Sean-nós dancer Emma fears new busking bylaws may go too far

Emma O'Sullivan: entertaining tourists and locals alike with the aid of fellow street entertainers in the City Centre. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Nearly everyone in Galway knows her, even if they don’t know her name.

Emma O’Sullivan has made a living by sean-nós dancing in the city streets every summer for the past few years – and this year she has started dancing in the off-season too.

Easily recognisable with long black hair and green eyes that match her signature velvet dress, she entertains the crowds by dancing outside Evergreen in Mainguard Street, often alongside children or anyone who wants to join in.

After a brief stint in Dublin – she went to study English teaching and busk there, but was forced to leave after two months due to the city’s busking bylaws – the 32-year-old Connemara native came back West.

But she is worried that Galway’s proposed busking laws could put an end to her dancing here too.

She says that the laws in Dublin created arbitrary categories for buskers, so that she was lumped in with ‘karaoke singers’ simply because she uses a backing track for her dancing.

“I’m hoping Galway councillors are very careful about the wording of these bylaws. Because if they decide to ban amps, then I’ll have to leave Galway as well,” she says regretfully.

Emma – like her mother – originally hails from Renvyle, right next to Connemara National Park’s Diamond Hill. Her father comes from County Kerry but has worked as the head chef at the Renvyle House Hotel for more than twenty years.

“He got sent there to do a little bit of sub work, just covering for a short time . . . but he liked it so much, he never left,” she explains.

And she loves Galway city. “I love the atmosphere here. I love the fact that Galway just embraces the crazy, just sees magic in everything you do. Dancing in the street probably isn’t the most normal thing, and yet here in Galway it’s so supported – it’s taken as a given, that you’d be out dancing in the street.”

In Dublin, she says, dancing in the streets is more of a shock to people. “Some people would literally stop and be like, ‘What, what is this?’”

Here, on the other hand, people often come up and dance with her.

Emma has been dancing professionally for the past twelve years. Although she grew up with music and dancing around the house, she didn’t start taking “proper lessons” until she was 18.

She’s spent a lot of time touring the world – in fact, over the past decade, this is the first full year she’s been back in Ireland.

But she worries about the future. “When it comes down to writing the bylaws, if they’re not very very careful about the wording, then one broad brushstroke wipes everyone out. In trying to get rid of one type of performance that they don’t like, they can actually wipe out loads,” she says.

City buskers are attending council meetings to keep abreast of what’s going on, and have developed a busking Code of Conduct to improve their relationship with residents and businesses.

Says Emma: “We heard about these potential bylaws, and that was our first insight that possibly people weren’t happy. Because I think it’s very Galway, someone can be really annoyed with someone playing outside, and they just won’t say it. And then the person outside mightn’t know.

“So when we got the first word of this, I think it was back in April, it kind of opened our eyes. We realised that we needed to have a good go at this Code of Conduct.”

She says that although most of Galway’s buskers do talk to nearby merchants before performing, a small minority might not follow the common-sense rules, which ruins it for the rest of them – and their audiences.

But since the bylaws were proposed, most buskers in the city have made a conscious effort to interact more with local shopkeepers.

They’ve even gone so far as to set up a telephone number for complaints – so people can contact them directly instead of going through the Council.

Ultimately, Emma says, she hopes that the Council will get a drop-off in complaints and that they “will see that we are able to regulate ourselves as a group.”

And she adds that working on the bylaws with other buskers has been “amazing”.

“All of the buskers in Galway have had to sit down together . . . and it’s created this lovely community, where we all know each other now, we all help each other out.”

She smiles. “Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose.”