The Oldest Folktale in the World!

The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935 in Earlsford Terrace, Dublin – where turf fires burned regularly in the grates. In our library at Nead an Iolair are three books by researchers who gave much of their working lives to the Commission. Bríd Mahon, from Cork, was hired by the Commission as a temporary typist in October 1939. Ten years later she took over as office manager from Máire MacNeill, who was to marry: married women could not be civil servants in Ireland in those days! Seán O’Sullivan was the archivist of the Commission for the duration of its existence (1935 – 1971). In 1971 the project was absorbed by the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin.

Tadhg Ó Murchú recording an unidentified informant on a clockwork Ediphone in Spunkane, Co Kerry, 1936. ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

. . . The first things I noticed were the wicker basket heaped with sods of black turf beside an open fire and the smell of the blue peat smoke which I love. It was the first day as a raw recruit to the staff of the Irish Folklore Commission. One wall of the room was lined with manuscripts bound in dark leather. A small dark man was turning the handle of a machine. Shreds of wax from a long cylinder fell into a container. Seán O’Sullivan (1903 – 96), who was the archivist, explained that the wax cylinders he was paring were used by the collectors on clockwork dictating machines called Ediphones to record the tales and traditions of the Irish countryside. He said that they were a great improvement on the old method of taking down information by hand. The only drawback was that the Ediphones had to be carried by the collectors on bicycles, which made riding over stony roads difficult and up mountain paths near impossible . . .

 

The Second World War was drawing to a close, petrol was scarce and few people owned cars. The Commission employed five full-time collectors, who worked in places as far apart as the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry and the Bluestacks in County Donegal. When the men had filled a dozen cylinders they transcribed the information onto blue notebooks, using indelible ink. These were sent back to Dublin, carefully packed in boxes. The notebooks were bound and kept in the Commission’s archives and the cylinders were pared and recycled . . .

From Bríd Mahon’s account of her time at the Irish Folklore Commission: While Green Grass Grows Mercier Press, 1998

Paddy Óg Liath Ó Súilleabháin being recorded by Tadhg Ó Murchú. On the right is Caoimhín Ó Danachair  (Kevin Danaher – familiar to our Journal readers) ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Bríd Mahon also relates how the Folklore Commission (which survived on a shoestring budget) acquired its Ediphone machines:

. . . In the 1930s Delargy [Séamus Ó Duilearga, Director of the Commission throughout its life] had gone on a lecture tour of America that entailed much travel and long train journeys. Coming to the end of his travels, he happened to find himself sharing a carriage with another traveller. They soon discovered a common interest – both were dedicated fishermen. As the night wore on they got talking about Ireland and the work of the Commission. Delargy remarked that gathering folklore was akin to fishing – both took time and patience. He described how for eight years he had spent every vacation in a remote hamlet in County Kerry, first helping with the housework, afterwards making himself as comfortable as he could on a bag of salt, while he wrote down from the dictation of one of Ireland’s great storytellers hundreds of legends, Fianna tales and miscellanea of folklore. ‘On a night in April 1931 Seán Ó Canaill told me the last tale in his repertoire,” Delargy told his listener. “A month later he was dead. It had been a race against time.”

 

Delargy’s travelling companion was impressed by the meeting. “I wish you well in your undertaking, Mr Delargy,” were his parting words as the train pulled into Grand Central Station, New York. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Delargy was scarcely back in Dublin when a consignment of Ediphone machines arrived with the compliments of the President of the Edison Company. The accompanying note read: “To a fellow traveller and fisher of men.” These Ediphones were used by the collectors for many years . . .

Left – Séamas Mac Aonghusa (Seamus Ennis) was responsible for recording over 2,000 songs and dance tunes while working for the Folklore Commission. Right – an Ediphone being transported in rural Ireland (1945)

More from Bríd Mahon:

Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .

 

It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .

The Travelling Community, Parkgarve, Co Galway, 1956 ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Nothing would satisfy me but to find a version of the ‘earliest known folktale’ to finish off this post. But, search high and low, the only example I could find is written in Irish and amounts to 5,000 words! With my very limited skills and many translation aids I have begun to work on the story. I’ll give you a taster, but the full tale will have to wait for another day:

Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon

 

It came out that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky. He could only do his best. The poor man had a wife for many years, but no children came to them, and they were both now well into old age.

On a day he was out fishing with his rod and a fine salmon came to him. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”

 

The poor man was amazed to hear the salmon speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go”.

 

“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”

 

“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.

 

“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

 

The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”

 

Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”

 

“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”

 

‘We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.

 

As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.

 

At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said . . . 

The Fisherman – Lough Skeagh, Co Cavan, 1946 ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Living in Lockdown!

Main Street, Ballydehob: 4 April 2020. You’ve never seen it like this before on a Saturday morning. We are only out because we have urgent shopping to do. We are permitted to go to the shops, the dispensary and the dump (we live too far out of town to have any waste collections). Oh, and we can exercise within a two kilometre radius of home (here’s Finola’s account of that). It’s a strange life – but we are gratefully alive…

We completed our last ‘long’ walk on Friday 27 March – to the summit of Mount Corrin, for my Mizen Mountains post. On that evening the government announced the ‘lockdown’ and we are now isolated in Cappaghglass for the foreseeable future, although the 2km restriction will allow us to trespass into our adjacent townlands of Stouke, Cappanacallee, Foilnamuck, Rossbrin, Ballycummisk and Kilbronogue, provided we keep our distance from other walkers. We see very few.

When the sun is shining, there’s no better place to be than home – looking out over Roaringwater Bay! We have plenty to occupy us. Not least, keeping up with this journal and my new venture Swantonstown Sessions – compensation for the enforced adjournment of the weekly traditional music meetings in Ballydehob. It’s an online forum for sharing tunes, songs and related ‘chat’. Please join in!

There’s not much activity in Schull, our other centre for essential supplies, either. The main street (upper) and pier (above) are deserted on Saturday morning, when it’s normally buzzing. All the businesses in our villages and towns rely on customers: we hope for their sakes (and ours) that the situation doesn’t last too long, although we do all understand how necessary the restrictions are.

Join us for one of our walks – along to Rossbrin – to look at the water and the always changing scenery as spring gets under way. That’s the boreen leading down to it, above.

Rossbrin Castle, the home of the ‘Scholar Prince’ Finghinn O’Mahony in medieval times, is the local landmark which always draws us towards the Cove. It has stood for centuries, although very gradually returning to nature: parts of it will remain for generations to come, and will intrigue those who chance upon it, as I first did some thirty years ago. It is on private land, remember, but it can be seen from many accessible vantage points.

It’s no hardship to be ‘marooned’ out here in rural Ireland. The one thing we miss above all else is meeting and chatting with friends and neighbours: that’s unnatural. But we will survive it. After our walks there’s always the road home to look forward to (do you see the celandines lining the way?):

Roaringwater Journal wishes to heartily thank all those in our communities who are supporting the rural population through these abnormal times: medical teams, pharmacies, shopkeepers, producers and suppliers . . . All who keep our facilities and utilities going . . . They are helping us to stay healthy and upbeat in times of disquiet. We appreciate all of you.

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .

The Castle of Rossbrin

It was just Raven and I, down at Rossbrin today. We were both inspecting the O’Mahony stronghold which has stood here for, perhaps, 800 years in one form or another. Peter Somerville-Large explored the area and its history in the early 1970s:

Down beside a narrow inlet which empties at low tide stands Rosbrin, the most easterly of the O’Mahony castles. Like the O’Driscolls, the O’Mahonys had a passion for building castles: they built twelve, and six survive, all overlooking or right on the edge of the sea. They shared with the O’Driscolls one of the finest fishing grounds in Europe, controlling the waters and exacting dues from visiting fishing boats in much the same way. ‘None of the fisheries of Munster are so well known,’ wrote an observer in 1688, ‘as those of the promontory of Ivaha, whereto a great fleet of Spaniards and Portuguese go, even in the midst of winter . . .’

The Coast of West Cork, 1972

Neither Raven nor I would be deterred by the winter weather. On a day of hard frost followed by blue skies and sunshine, nowhere could be more beautiful than Rossbrin, and nothing could be more poignant than the quiet remoteness of this western corner of Ireland, once considered ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’. I walked in the company of the wisest of the corvids over the vanished ruins of a great university.

Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach, or chieftain, of the clan – as he may well have looked in the latter part of the fifteenth century (above): cultured, fashionable, flamboyant even, and powerful. It’s sobering to think that, while Columbus was following in the footsteps of Saint Brendan to rediscover the New World, scholars and scribes were busy on the shores of Roaringwater Bay writing and translating treatises, medical manuscripts and historical accounts of travellers busy in their quests to prove the earth may not be flat after all . . .

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn Ó Mathúna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And, the Annals of Connaught lauded him as ‘a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English’. The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn Ó Mathúna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. The O’Mahony territory was inclusive of today’s parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the lands westwards to Mizen Head. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars . . . Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn Ó Mathúna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle’s manuscripts . . .

From an article by Alfie O’Mahony in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, 2010

Roaringwater Bay – the view to the south, today, from Rossbrin. In the foreground is Horse Island, and beyond is the profile of Cape Clear, also a place of learning to this day: students of the Irish language spend time on the island, one of the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is still the native tongue. One of the reasons for Finghinn being so expert in languages himself was the desire to communicate with the visiting fishermen whose needs provided him and his clansmen with a good living. As well as a celebrated place of learning, Rossbrin Cove would have supplied fish palaces and all the trappings of the industry: barrels and salt for preserving, victuallers, alehouses, brothels . . . It must have been a boisterous and vibrant place.

Peter Somerville-Large gives a commentary on the more recent history of the castle:

One wall of the splintered tower has a crack running down the side. Another was partly blown down by a storm in 1905. If there is another great storm like that one, Rosbrin might well disappear without trace, like the O’Mahony castles at Ballydevlin, Castle Meighan and Crookhaven. It is sited on an area which is very difficult to approach from either land or sea, standing on a rock. Contrary to what might be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rocks have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory . . .

To the south of the rock on which the castle stands are the vestigial remains of an ancient stone quay (above), still in use as a landing place. The Cove itself – a natural haven – would have been the main harbour area serving the fishing fleets. The castle stands sentinel above the harbour entrance, ensuring that no-one could approach unseen.

I have been looking for older illustrations of the castle, in order to ascertain how much erosion is taking place as the years go by. Here’s a fascinating record of an O’Mahony Clan Gathering, photographed in 1975 by Michael Minihan of Skibbereen. There is a lot more of the building intact at that time. Can you see the spectators high up on the walls and roof?

As most of you will know, we look down on Rossbrin Cove and Castle from our eyrie up at Nead an Iolair. We consider anyone living on or by the Cove a neighbour. One of these is Julian, the first to welcome us when we arrived here many years ago. On my walk today I called in on him – he lives next door to the Castle Farm. I was over the moon when he showed me a portrayal of the Castle which his mother, Geraldine, painted in the 1970s, only a year or so after the gathering above. Clearly, a substantial part of the castle walls has gone in that short time.

Rossbrin Castle, painted by Geraldine van Hasselt in the 1970s (above). Best of all, though, is a photograph of Julian – her son – taken at Easter, 1969:

Julian van Hasselt on Rossbrin shore: behind him is a clear view of the castle. You can see the vertical crack which eventually led to the collapse of half the tower.

At this time of the year we get excellent sunsets when the weather is right. Today’s was a good one! I reluctantly said goodbye to Raven, my companion whose constant cronking seemed to follow me as I perambulated this place of deep history. I wonder: was it just Raven? Or might it have been Finghinn himself, speaking to me in yet another of his languages? I think I’ll have to return to Rossbrin to find out!

With many thanks to friends Julian and Raven . . .

Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

The Marvel of Margaret Barry

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…