‘Queen of the Gypsies’ is the toast of Lawrencetown

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A FLAMBOYANT delivery linked to idiosyncratic banjo-playing ensured Lawrencetown traditional singer Margaret Barry was not going to be casually forgotten, writes GAIL BELL.

And, to prove a point, the local community came together recently to stage a concert in the community centre in her honour - with her grandson and great-grandsons the stars of the show.

As part of the ‘Young Roots’ festival in the village organised by the Lawrencetown, Lenaderg and Tullylish Community Association, a Margaret Barry Memorial Concert was staged to help keep alive the memory of a woman who settled into folklore known as ‘Maggie, Queen of the Gypsies’.

If she was looking down on those performing in her name she would doubtless be pleased. Her grandson Paddy Barry and his three sons - Martin, Conor and Declan - were all showing off the family musicality and entertaining the audience on a collection of instruments ranging from banjo and bodhran to bouzouki and guitar.

“It was a great night and a great way to honour my grandmother,” said Barry, who plays guitar in local gigs in and around the district as well as further afield. “The name Margaret Barry is well known and while she has featured in a number of television programmes and documentaries over the years, this is the first time Lawrencetown has organised its own tribute. We are really hoping now it can become an annual event.”

Although Paddy describes his grandmother as a member of a family of Cork street singers, a Wikipedia entry refers to her coming from a “a family of “travellers and singers”.

She was born in Cork and taught herself to play the zither banjo and the fiddle at a young age. It proved a profitable exercise because at the age of 16, after a family disagreement, she left home and started performing as a street musician, surviving on the income.

Margaret went on to sing at fairs up and down the country and was a regular fixture outside Newry market, but she also spread her wings, moving to London where she became a well known face in the pubs and clubs of the ‘Irish’ scene during the fifties.

“In London she was frequently accompanied by famous Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman, also now deceased,” said Barry, who has been busy researching the life of the famous matriarch of the family.

The Margaret and Michael duo became an important part of London’s Irish exile and music community and Barry’s singing and banjo playing went on to become a main influence among the younger generation of ballad singers in Ireland and UK.

“She lived her last years in Laurencetown before she died at the age of 73 and she is buried in the local graveyard,” added Paddy. “We thought it time to formally recognise her and her gift for music.”

It turns out Margaret was not the first member of the family to make her musical mark: Paddy’s research has also uncovered some interesting information surrounding the singer’s grandfather, Robert Thompson, who became a champion Irish piper.

“I keep unearthing more and more bits and pieces and it is fascinating,” said Paddy. “I found out that Robert Thompson was a member of the Cork Piping Society and won the first piping competition held in Ireland in 1897.

“Piping had been previously banned in the country but was brought back into favour by a Presbyterian minister. And my great grandfather, a Catholic, became one of its greatest enthusiasts!”

Another cross-community lesson from history that we could all learn from, perhaps.