‘Oft, in the Stilly Night’ and ‘Smilin’ Through’ were the only songs Margaret Barry knew by heart when she first plucked up enough courage to sing on the streets.
Though she was later to share a billing with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and perform at the Royal Albert Hall, Barry was once too shy to sing in front of the crowds queuing at Cork’s Palace Cinema.
For the sake of anonymity, she made her way from her home in Little Island to Macroom, where aged 14 she sang the first notes of a singing career that would lead her along the highways and byways of Ireland, living in a gypsy wagon, en route to Carnegie Hall and recording fame.
“Being shy and being very young indeed, that was the trouble,” she told the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax regarding her “first adventure” in Macroom. “Instead of singing outwards towards the people… I had my face up agin the wall and I started to sing a little bit, the first verse, ‘Little brown road winding over the hills… two eyes of blue…that and ‘Oft, in the Stilly Night'. I had only the two songs,” she said.
“As soon as I sang the song, I sort of got courage, and I sung the song so loud… all the people from both sides of the street came out.”
Singing loudly with intense emotion was to become Barry’s trademark as she plied her trade at fairs and football matches, horse races and markets the length of the country, having no need of microphones as she commanded the attention of crowds with her vocal power and percussive banjo playing.
“I sang through the fairs and the markets and I had very enjoyable times and more times I hadn’t, because there was times when there was wet and rain…coming back on a bicycle from somewhere and [getting] wet and knocked around a little bit,” said Barry, who came to rely on her banjo as an instrument of both music and self-defence against any unwelcome admirers.
Born Margaret Cleary on new year’s day 1917 in a tenement at 99 North Main St, Cork, where a charity shop now stands, Barry grew up surrounded by music both operatic and traditional, on both sides of her family. Her uncles were musicians and conductors, her aunts singers and Irish-speakers, her Spanish grandmother a guitar player, while her multi-instrumentalist father Timothy Cleary played the music halls and provided cinema accompaniment for silent films.
Barry regretted, however, that “he didn’t give me very much teaching. He only showed me one chord on the banjo. That was C and after that I was on me own.”
The death of her mother, Mary Bridget Thompson, when Barry was 12, was a pivotal point. Two years later she had finished school in Glounthane and when her father began a relationship with a teenager little older than Barry, she upped sticks for a life on the road.
According to her granddaughter, Margaret Barry-Mooney: “When my Granny’s mother died, her father took another lady. My granny and her father were very, very close and Granny just could not bear the thought of him with someone else, so Granny left and travelled.”
Initially cycling and staying in lodging houses as she “sung my way from town to town”, Barry had graduated by the early 1950s to a barrel-top wagon parked near Crossmaglen, Co Armagh.
Armagh-based singer and song collector Len Graham, who later toured with Barry, said she used to leave the wagon and travel by bus to sing on market days in nearby towns such as Newry and Castleblayney.
“She told me she tied a bit of wire onto the machine heads on the end of the big long-necked banjo and onto that she hung a stocking,” he said. “She’d have stuck that stocking under people’s noses because she’d be playing and singing at the same time.
“She called it ‘bottling’. She would stick it under their noses for them to stick coins into it.”
Barry told him how “the farmers would be selling cattle and pigs and sheep and by lunchtime their pockets would be full of money and they’d be looking for an ‘eating house’, as she called it”.
Striking up her banjo in one such establishment in Castleblayney in 1951, “the proprietor put her out and said ‘Maggie you’re redundant’. He was after installing a jukebox”.
“Somebody put a thrupenny bit into the jukebox and played a selection and she said it was very reminiscent of a song she knew. She struck up the tune it reminded her of, ‘The Bard of Armagh’, outside in the street, full throttle.
“She had a great pair of lungs and was singing outside all her life. She didn’t need a microphone - she could be heard over a crowd.
“Overhead above the shop was thenewspaper and the editor heard this commotion out in the street, grabbed hold of a camera, pulled up the sash window and took a wonderful photograph of her with her mouth open. It was so good he sold it to the and it appeared, captioned ‘Ballad singer versus jukebox’.”
Though jukeboxes may have threatened her livelihood, Barry’s career was about to take a new direction and that same year she first met Lomax, who was on a song-collecting ‘field trip’ to Ireland with partner Robin Roberts.
Barry also came to the attention of Irish folklorist Seán O’Boyle and song-collector Peter Kennedy, but Lomax, who according to Graham had seen the famous photograph, recorded Barry in the Queen’s Hotel, Dundalk on the day they met. It began an association that was to take Barry to London in 1953, later becoming a housekeeper for Lomax and visiting him in New York.
Barry made her BBC television debut on Lomax’swhich was the first series produced by a young David Attenborough, though with her eccentrically-tuned banjo, the performance failed to impress viewers.
Lomax also introduced Barry to Sligo fiddle-player Michael Gorman, who was to become her long-term musical and recording partner.
It was folk singer and collector Ewan MacColl, however, who in 1955 recorded Barry’s first album, for Riverside Records. He described in his sleeve notes how, after Barry “stole the show” on Lomax’s television series, he tracked her down to sing in London’s Royal Festival Hall.
MacColl recounted her arrival on stage “clutching her battered five-string banjo”, and how her performance of ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ was so powerful that “thirty-six hundred people rose to their feet and cheered”.
The song, along with ‘The Factory Girl’, ‘The Turfman from Ardee’, and ‘My Lagan Love’ among others inextricably linked with Barry’s name, appeared on her debut album.
The LP’s title,, helped cultivate an image in keeping with Barry’s itinerant lifestyle and barrel-top wagon. Depicted on the cover of a subsequent album in a mock ‘coronation’ with fake diamond tiara, many of Barry’s songs were indeed from Traveller tradition.
However, she made no secret of the fact that much of the diverse repertoire she had acquired in her travels as a street singer was gleaned from the radio and the likes of John McCormack. She later clarified: “I’m not a tinker; that business of being crowned their queen was just for a record.”
A consummate entertainer, Barry’s storytelling gifts were as legendary as her singing, convincing people that she had married Robert Mitchum, attended Elvis Presley’s wedding, and smoked joints with Bob Dylan. She also nurtured a reputation for copious Guinness consumption, one of her many claims to fame being that she once drank Brendan Behan under the table.
“She was a character that woman. She was brilliant on the stage - she was just so full of fun,” said her granddaughter Margaret. “Her voice was unique. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea now, but she had a very, very strong voice - a good Cork voice.”
About her personal life, however, she said: “My granny would have been a very secretive person. She wouldn’t be quite open about things.”
Although in interviews with Lomax, Barry discussed her relations with her husband, the true origins of any ‘gypsy’ identity other than her Spanish grandmother’s possible Egyptian roots remain shrouded in a mist of storytelling.
“They always called her the queen of the gypsies – but it was for publicity,” said her granddaughter, whose mother Nora was Barry’s only child.
“When I looked at my mother’s birth certificate it said Mummy’s date of birth, mother Barry Cleary and her occupation was musician, and her father was a gentleman called Charlie Power. Granny never ever mentioned this man to me but that would have been my mother’s father. Underneath his name it said occupation, Traveller, so I don’t know whether the ‘Traveller’ came in when she met this man.
“My Mummy didn’t know her daddy so obviously they weren’t together very long, and my Mummy didn’t know her mummy very well either because Granny would have been away touring quite a bit.”
Barry and Michael Gorman had become a fixture at the Bedford Arms in Camden Town during the heyday of the London-Irish music scene, also touring Britain and America - and they really did share a bill with Dylan and Baez at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Singer Peta Webb, who with partner Ken Hall runs the Musical Traditions Club in London, recalled first hearing Barry perform in 1965 at Oxford University Folk Club.
“I was amazed by her powerful personality as well as her compelling voice,” she said. “A voice of thrilling sweetness with a rasping edge, a voice which would stop you in your tracks in the street and haunt you when you had moved on.
“The street or pub was her concert platform. She would choose songs that would show off her vocal range - she could dazzle with a swoop from sweet top notes to a resonant lower range.”
Though Webb had “missed the legendary early years at the Bedford Arms and other Camden Town venues where Barry would famously insist on silence while she sang ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ and threatened with a look - and with her heavy banjo - anyone who dared to talk through it”, she attended one of Barry’s last public performances.
“I last saw Margaret Barry in London in 1986 at a small pub in Islington [The Horseshoe] then next day at Cecil Sharp House, Camden Town, at a concert with Bob Davenport and The Rakes [including Reg Hall, musician and authority on Irish music in London]. They had known her since her early days in London and promoted what were to prove her final performances.
“There was little left of the powerful voice,” she observed, “but the personality was as commanding as ever.”
After Gorman’s death in 1970, Barry, who also sang with her daughter Nora, formed an abortive partnership with actress and former teacher Maura O’Malley, who played the fiddle while Irish dancing.
Her rambling days drawing to a close, Barry settled down somewhat with her family in Laurencetown, near Banbridge, Co Down, which became her final resting place upon her death in 1989.
As befits a larger-than-life character, however, death did nothing to diminish Barry’s popularity. Immortalised in song by both Christy Moore and Cork’s Tim O’Riordan, with a musical show written about her life, Barry was inducted into the RTÉ Radio 1 Hall of Fame in 2019. Her award was presented to her family by singer Peggy Seeger, wife of the late Ewan MacColl.
Her legacy lives on too through the music of her descendants, including her great-grandchildren, multi-instrumentalist Marty Barry and 12-year-old uilleann piper Eoin Barry, who last month forged a remarkable family connection spanning six generations.
He and family members made the journey from the North to visit for the first time the grave of Barry’s piper grandfather, Robert Thompson, in Cork’s Curraghkippane cemetery.
At the grave of Eoin’s great-great-great-grandfather, Barry’s Hall of Fame award was brought home to her native city as the pipes sounded the air of her self-composed and fittingly autobiographical song, ‘The Strayaway Child’.
Margaret Barry had musical pedigree on both sides of her family, notably her maternal grandfather, famed uilleann piper Robert Thompson.
Thompson was born in Lisburn and his father, from Ballyclough, near Mallow, was a piper and Irish teacher in Belfast. Referred to variously as ‘King of the Pipers’ and ‘professor’, Robert ‘Bob’ Thompson is referenced as a source in Captain Francis O’Neill’s music collections.
Employed in Cork making funeral plumes for hearses, Thompson fell on hard times and pawned his uilleann pipes, suffering further misfortune when the pawnshop burned down with the pipes inside.
A decade later he returned to playing after Alderman William Phair, first president of Cork Pipers’ Club, lent him a set of pipes once owned by Canon James Goodman. Thompson, also a reed-maker, went on to become a household name as a performer, teaching with the nascent Cork Pipers’ Club, of which he was a founder member in 1898.
He won first prize at the first Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1897, but after repeating the feat the following year in Belfast, was told his success precluded him from competing for a third year.
Thompson, who died in 1903, is buried at Cork’s Curraghkippane graveyard.