Maggie Boyle grew up in a two-bedroomed maisonette above a bakery in South London yet her childhood was steeped in Irish traditional music, song and story-telling.
The tradition was passed on primarily by her father, Paddy Boyle, a native speaker from the Donegal Gaeltacht who didn’t speak English until the age of 12.
A respected traditional singer, Boyle’s haunting vocals have been used in film soundtracks such as Patriot Games and Legends of the Fall and she’s worked with James Horner, The Chieftains, Incantation, Bert Jansch, Steve Tilston, and Paul Downes.
“Dad was a great lilter and whistler and a very good singer,” recalls Boyle.
“He played accordion and fiddle badly. That was always a bit of a disappointment to him. I think his father had tried to push him into playing fiddle and he had resisted to his eternal loss. But he was determined the same wouldn’t happen with the next generation.”
It didn’t. With music on both sides — Boyle’s mother was a dancer from Longford and her maternal grandparents were musicians too — all four children inherited the gift.
Growing up in the vibrant London-Irish community in the ’60s and ’70s, music was a constant companion, along with visiting relations and musicians.
“Our place was a hub for all the relations who came over from Ireland to find their jobs on the buildings and buses, seeing if they could make a living. They’d come and live with us — mum, dad, four kids and all the visitors. It was cosy! But we weren’t alone, I don’t think!” laughs Boyle.
Music was especially strong on the Boyle/Donegal side — Maggie’s aunt Margaret McGinley shared her father’s passion.
“Margaret was particularly musical. She and dad couldn’t get enough of music… they were very knowledgeable and wanted to share that knowledge. They were both characters.”
Boyle’s father taught her many songs, as did her tutor Oliver Mulligan, the renowned Monaghan singer.
She learned her first “serious” song, My Lagan Love, aged nine.
“Dad took me through it note by note, and made me learn it precisely as his mother would have sung it. Dad sang lots to us — in Irish and English. Sadly he didn’t decide I should learn to sing in Irish until I was about 12 and I wasn’t prepared to do it for him then, which is a real shame.
I never quite understood why he didn’t sort of make more effort to pass the language on, even speaking to us in Irish. But it was maybe because mum wasn’t a native speaker.”
Boyle performed with the local branch of Comhaltas, garnering All-Britain singing titles. She candidly rates herself as “not very competent” on flute, saying she hid behind her brothers.
“My brother Paul was a fantastic fiddle player and I used to rely on him. Kevin’s good on banjo and is a great accompanist so I sat in with them and my thing was singing really.
When I was 14, Kevin came home from university and we formed a five-piece with Mick Sands and his sister, Susan. Dad named it ‘Mar bhí’ [‘The way it was’]. We mainly played support acts at the Half Moon.”
A career in music wasn’t something her family anticipated, nor advocated.
“Dad wasn’t encouraging about making a living out of music.
He prided himself on the fact that he never paid to see anything in his life,” she laughs. “But he said that’s the way he felt about music — it should be freely given and freely taken.
From someone who was brought up with Donegal fiddler Johnny Doherty as a regular visitor to the house, you can see where he was coming from. I never had enough discussion with him about it though really, because, although Johnny Doherty didn’t get paid, he was paid in kind. That’s how he survived, going to people’s houses, playing or mending.”
In Boyle’s day, career options were pretty much “nun, nurse or teacher” but she remembers thinking she’d “love” to be a singer. “It didn’t really happen until I was 28.
An opportunity came along that changed everything and that was Mike Taylor.
“I’d just had my son. Mike rang me and said ‘We’re doing this folk ballet, how about it?’ It was a perfect opportunity and, once it started, that was it really. I was married to Steve Tilston, a professional musician and would have done some backing singing but didn’t see myself following a musical path.”
That phone call from Taylor, founder of Incantation, led to Boyle’s vocals and flute-playing becoming an integral part of Sergeant Early’s Dream, Christopher Bruce’s folk ballet for Rambert Dance Company.
“It went on for a few years, travelling all over the country and abroad. Its last revival was around 1995, with the Sergeant Early Band, including the piper Pete Brennan, my brother Paul, and Jackie McCarthy on concertina. It was a lovely job — the best job I’ve had I think.”
1992 hit movie Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford provided her biggest exposure.
Again, it all started with a call from Taylor who had worked on Ennio Morricone’s The Mission.
“The director Phillip Noyce wanted Clannad to do the title music but there were hurdles. Mike basically said ‘Get Maggie, she’s great!’ The next thing I knew I was on the plane. James Horner, the musical director asked me to sing The Quiet Land of Erin in higher and higher ranges.
Then he said ‘Can you sing it in Irish?’ So basically I rang my aunt Maggie in Ballyshannon and she coached me overnight.
The funny thing I found out was that my grandmother used to sing it. I’d never heard my granny sing as she’d had a stroke fairly young, so I’d missed out on that.”
Boyle considers herself “London-Irish” and a “traditional singer”, but she has struggled with her identity.
“As long as I was within the Irish community in England, as far as I was concerned, I was Irish. I was accepted as an artist and in every other way. But when I got to Ireland, I realised my identity was a lot more complicated than I thought it was. That was a real struggle.”
It was a struggle she came to terms with on acquiring her first Irish passport in her ‘30s – something her father had encouraged her to do years before.
“I remember arriving in the States in the ’90s to join The Chieftains on Sergeant Early and thinking ‘Why haven’t I got an Irish passport?’ When I finally did get one, I suddenly felt validated in some small way, more comfortable in my skin. It’s only a piece of paper — it shouldn’t have such power.”
Boyle has numerous recordings to her name, including her BBC Radio Leeds Kitchen Songs project with the likes of Ralph McTell.
Her last solo album was 2012’s Won’t You Come Away — a mix of traditional and contemporary songs, including one by her son, and tunes composed by her aunt and Boyle herself.
Music continues in the next generation and she’s recording more of her son’s songs.
“Joe’s writing some really nice stuff, as is my daughter Molly and step-daughter Martha. My dad probably wouldn’t be too happy with me because, although I pushed a bit of traditional music their way, I thought, ‘I’m not going to do what dad did’. It was good for me but isn’t good for everyone.”