- Pedestrian Performances:Busking, Cosmopolitanism, and Ireland
James Joyce, that celebrated chronicler of Dublin streetscapes, made good but gloomy use of the city's street performers.1 For Joyce the harpist busking on Kildare Street in his story "Two Gallants" symbolizes the slow, mournful decay of romantic Ireland in a tale about lechery, corruption, and emotional and cultural paralysis. The harpist is fatigued, and even the instrument itself, that longstanding national symbol of Ireland, is anthropomorphized in sad, shameful terms—exploited like the woman whom the two gallants abuse. "His harp, too," Joyce writes, "heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of the strangers and of her master's hands" (54). Joyce offers a gendered and sexualized image of degradation, and his use of Thomas Moore's song "Silent, O Moyle" (52–53) advances the somber symbolism of national loss.
But by using the street performer to evoke the state of Ireland, Joyce reduces the harpist to symbolic and atmospheric backdrop to his story's plot; we never learn about the figure's life. The harpist is rendered in two dimensions, staring up at the moon while a small crowd hovers around. A century later—following the upheavals of revolution, sectarian violence, globalization, the fever of the Celtic Tiger and its crash, and the thaw from the theocratic grip of the Roman Catholic church—how might the contemporary practice of busking represent the state of Irish society? In this essay I explore street performers in Ireland by humanizing them in order to tell a three-dimensional story rather than treating them as two-dimensional symbols. I examine how buskers navigate the official and unofficial structures of the modern Irish state, the tourism industry, and the Irish streetscape. How might the modern practice of street [End Page 251] performing reflect and even engender Ireland's expanding twenty-first-century cosmopolitanism?
Rather than searching for music in Ireland in archives or historical texts, this article offers an ethnographic sketch of music-making and its performance as heard and experienced in the everyday pedestrian world of the contemporary Irish street. My investigation is based on ethnographic research conducted with buskers in Ireland since 2011 across numerous short periods of multi-sited fieldwork—a method Helena Wulff calls "yo-yo fieldwork" in Dancing at the Crossroads (139–45). I completed close to fifty interviews and engaged in participant observation by performing a number of times on the streets myself. Those interviewed include dozens of musicians and performers, shopowners and employees, city administrators, tour-company employees and managers, tourists, and local residents who were asked about the practice of busking, its impacts, and its meanings. In what follows I draw on two of my previous pieces on the topic published in 2014 and 2018, as well as on new data from fieldwork in Dublin conducted during the summer of 2017. This essay focuses on the social performances of musicians and audiences and is therefore less about the state of music in Ireland than about the spaces that musicians create at the margins of the Irish state—specifically, on the street. It is also about how the fluid performance of multicultural and transnational identities among performing buskers reveals the increasingly complex ways in which twenty-first-century notions of Irishness are being (re)formulated and constructed. I argue that busking is not a culture or subculture within Ireland, but instead, following Anna Tsing, a much looser social "assemblage" of mobile, trans-national individuals who interact at the edges of the official economy on more temporary terms. In that sense, while this study focuses on three busking scenes in the Republic of Ireland, street performance must be understood in light of interconnected international practices and historical trends. Furthermore, in an era of late capitalism and the rise of the "gig-economy," an examination of an artistic practice like busk ing and of the way that it is dealt with by private organizations and public municipalities sheds light on emerging twenty-first-century relationships between the arts, law, and economics.
In this essay I first define and contextualize the practice of busking in Irish social history...