Margaret Cleary aka Maggie Barry (1917–1989) was a legendary traditional singer and banjo player from the Irish Traveller community who had a major influence on Irish ballad singers, including Luke Kelly and Christy Moore. Bob Dylan said she was his favourite folk singer.
An icon of Irish folk music, her flamboyant delivery and idiosyncratic banjo-playing (combined with striking waist-length black hair) soon had her well-known on the London folk scene in the 1950s. As she rose to fame, she performed in the Carnegie Hall and the Rockefeller Centre in New York. Along the way, she hung out with Johhny Cash and Frank Sinatra, attended Elvis Presley's wedding and drank Brendan Behan under the table.
Maggie Barry came from a long line of “accomplished Traveller musicians and street balladeers”. Bob Thompson, a renowned uilleann piper (who took first place at the Feiseanna Ceoil in Dublin and Belfast in 1897 and 1898) was her grandfather. Margaret's father, Timothy Cleary played the banjo to accompany silent movies at the local picture house. At the time she was born, her family was living in a Cork city tenement at 99 North Main St. (Having formerly lived at 2 Devonshire St. and moving on to 2 Peter St the following year).
From the moment she was born she was immersed in the Irish folk tradition, and self-taught on the banjo and fiddle. Her repertoire of songs reflected not only her family’s musical pedigree but the gifts of life on the road. Barry had collected songs from all over Ireland, compared to other traditional folk singers who only had pieces local to their region. To those songs, she gave her own distinctive flavour.
Her mother died when she was 12 years old and Margaret left home at age 16 to sing on the streets of Ireland. All she had with her was a bicycle and a banjo on her back.
In the early 1950s, she was living with her husband and daughter in a caravan in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh when she was "discovered" by a folk collector who invited her to record. She then moved to London and became immersed in Camden Town’s thriving Irish music scene. Joining forces with Willie Clancy and Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman, they recorded two albums, Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady and Irish Jigs, Reels and Hornpipes.
After about ten years, she moved back to Ireland with her daughter, to a round-top caravan in Laurencetown, Co Down, performing regularly at Dublin's Brazen Head pub, where she met Brendan Behan.
At the 1965 Newport Festival, she shared a billing with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter Paul and Mary.
She died at home in December 1989, leaving a rich legacy of traditional Irish culture for all, at home and abroad.
In 2017, a play She Moved Through the Fair: The legend of Margaret Barry (written by Mary McPartlan and Colin Irwin) had its debut in the Tron Theatre, Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections Festival. In 2019 Barry was inducted into the Irish Folk Hall of Fame by American singer Peggy Seeger.
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|Date of Birth||1st Jan 1917||VIEW SOURCE|
|Date of Death||Dec 1989|
|Mother (First Name/s and Maiden)||Mary Bridget Thompson||VIEW SOURCE|
|Father (First Name/s and Surname)||Timothy Cleary, musician||VIEW SOURCE|
|Townland born||99 North Main Street, Cork.||VIEW SOURCE|
|Names of Siblings||4 su¥iblings incl. James Cleary b. 1915 | Nora Cleary b.1918 |||VIEW SOURCE|