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Irish activist Mary Begley offers some thoughts on her "tough and rewarding" life and work as a street musician.

Culture is the opposite of war

I started off as a street musician in Dublin in 1986, filling in the hours while my three daughters were at school. The streets get into the bloodstream after a while - the freedom, the fresh air, the uncertainty of it all, the peace.

What started off as a hobby became a part-time earner. Arriving in Dublin with the three girls, I met other musicians, we played together on the streets and had fun. Having studied the Irish language (old and medieval) and being under pressure from certain members of the family to get a “proper” job, I tried translation work for six months but missed the buzz, the outdoors and the “punters”.

Quiet resistance

Busking on the streets could be a form of quiet resistance. Not working for the state means freedom of expression. Playing music that is plaintive and sweet and ancient, moving people's hearts without words. I feel I am a link between my Irish-speaking, storytelling, music-playing family and the world. My platform is the street. Speaking the Irish language to people, some of whom apologise because their Irish is “rusty”.

It still feels subversive to speak one of the most ancient languages in Europe, that does not have “baggage” - that the government of the day does not speak, apart from the principled minority. Being outside of modern day politics, being close to the ground, sitting on a small stool, feels powerful.

Accessing people

For some people who are rushing, the music is a background hum. Every week, people thank me, and it is such a surprising, humbling thing. The streets give me access to people, and music is the medium. It amazes me the respect people have for musicians - it is a part of spirituality I suppose.

If I miss a week, people enquire anxiously - “were you sick?” People walk over to me in shops, mentioning a particular tune and asking for the name of it.

Talking to street-people - paper sellers, window cleaners, street-traders and other buskers, I get a feel for what makes people tick. People tell me little bits about their lives and difficulties. The more political I become, the more political my role is. The streets have informed my politics. (Most musicians develop their talents and tour other countries. I had family, I didn't work enough on the music so I get to stay here - great!)

Experiencing harassment

Most of the buskers are male. How strange then that most of the harassment I experience is from young males - glaring, sneering and throwing things. Bringing heterosexuality into question. If sexism were addressed on a global scale, racism and homophobia would collapse, that's my thought as I play tunes like The Butterfly, King of the Fairies and suchlike.

What people see is a fair-haired woman with glasses sitting on a stool playing the concertina and tapping her foot to the music, seemingly in a trance. Yes, the music is calming but all my senses are alert and I see people in all their guises, off-guard. People-watching is a great perk!

No to Nice!

To be known from the “No to Nice” campaign* can be a strength. I had to learn to sharpen my verbal skills on the streets in disputes with aggressive beggars, and other buskers setting up too close, so that I had to develop confidence and shed my anger. That experience has enabled me to have little political discussions with regular passers-by, give messages now and again to nice Americans (three in the last eleven days) about where 30% of their taxes are going.

We are ashamed, too, that our so-called leader offered the US the use of Shannon Airport for refuelling on their way to bombing Afghanistan. I talk to the other “Europeans” about how the Nice Treaty and the Rapid Reaction Force have to be resisted, and give them information leaflets.

Walk with music

The life on the street is tough and rewarding. Rain is bad - no shelter or canopy on the streets. So are road works, aggressive beggars, and opportunistic thieves who have no respect. It is a solitary occupation because the motivation comes from the self so it is a pleasure meeting somebody like a Japanese harper who is happy to play some music with me, swapping tunes and doing a few gigs together.

It is a nice thought, sending all that music out into the atmosphere. Walk on an empty street, then walk again when music is being played and the whole street is transformed, people are transformed. Culture is the opposite of war, I think.

Note: * The "No to Nice Campaign" worked to persuade Irish citizens to vote against the Nice Treaty in the 2001 Irish referendum. One of the major reasons for opposing Ireland's joining concerned the treaty's enabling of a more integrated militarised Europe. The campaign was also closely linked with the "No to NATO" campaign.

Mary Begley is a parent and grandparent, an Irish-speaking Kerry woman, resident in Dublin, playing music in the pubs and streets and opposing war everywhere.

Topics: Culture