Barry, Margaret (‘Maggie’) (1917–89), folk singer, was born 1 January 1917 in Peter Street, Cork city, one of five children of Timothy Cleary and his wife Mary or Margaret (née Thompson ); the family were travellers who had been loosely settled in the Cork city area for two generations. Her maternal grandfather, Bob Thompson, was an accomplished uileann piper, twice winner of the feis ceoil (1897–8), while her maternal grandmother, reputedly Spanish-born, played guitar and sang. Her parents and uncles were street singers and musicians; during the 1920s her father played violin in local cinemas and dancehalls. Margaret, whose mother died when she was twelve, began street singing with her father in her early teens. After difficulties with her stepmother, she left the family at age sixteen, and took to the road on her own. She seems to have adopted her mother's surname, Thompson, until her own marriage. For the next twenty years she travelled throughout Ireland by bus, bicycle, or horse-drawn caravan, earning a precarious living as a street singer. She became a familiar figure busking at markets, fairs, football matches, race meetings, and outside small-town shops and cinemas, and performed by invitation (for a meal and collection) at wakes, weddings, and all-night house parties. Dependent for support on her listeners’ approbation, frequently singing their requests, she developed a vast and eclectic repertoire, including traditional and contemporary ballads, art-song settings of Irish airs, and popular commercial songs of the period. Sometimes singing unaccompanied, but usually playing the five-string banjo (on which she was self-taught and inexpert), she was especially noted for her interpretations of ‘She moved through the fair’, ‘The flower of sweet Strabane’, ‘The Galway shawl’, and ‘My Lagan love’ (which she reputedly learned by lingering at the doorway of a record shop).
By the early 1950s she was living with her husband and daughter in a caravan, based outside Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh, and travelling by bicycle, with banjo slung across her back with a piece of string, to perform at locations in the border regions of counties Louth, Down, Monaghan, and Armagh. Attracting the notice of folklorists, she was recorded in Dundalk by the notable American folk musicologist Alan Lomax (1951), and for the BBC by Peter Kennedy (1952). Lomax brought her to London for further recording, and to appear briefly on his BBC television programme ‘Song hunter’ (1953). Returning to London within the year, she soon was prominent in the vibrant, pub-based London Irish music scene, cultivating an audience among the vast number of wartime and post-war Irish emigrants, mainly from the western counties. She formed an enduring partnership with fiddler Michael Gorman (1895–1970), from Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, a dominant figure among London-based Irish musicians. For several years they performed regularly with other musicians in the Bedford Arms pub in Camden Town, Barry taking turns at singing during the sessions of instrumental dance music, and accompanying Gorman's fiddling in her percussive banjo technique. Their repertoire included ‘The strayaway child’, a complex jig arranged by Gorman from pieces of melody composed by Barry (the title bore autobiographical reference). The duo were recorded with Séamus Ennis (qv) by Ewan MacColl at the latter's home in Croydon in 1955, resulting in two LPs released in the USA, Songs of an Irish tinker lady and Irish jigs, reels, and hornpipes. Several of the MacColl tracks were included with additional live and studio recordings for the Topic label on a British-released LP, Her mantle so green (1958; CD reissue, 1994), probably Barry's most satisfying album.
With a powerful, penetrating voice that compelled attention, Barry favoured a loud, declamatory vocal style that could carry above the many extraneous noises of the crowded indoor and outdoor venues in which she usually performed. The home and studio recordings of the 1950s allowed her to indulge a more intimate manner – voice strong but vulnerable, devoted to a sympathetic, nuanced, impassioned treatment of her material – and demonstrate her stunning vocal technique, marked by exceptional breath control, impeccable timing, dramatic shifts of tone, and unique phrasing. Striking in appearance, her dark eyes set in a long craggy face, and thick black hair customarily worn to the waist, she had great presence in performance. A vivacious, charismatic, colourful personality, she cloaked an acute shyness with stage banter and social palaver.
Amid the wide international interest in folk music in the 1960s, Barry and Gorman reached a larger audience, appearing on radio and television in Britain, and playing such major venues as London's Royal Albert and Royal Festival halls. They toured Irish dancehalls, appeared regularly in Dublin's Brazen Head pub and the Embankment in Tallaght, and performed at concerts and folk festivals in the USA (once sharing a billing with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez); in 1973 Barry played Rockefeller Centre, New York. After Gorman's death (1970), Barry pursued a chequered Irish-based career of busking, pub sessions, and sit-down concerts. She continued to record new albums into the mid 1970s, and is represented on numerous multi-artist compilation albums of Irish and folk music. In the late 1970s she briefly teamed with fiddler and stepdancer Máire Ní Catháin O'Malley. Thereafter she performed publicly only at rare intervals. From the mid 1970s she lived with her daughter in Laurencetown, Banbridge, Co. Down, where she died 10 December 1989. A CD, I sang through the fairs (1998), includes selections from the 1950s recordings by Lomax and Kennedy, and reminiscent interviews with the former.