Song Title Time
Margaret Barry 1917-1989
By Ronan Nolan
THE raw, uncompromising voice of the street singer had to carry above the noisy chatter of the fair or football crowd. Ballad singer Margaret Barry rarely failed to gain attention with her gutsy voice, pronounced Cork accent and simple banjo accompaniment.
She was born in Peter Street, Cork, in 1917, into a family of travellers. Her grandfather, Bob Thompson, was an accomplished uilleann piper who had won the first Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1897 and again in 1898 in Belfast. Both her parents and uncles were street musicians. She taught herself to play the five-string banjo and could also play the fiddle.
Her mother, Margaret Thompson, died when Margaret was only 12. Her father remarried. After a family row around 1933, Margaret started street singing and took off on her own, singing at matches and fairs.
The song collector Peter Kennedy first came across her in 1952: "She was then living in a small caravan with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren, in a sunken hollow by the roadside at Cregganbane, Crossmaglen, Co Armagh," he wrote in one of his album notes. "From there she used to travel on a bicycle, with her banjo slung across her back, with a piece of string, to the market squares, country fairs and sporting events such as football matches."
Kennedy first learned of her from Alan Lomax who had heard her singing Goodnight Irene at Dundalk fair in May 1951.Kennedy recorded Margaret Barry in 1952. Her remarkable version of The Factory Girl is on his Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, issued in 1976. Margaret's singing of it is closer to the best English folk club standard than her usual street style.
In the early 1950s she moved to London and teamed up with County Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman. As well as sharing a residency in the Bedford Arms in Camden Town and being regulars in the Favourite pub on Holloway Road, the duo became a permanent part of London's thriving Irish-music-in-exile scene. Mairtin Byrnes, Bobby Casey, Jim Power, Roger Sherlock, Julia Clifford, Tommy McCarthy, Dominic Behan and many others enlivened the gloomy world of emigrant workers of the 1950s. Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Tony MacMahon and many others made stopover visits. Luke Kelly was schooling himself for the ballad boom.
Reg Hall played piano at the Favourite sessions: "Several times during the evening, Margaret Barry got to her feet for a couple of songs, testing the tuning on the banjo and swapping banter with those nearby to cover her shyness.
"She stood with head held back and eyes focused somewhere in space and gave her very best performance as she did every time. What presence. What timing. The sudden shifts of tone through the range of her voice sent shivers down your spine, and in typical understatement somebody would mutter 'Ah, she's a fair auld singer, right enough.' As she broke into the tremolo banjo statement to round off the song, the hush in the bar-room was broken by whoops and cheers and a round of applause."
In his sleeve notes for the CD In the Smoke, Ron Kavana wrote: "There was a no-frills intensity to her performance that could instantly silence even the most boisterous heckler." He went on: "Although a gentle lady in private, in public she had the reputation of a woman you didn't mess with. A striking performer, she had a huge voice that needed little amplification even in the largest halls, and a strident no-frills banjo style."
She is best known for her versions of The Flower of Sweet Strabane, The Galway Shawl, The Turfman From Ardee, My Lagan Love and She Moved Through the Fair.
Ewan McColl brought Margaret, Michael Gorman and Willie Clancy to his Croydon home in 1955 and recorded two LPs - Songs of an Irish Tinker lady and Irish Jigs, Reels and Hornpipes.
She returned to Ireland in the 1960s and lived in Laurencetown with her daughter. She travelled to the USA where she played many concerts and festivals and at the Rockefeller Centre in New York. In 1975 she shared an album with fellow Traveller The Pecker Dunne. She had previously performed on TV in Britain and on London's Royal Festival Hall stage. In Dublin she could often be heard in the Brazen Head pub, one of the cradles of that city's ballad boom, where she reputedly drank Brendan Behan under the table.
In the late 1970s her performances became rarer. She spent the last decade of her life in Banbridge, Co Down, and died in 1989. In 1999 I Sang Through the Fairs was issued on CD.
I Sang Through the Fairs, Margaret Barry, Rounder 11661-1774-2
Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady, Margaret Barry, Riverside Records
Her Mantle so Green, Margaret Barry, Topic.
Ireland's Own Margaret Barry, Outlet
Travelling People, Margaret Barry, Pecker Dunne and others.
Come Back Paddy Reilly, Margaret Barry, Emerald
Irish Music in London Pubs, Margaret Barry and others, Folkways
Irish Night Out, Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, The Dubliners and others