Discovered on a street corner by Alan Lomax, the ‘queen of the Gypsies’ was an untamed talent who outdrank Brendan Behan, insulted Bob Dylan, and filled the Royal Albert Hall. The author of a new show tells her story
By Colin Irwin
Bob Dylan called her his favourite folk singer. Christy Moore says she still inspires him. Norma Waterson likens her to Edith Piaf and Bessie Smith. Sir David Attenborough put her on live TV. And even Van Morrison stops being grumpy to talk animatedly of “a great soul singer” when her name is mentioned.
A hundred years since her birth in Cork, the legend of Irish street singer Margaret Barry continues to grow. From her early days busking during some of Ireland’s most troubled years, she went on to become a revered attraction in London pubs where the Irish labourers who’d migrated after the war to help rebuild Britain’s capital congregated after work for a few jars of stout and a flavour of home. At a time when Irish traditional music might have been heading for extinction – a victim of state and church disapproval – exiled musicians kept the flame burning, resulting in a vibrant Irish scene in the English capital, coalescing around pubs such as the Favourite on the Holloway Road and the Bedford Arms in Camden. The uncompromising voice and raucous banjo of Margaret Barry were at its formidable heart.
Teaming up with the great Sligo fiddle player Michael Gorman, she became a star on the burgeoning British folk club scene of the time, recording her first album, Street Songs and Fiddle Tunes, for Topic in 1957. Several others followed, notably Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady (1959) and Her Mantle So Green (1965), as she went on to headline concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall, singing the same songs just as she’d sung them on the streets: traditional ballads, travellers’ tunes, populist Irish songs such as The Blarney Stone, or anything else she had thought would earn her enough to buy lodgings for the night.
She gained considerable fame within folk music circles but remained gloriously untouched by it. She smoke, she drank, she cussed, she span yarns, she marched on stage carrying pints of Guinness, she didn’t care who she offended and she spent money as fast as she earned it. She acquired not one ounce of polish or gentility along the way and sang the only way she knew how – as if her life depended on it (which, when she started out, it almost did).
Competing for attention with traffic noise and the chatter of shoppers, her voice had acquired a bloodcurdling intensity exacerbated by her furious banjo accompaniment. There was coarseness and conviction, but beauty and elegance, too, in the way she delivered great ballads such as The Galway Shawl and Factory Girl; while her thick black hair, rugged features and stern expression gave her a ferocious charisma that was enhanced by the endless fund of anecdotes that enveloped her.
Barry had a neat turn of phrase. She said she had “millions of miles of words” and, occasionally neglecting to fit her false teeth for performances, she said: “I have a mouth full of no teeth.” Asked about her opinion of Dylan, with whom she appeared at the 1965 Newport folk festival (when he outraged folk purists by going electric), her only comment was that he was “awfully smelly”. She wasn’t impressed, either, by Frank Sinatra, berating him for his bad manners. Or the quality of American beer, buttonholing the future President Gerald Ford to tell him: “I don’t like your Guinness … ’tis very, very weak.”
There was also the time she heckled Paul Simon so much when he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall that he eventually invited her on stage with him to sing her most celebrated ballad She Moved Through the Fair – which many were shocked to discover she’d originally learned in a shop doorway listening to a recording by the tenor Count John McCormack. And they still talk in awe at the Brazen Head pub in Dublin of the time she drank notorious writer and carouser Brendan Behan under the table.
The myths that surrounded her were often perpetuated by Barry herself. It’s unlikely she attended Elvis Presley’s wedding, as she claimed, and she was certainly never married to Robert Mitchum, though she convinced her grandchildren that she was and that he’d be over to see them as soon as he’d finished his latest movie in Hollywood.
Dubbed “queen of the Gypsies” by a sharp entrepreneur promoting a St Patrick’s Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 60s, she later rode up to the gates of Buckingham Palace in a pony and trap to announce: “The queen of the Gypsies wishes to meet the queen of England.” But the image of her as a Traveller wasn’t strictly true either.
She may well have had Gypsy blood from a Spanish grandmother, but she grew up in a tenement building in the heart of Cork city in a musical family. Her grandfather, Robert Thompson, had been one of Ireland’s most celebrated pipers, while her father played banjo to accompany silent movies at the local picture house.
The death of her mother when Margaret was 12, and her father’s subsequent marriage to a teenager little older than his daughter, led to her decision to leave home on her bicycle at 16 and throw herself at the mercy of fate. All she had was a 17-shilling wooden banjo tied to her back with a piece of string.
Ireland in the 1930s was a nation still divided, riven by poverty and the scars of oppression, and the sight of a teenage girl on her own, busking on street corners with a banjo – itself then an unfamiliar instrument in the country – invited all manner of dangers and prejudices. “I just sang my way from town to town,” she said later. “I was always looking for a place to stay. I just wanted to earn enough to get a roof over my head for the night.”
Little wonder she grew up fast and swiftly developed the repertoire and skills to fill her hat with coins, overcoming abuse and the prejudices of the day, which decreed that a woman’s place was in the home. She was not averse to giving her tormentors a whack with her banjo if they irked her, and the force of her personality and the richness of her music ultimately won people over. She became a familiar and popular figure at fairs and football matches all over Ireland. She had a child, Nora, fathered by a man called Charlie Power who soon disappeared from her life, and gravitated a mile or so across the Northern Irish border to Crossmaglen, where she lived in a roundtop caravan.
Then, one cold, bright morning in 1951, while she was singing Bold Fenian Men on a street corner in Dundalk, a young American woman stopped to watch her, transfixed. “I’ll never forget it,” Robin Roberts told me 60 years later. “She seemed so small then. A skinny little lady wearing a worn green coat. She had no teeth. But what a voice!”
Roberts, assistant to the great American song collector Alan Lomax, told Barry: “Don’t move”, and ran off to inform Lomax of her discovery. In his hotel room later that day, he recording her singing. She played him Goodnight Irene, which he’d previously recorded by Lead Belly in a Louisiana penitentiary. Lomax asked how she knew the song. “I learned it off Radio Luxembourg,” she said.
The meeting precipitated her move to London, initially to appear on a TV series called The Songhunter, produced by a young David Attenborough, who still tells the story of how Barry’s wild, toothless appearance, playing an out-of-tune banjo, prompted a volley of angry complaints about Irish tinkers being allowed on the TV.
Nevertheless, Barry stayed in London and, in partnership with Michael Gorman, her extraordinary adventure gained pace. Twenty years her senior, Gorman was a stabilising influence, who helped her write tunes – most famously the autobiographical Strayaway Child. Her career faltered in the years following his death in 1970, and she seemed lost for a while, attempting to replace his calm wisdom and great instrumental virtuosity in a bizarre partnership with an ex-PE teacher from County Mayo called Maura O’Malley, who dressed as an Irish colleen, played fiddle and danced at the same time. O’Malley complained of Barry’s drinking and snoring while Barry grew incensed by O’Malley’s controlling tendencies. She escaped through an upstairs New York hotel window while they were on tour in America and never saw her again.
Barry grew old – disgracefully, of course – in Lawrencetown, Co Down, annoying the neighbours by adopting a noisy donkey, crashing a car without learning to drive first, betting on the horses, smoking and telling fortunes.