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'People come for the atmosphere': Galway's buskers and businesses clash over new rules on street performing

The new bylaws were introduced by Galway County Council.

Street performers have spoken out against the new bylaws.
Street performers have spoken out against the new bylaws.
Image: Shutterstock/2checkingout

MUSICIANS AND PERFORMERS in Galway have branded as “ridiculous” new bylaws on busking in the city.

Galway City Council has faced significant criticism since it passed new rules regulating street performers last week.

The bylaws, passed following years of complaints from local businesses, enact new regulations on where, when and how buskers can perform on the city’s cobbled streets and alleyways. 

The new regulations are a significant change for Galway. A bylaw passed in 2011 only imposed restrictions on street performance between 10pm and 9am from November to February and from 11pm to 9am from March to October. 

The new bylaws, which take effect in January, are significantly more detailed.

  • Street performers are not allowed to do or sing anything likely to cause alarm, distress or offence to any member of the public or business. 
  • A busker must “immediately” stop their performance where a crowd has gathered stopping the movement of pedestrians. 
  • Amplification and backing tracks are banned until after 6pm.
  • Drum kits are banned at all times. 
  • ‘Circle acts’ are banned until 6pm. 

Street performers are not permitted “to do or sing anything that is likely to cause alarm, distress or offence”, reads one section of the new law. 

Another states that a street performer “must immediately cease a performance in circumstance where a crowd have gathered thereby stopping the movement of pedestrians”.

Critics have also pointed to new limitations on so-called ‘circle acts’, amplification and backing tracks, which will now be banned until after 6pm. Drum kits have also been prohibited, while 16-year-olds can only now perform in the presence of a legal guardian.

The laws, buskers say, will prove detrimental to the city, where dozens of people earn their livelihoods through busking and which helped provide a platform for the likes of Ed Sheeran and Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.

In the past, Galway buskers had relied on a self-regulatory code of conduct to police street performers. 

But businesses have said it doesn’t do enough to combat crowd sizes and noise levels. 

“People can shop anywhere. You don’t have to come into the street. They come for the atmosphere. And when you remove that, the city itself is going to suffer,” Lorcan Boulter, a local musician and busker, told TheJournal.ie. 

For two years, Boulter said, he and the Galway Buskers Community Group have been opposing plans to clamp down on busking but says councillors have refused to engage with them.

“Every few weeks there’s been a new hurdle to jump over,” he said. But the next step to oppose these laws, he said, remains unclear. 

Some local politicians have tried to come to the defence of Galway’s buskers. Social Democrats representative Niall Ó Tuathail and Galway councillor Owen Hanley drafted a set of amendments to the bylaws – however they were rejected by the majority of councillors.

Hanley told TheJournal.ie that the bylaws send out the “wrong message and we owe a debt to the buskers”. 

The city is currently preparing itself to be the 2020 European Capital of Culture, for which it has received €15 million from the government. 

The bylaws, Hanley said, are also badly written. ”It is poor at doing what it is attempting to do,” he says, pointing to vagueness on what exactly “offence” means. 

“That wouldn’t hold up under European law and it seems to contradict our norms on free speech,” he said. 

 Noise levels

But for the local councillors who backed the new laws, the reasoning comes down quite simply to noise levels, which they say have disrupted local businesses for years. 

Ollie Crowe, a Fianna Fáil councillor, told TheJournal.ie that the new laws represented a “compromise”. 

“We want busking in our city but we have to be conscious of the hundreds of staff who work on Shop Street,” he said. 

While critics have warned that the laws are impossible to implement, Crowe said he was unperturbed, describing it as a matter for community wardens or Gardaí. 

They can be reviewed in 12 months, he said. 

Independent councillor Terry O’Flaherty, who chaired the council committee that drafted the new laws, said the issue has been going on for some time. 

“For years I’ve been inundated from different shopkeepers looking for us to do something,” she said. “Galway is a medieval city. We have very narrow streets. And it’s very difficult to have all the entertainers on the streets.”

Councillors say that the majority of buskers are well-behaved, but some have made conditions intolerable for businesses in the Shop Street area. They also point out that the Eyre Square and Spanish Arch areas will still be free for buskers to perform in.  

Yet for buskers, these reasons don’t add up. When it comes to the preparations for the capital of culture, “they’ve shot themselves in the foot”, Boulter said. 

“What they’ve done is take away a lot of the culture,” he added. 

It remains unclear how the new rules will be communicated to incoming performers or whether they’ll actually be possible to implement. 

“The decision to adopt bylaws is a reserved function of the elected members,” a spokesperson for Galway City Council said. 

The spokesperson said that there had been “formal and informal contact with both city-centre business interests and representatives of buskers since the proposed introduction of Galway City Council bylaws emerged a number of years ago”. 

Labour councillor Niall McNelis voted against the bylaws. A local business-owner, he says he has some sympathy with the concerns of shop owners. 

While predicting that the “sky won’t fall in”, he said he hoped that the decision can be reviewed in the coming months. 

“Maybe we were a victim of our own success,” he said. 

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