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,
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
had heard her singing Goodnight Irene
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
. 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
Power, Roger Sherlock,
Clifford, Tommy McCarthy, Dominic Behan
and many others enlivened the gloomy world of emigrant workers of the
1950s. Seamus Ennis, Willie
and many others made stopover visits. Luke
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
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.
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,
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
Irish Night Out, Margaret Barry, Michael
Gorman, The Dubliners and others