When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.
If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.
The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:
Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands.
Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:
Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.
Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:
The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…