Margaret Barry | Biography & History | AllMusic USA VIEW SOURCE

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. 

Luke Kelly

A picture of Luke Kelly, Irish singer and actor. He founded The Dubliners, the Irish folk group.

Christy Moore

A picture of Christy Moore, who is an Irish folk singer.

Bob Dylan

A picture of a young Bob Dylan, an American singer, alongside Joan Baez, an American 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 Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, attended Elvis Presley's wedding and drank Brendan Behan under the table.

Rockefekker Centre

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Johnny Cash

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Frank Sinatra

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Elvis Presley

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Margaret Barry, Irish Female Folk Singer, Documentary

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.

She Moved Through The Fair

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

Willie Clancy

A picture of Willie Clancy statue who was an Irish uilleann piper and flute and whistle player.

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.

Brendan Behan

A black and white picture of Irish author and playwright, Brendan Behan.

At the 1965 Newport Festival, she shared a billing with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary. 

Joan Baez

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Peter, Paul and Mary

A black and white picture of Peter, Paul and Mary who were an American folk music group.

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.

Peggy Seeger

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Additional Information
Date of Birth 1st Jan 1917 VIEW SOURCE
Date of Death 1st 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
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