Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Margaret Barry (Maggie, Queen of the Gypsies)

The traditional folk songs and ballads of Ireland were preserved by the '50s recordings of Margaret Barry. Accompanying her powerful but untrained vocals with natural banjo picking, Barry was a musical influence for such trad-rock groups as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span. Her recording of "I Sang Through the Fair," inspired numerous interpretations and transformed the song into a classic of Celtic music. Starting her career as a street singer in Dublin, Barry attracted international attention when she was recorded in 1953 by folklorist Alan Lomax. She subsequently moved to London where she worked for Lomax as a housekeeper and cook. For many years, Barry was accompanied by Michael Gorman, a folk musician she had met while performing on a television program of traditional music hosted by Lomax in 1953.

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 (Also a fine singer) 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 and gentler than her usual street style, which required her to throw her voice.

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 on ballads at the time.


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, Nora Barry. 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 culture, 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


1 The Cycling Championship of Ulster
2 The Flower of Sweet Strabane
3 reel: Dr Gilbert
4 The Turfman from Ardee
5 jigs: The Rambling Pitchfork / Fasten the Legging
6 The Galway Shawl
7 polkas: Maguire's Favourite / Tralee Gaol / Maggie in the Wood
8 The Wild Colonial Boy
9 Dwyer's Hornpipe
10 My Lagan Love
11hornpipe: The Boys of Bluehill
12 reels: The Yellow Tinker / The Corner House
13 The Factory Girl
14 Her Mantle So Green
15 reels: The Bunch of Keys / The Heather Breeze
16 Our Ship is Ready

Margaret Barry voice, banjo
Michael Gorman fiddle
William Clancy uilleann pipes
Paddy Breen flageolet
Tommy Maguire button accordeon
Patsy Goulding piano
Martin Byrnes fiddle

The Turfman From Ardee

Margaret Barry recorded it in 1965, indeed I have a copy of the recording her lyrics are somewhat different. I give the Walton's version here.

For sake of health I took a walk last week at early dawn,
I met a jolly turf man as I slowly walked along,
The greatest conversation passed between himself and me
And soon I got acquainted with the turfman from Ardee.

We chatted very freely as we jogged along the road,
He said my ass is tired and I'd like to sell his load,
For I got no refreshments since I left home you see,
And I'm wearied out with travelling said the turfman from Ardee.

Your cart is wracked and worn friend, your ass is very old,
It must be twenty summers since that animal was foaled
Yoked to a cart where I was born, September 'forty three
And carried for the midwife says the turfman from Ardee

I often do abuse my ass with this old hazel rod,
But never yet did I permit poor Jack to go unshod
The harness now upon his back was made by John McGee
And he's dead this four and forty years says the turfman from Ardee.

I own my cart now, has been made out of the best of wood,
I do believe it was in use in the time of Noah's flood
Its axle never wanted grease say one year out of three.
It's a real old Carrick axle said the turfman from Ardee.

We talked about our country and how we were oppressed
The men we sent to parliament have got our wrongs addressed
I have no faith in members now or nothing else you see
But led by bloomin' humbugs, said the turfman from Ardee.

Just then a female voice called out, which I knew very well,
Politely asking this old man the load of turf to sell
I shook that stately hand of his and bowed respectfully
In hope to meet some future day, the turfman from Ardee.

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