Sunday 25 June 2017

Obituary: Irish folk musician Maggie Boyle

English-born Irish folk musician who collaborated with Van Morrison and went on tour with The Chieftains

Maggie Boyle. Photo: Bryan Ledgard
Maggie Boyle. Photo: Bryan Ledgard

Maggie Boyle, who has died aged 57, was one of the hidden treasures of folk music. She was born and lived all her life in England, but her first and defining love was Irish traditional song and it served her well in a career of many highlights, including collaborations with The Chieftains, Van Morrison, Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and her former husband, Steve Tilston.

She was steeped in Irish traditional music from birth. Her father, Paddy, was a singer and native Irish speaker from Co Donegal who did not learn English until he was 12; her mother was an Irish dancer from Co Longford. After relocating to London, both were active in the vibrant London Irish music scene, and their home became a stop-off point for a succession of passing Irish musicians.

One of four children, Maggie was born on Christmas Eve, 1956. She learned her first song, My Lagan Love, from her father when she was nine, and went on to be tutored by the great Co Monaghan folk singer Oliver Mulligan, winning several competitions organised by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the traditional music promotional body. At the time opportunities for Irish singers in Britain were scarce, and with little prospect of becoming a professional singer she joined the Civil Service, working in the social security office. But after marrying the singer songwriter Steve Tilston in 1984 and moving to Bristol, her life took a different path when she was invited to sing and play the flute in Christopher Bruce's folk ballet production of Sergeant Early's Dream for the Rambert dance company. She ended up touring with the show on and off for several years, including to America, where she also toured with The Chieftains.

The biggest boost to her profile, however, came in 1992, when she was asked to sing the theme song (The Quiet Land Of Erin) for the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games. The director, Phillip Noyce, originally wanted Clannad, but when they proved unavailable he turned to Maggie Boyle. After discovering that she was required to sing the track in Irish, she rang an aunt in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, for some speed coaching. Two years later she was singing and playing on the soundtrack of the Brad Pitt movie Legends Of The Fall.

Her 1998 album Gweebarra produced some of her best-loved tracks, among them Gweebarra Shore, Lady Margaret and Lord Gregory. Always preferring to collaborate with other artists rather than perform solo, she embraced modern music alongside Irish traditional material, and experimented with different styles in the trio Sketch with the jazz guitarist Gary Boyle. She also appeared regularly with the female harmony vocal group Grace Notes, originally formed in 1993, and made five albums together with them.

Her final album, Won't You Come Away (2012), was also her most personal. It was in part based on Kitchen Songs, an online project which evolved into a show on Radio Leeds involving informal chats and collaborations with songwriters and musicians from different fields. The result was an album that included guest appearances by, among others, Jon Boden, Paul Downes and Steve Tilston on a mix of traditional and contemporary songs. One track, Liza & Henry, was written by her son, Joe.

Maggie Boyle, who had been suffering from cancer, died on November 6 and is survived by her son and daughter, Molly.

Sunday Independent

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