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. Continue reading