“Maggie” was born into a tinker family in Cork City. As a young girl she taught herself to play the banjo and the fiddle and she learned her first songs and tunes from the people around her. She left home at 16 after a family row and she sang for a living, wandering the fairs of Ireland, singing in the streets, busking and playing at house parties.
She came to London in the 1950s and became well known in the pubs and bars of the London Irish. There she teamed up with fiddler, Michael Gorman and together they became an important part of the London Irish scene. She had a big influence on younger Irish musicians and singers, in particular the late Luke Kelly. Billy Bragg was also influenced by her singing.
She is responsible for bringing such classic songs such as The Galway Shawl, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Factory Girl and Let Mr McGuire Sit Down into the folk canon, but her best known song may well be her recording of She Moved Through the Fair, which has inspired numerous interpretations. The song is now a classic of Celtic music.
When she was asked by the journalist, singer and songwriter Karl Dallas how she had learned the song, was it through her family or from other Travellers, she replied cheerfully, “Oh, no. I got it off a gramophone record by Count John McCormack“.
Maggie could be a bit of a hellraiser when she wanted to be. The American song collector and folklorist, Alan Lomax (she was his housekeeper and cook) booked her on a BBC TV series produced by David Attenborough. They had trouble locating her but knew she was somewhere in the north of Ireland. They sent a message round to all the police stations asking them to hang on to her if she was brought in.
As a street singer she had a voice which, like Bob Davenport’s, could be heard streets away. She recorded a handful of albums that give some sense of the power of Maggie Barry’s voice and her great personality.