Mary McPartlan - Commemorating the gypsy soul of a folk singing legend
Mary McPartlan is enthusing about Margaret Barry, the singer known as the queen of the gypsies, whose centenary falls this year. Had Barry been born into a rich family in a country other than Ireland and had she been given access to a classical training, McPartlan contends, she would have been regarded along similar lines to Maria Callas.
Barry’s family may not have had much money but they had riches of their own. Her grandfather, Robert Thompson, was one of Ireland’s greatest pipers and her dad had played banjo for silent movies before he joined a travelling circus. Margaret possibly inherited some of their talents as well as developing her own as she ventured from the back streets of Cork to appear on some of the most prestigious stages in the world.
There are many, many stories about Margaret Barry. Some of them are undoubted tall ones, which she wasn’t averse to devising herself, including one about her grandfather inventing steam. Such were her tales that when she told her grand-daughter that she once toured with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, her grand-daughter thought she was having her leg pulled until Margaret produced a poster that showed her being given equal billing with two of folk music’s 1960s icons.
To those who knew her and worked alongside her – the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Furey Brothers were all in her milieu – being billed with Dylan and Baez was the least Barry deserved. Van Morrison has pitched in with his endorsement of her as “a real singer, a soul singer” and McPartlan, no small talent as a traditional singer herself, has undertaken to commemorate Barry’s life and celebrate her singing.
With the journalist and Irish music enthusiast Colin Irwin providing the script (he also has a biography of Barry on the way), McPartlan has devised a show, She Moved Through the Fair, that makes its Scottish debut at Celtic Connections and will be, she hopes, just the beginning of Barry’s further recognition.
“I never met her in person but I’ve known about her since I was a teenager becoming interested in traditional music and her singing has been with me all through my career,” says McPartlan who, as well as singing professionally, is a great advocate for Irish music through her work in arts administration and as a lecturer in traditional music and song at the National University of Ireland in Galway.
Talking about Barry and making sure she was given her rightful place in the story of Ireland’s traditional music made McPartland more and more interested in Barry’s life, especially as a woman who suffered through the poverty in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s and who, as a woman performer busking with her banjo to football crowds and shoppers, says McPartlan, went against the will of church and state in these times.
“I’d already become fascinated with her when one of my students at NUI said that she wanted to write her final year essay about Margaret,” says McPartlan. “At the same time as I was helping her with research, the National Traditional Music Awards here decided to honour Reg Hall, the musician and Irish music historian. So we went along to the awards and got to speak to Reg, who knew Margaret Barry well.”
Following this conversation McPartlan decided to create a stage show about Barry. A script was commissioned and she was given funding to conduct further research only for the Arts Council of Ireland to turn down the application that would have seen the play staged. By this time McPartlan was thinking about Barry morning, noon and night and when Colin Irwin turned up at one of her concerts and they got chatting afterwards, they discovered that they shared a compulsion to tell Barry’s story. Irwin was planning a biography and the next time they met he had completed both the book and the script for She Moved Through the Fair.
As well as McPartlan singing songs associated with Barry, the show features musicians Mary Shannon (banjo), Garry O'Briain (guitar), and John Carty (fiddle), actors Ruby Campbell and John Wheeler, and Irwin as narrator. It can’t possibly contain all the stories that exist about Barry - and McPartlan says that every time she mentions Margaret Barry to musicians of a certain vintage she hears more – but it contains the essence of her life.
“This is a woman who was beyond unique,” says McPartlan. “She lost her mother at the age of twelve and when her father took up with a girl not much older than she was herself, she took to the road with her banjo at sixteen and lived on her musical ability. She ended up in London, came to the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, made records, toured America and achieved a certain notoriety, but with the timbre of her voice and her natural talent she should have been really famous, like Maria Callas or Edith Piaf.”
She Moved Through the Fair is at the Tron Theatre on Sunday, January 22.
From The Herlad, January 18, 2017