Margaret Barry was born in Cork City in 1917, around a quarter of a mile from where my mum lived. She was from a traveller family and both her parents were street musicians. When she was fifteen she slung her banjo on her back, got on her bike and left home to become an itinerant street singer, singing at matches and fairs.
She moved to London in the early 1950s and became a regular performer in the Irish pubs in Camden Town and Holloway. She had a huge gutsy voice and a reputation of being someone you didn’t mess with (it was claimed that she had won a Guinness drinking competition with Brendan Behan in the mid fifties) but when I first met her, at a folk club in Guildford in the early sixties, I found her to be a rather gentle and slightly shy person – although I wouldn’t have had the nerve to heckle her!
Her voice brings back to me memories of sing-songs at my grandma’s house and Mrs Cleary’s pub in Cork and of sessions in the Irish pubs of Camden Town, like the Bedford, the Laurel Tree and the Red Cap – all gone now, like the labouring men for whom they were a refuge and a reminder of home.