Busking is the practice of performing in public places for tips or gratuities. The earliest buskers in Galway were probably singers who would sing on the street, and then knock on doors in the hope of getting money or food. In the early 20th century, Johnny Doran and his family would move around playing in different places, including the races, and then in the evening outside the Imperial Hotel. Paddy Philbin, who later became a dancing master, would dance for him and they drew big crowds. Later came the Reaney brothers who played in various locations in Galway city and county.
Many families going to the races would place themselves at The Móinín with their flasks and sandwiches. Musicians often wandered playing in their midst and hopefully collecting.
The Dunne brothers were sons of John and Mary Dunne, members of an extended family boasting many famous musicians and singers. Christy, a bachelor, played the banjo. He had knobbly fingers and played with a thimble. Joseph played the fiddle and banjo, was married, and had children. Michael played fiddle and was married. They were known as The Blind Dunnes because they all had cataracts and appeared blind. In those days it was difficult to get a job with bad eyesight. They were Travellers who went all over the country from Cork to Donegal by horse and caravan, playing at fairs and football matches, stopping at towns along the way to busk. They were a fixture in Galway for many years during the races, stayed in Joyce’s lodging house in Mary Street, and played outside Fallers in the morning, at Ballybrit in the afternoon, and outside the Oslo Hotel in the evening. They often sat in on sessions in Larry Cullen’s pub in Forster Street.
People did not come to hear them in a formal situation… they had to bring their music onto the street and appeal to as many passersby as they could. They had gentle personalities, were very dignified and always appeared relaxed in their gestures, but their music was full of passion and heart and spirit… there was a kind of wildness and beauty and freedom about it… they were very connected with their music and their instruments, of which they were technical masters, whether delivering soulful slow airs or infectious dance music. They played when traditional music was at a low ebb.
You would recognise their music in the open air before you saw them. It cannot have been easy for them, standing for hours entertaining. They could not always see their audience, and sometimes the guards moved them on. But above all, they were outstanding musicians, an inspiration to some of the best traditional musicians of today. Christy helped to pioneer the playing of the banjo in Irish traditional music. They preserved, in a living oral context, important aspects of our native culture that had disappeared from the settled community. Dance music, often unpopular, was a small part of their repertoire but they kept it alive as a living working tradition.
If what they were playing was not bringing in money, they changed it. As well as traditional tunes and airs, they played popular songs like ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ and ‘Galway Bay’, but they could also play classical pieces by Fritz Kreisler, Vittorio Monti, and Liszt, an amazing technical achievement. Theirs was a story of the genius of music flying in the face of adversity.
They eventually settled in Cork. Christy died in 1987, Michael in 1992, and Joseph in 1996, but they live on in the folk memory for many people who remember them with great affection.
We could not get a photograph of the three of them playing together. Our first image is of Joseph on fiddle and Christy on banjo, and our second shows Michael playing the fiddle.
Our thanks to The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, Limerick University, for providing this week’s images.