadh organisers will reinvigorate the tradition of the street session. A designated area in the centre of the town will be transformed into a music bubble where performers of all levels can pull up a chair to perform for passers-by.
“An important element of the Fleadh is people coming together and performing on every street corner. With crowds in excess of half a million people, space can be tight so we want to bring back the great tradition of music on the streets,” Connaire says. “You get a great sense of pride out of playing music on the street. Very quickly you could have a crowd of a couple of hundred people.”
He is interested in giving everyone an opportunity to perform. “Whether you’re the young person starting out, or an advanced student. Everyone wants to be a part of it. The street session is very important in that way.”
While there is sense of fun, joy and risk associated with the work of the street performer, there’s no room for self-indulgence. “There’s no space for that in busking, no one’s going to give a damn,” says Sean Regan, who has played with his band Stray Melody since 2016. “No one stops out of pity, every person who stops and listens, you have earned their attention. You’ve earned their two minutes.”
Initially a group of five, Stray Melody are now a duo. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Regan says. “There are multiple challenges, if you’re not ready for things to constantly go wrong — if you’re easily deflated, you won’t last.” He feels the ebb and flow of the busking scene suits his temperament. “I prefer extremes. It matches my natural disposition so I can flow with it that way,” he explains.
When Stray Melody were starting out, they figured that busking was a way to make some money. The application process for a busking permit is straightforward, he says.
From there, the band started to build a fanbase online. Pre-pandemic, Regan and his co-performer Nathan Misischi were busking full-time on Grafton Street and making friends with their ‘busking clan’.
Regan says that despite the ease of access to a live audience, street performance can also leave you exposed and vulnerable, and things can go wrong. “You could be dealing with some difficult people,” he says. “You’re there on the street, in a vulnerable position… they [the viewer] can take your stuff and just smash it… there’s not much you can do about it. No one is rushing to help you.”
“I really like that anything can happen,” says Nicola. While she thrives when performing outside of her comfort zone, there are inevitable challenges, she describes an incident where a group of young people on the street began to harass her and her fellow performers. “Perhaps they were intimidated by what was going on, but the audience stepped in and looked after us,” she says.
And there’s one other major factor. “You become a master of studying the weather — I don’t want to give away the secrets,” says Reagan. “You can have the best of intentions, you can get everything else right, then the weather just turns.”
Connaire has his fingers crossed for the Fleadh Cheoil. “One thing that would put the icing on the cake for us, would be a bit of decent weather,” he says. “Even if it was dry, we’d be happy enough with that.”
The street performer cares about community — relying on an unspoken trust between them and the viewer. The performance can be unifying, a catalyst for discussion. But it is a vulnerable role, one that takes great passion and perhaps a little bit of brazenness. So while the lows can be low, the highs are high enough to take the artist and their audience way beyond the four walls of the traditional performance space.
Fleadh Cheoil begins in Mullingar tomorrow and runs for a week. See fleadhcheoil.ie for full details