Remembering Martin McHugh, 1929-2022

by Sam Dillon

Martin McHugh, an accordionist who kept Irish traditional music alive in Minnesota after a previous generation of players disappeared and, over the decades of music-making that followed, inspired an extraordinary revival with his soulful renditions of jigs, reels and other tunes, died last week at his home in St. Paul. He was 92.

McHugh emigrated from rural Ireland in the 1940s, joining a community of traditional musicians already playing for immigrant crowds in St. Paul’s pubs and dance halls. Over the following two decades, however, older Irish players died, moved away, or indulged other pursuits.

McHugh and his button accordion — he called it his “box” — played on for half a century, attracting a following of fervent young admirers. Today St. Paul is well-known for its rich traditional Irish music scene, and people involved in the revival trace its origins to McHugh, the lone survivor of an earlier era.

“Marty was the memory bank who connected us to the living tradition that is Irish music,” said Mary MacEachron O’Driscoll, a fiddle player who began learning McHugh’s music in the 1970’s and played with him for years in a St. Paul-based céilí band.

McHugh’s admirers recalled him as an inveterate wise-cracker and teller of often-hilarious yarns about crackpot neighbors, legendary musicians, quirky priests, and others who populated the rural Ireland of his youth.

McHugh learned his music as a child on his family’s shared melodeon — a simple accordion with one row of buttons instead of keys — working out the fingering to dance melodies he heard on a wind-up gramophone. He eventually developed his own renderings of hundreds of reels, hornpipes, polkas, and other tunes.

“His music is sweetly complex, filled with subtle melodeon-style embellishments and bold rhythms, all held within what are often unusual settings of tunes,” said Laura MacKenzie, a St. Paul-based flute player and band leader who has transcribed many of McHugh’s tunes and produced a 2013 CD of his playing.

From the 1950’s past the turn of the century, McHugh was the anchor accordionist in a series of Minnesota ensembles.

“He was the steady rock at the center of the traditional Irish music scene,” said Dáithí Sproule, a Derry guitarist and singer who after emigrating to St. Paul in 1980 frequently accompanied McHugh on stage and in pub sessions. Over the years McHugh played for scores of dances and concerts and occasionally on TV and radio, including in live appearances on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, but made most of his music informally in bars and living rooms.

“Marty was always mainly a session warrior,” Sproule said.

McHugh received multiple career-recognition awards and honors over the years from groups including the Irish Music and Dance Association, the Irish Fair of Minnesota, and the Center for Irish Music.

McHugh was born in County Roscommon, Ireland. His birthdate was October 26, 1929 according to people familiar with his official documents. (In his later years, when McHugh was surrounded by people half his age, he often asserted he had been born later.)

He was the fifth of seven children born to Alice and Thomas McHugh on a 45-acre farm in Cloondahara, near the Roscommon market town of Castlerea. In a 2017 interview with Dáithí Sproule, conducted for the Eoin McKiernan Library in St. Paul, McHugh recalled his rural upbringing. “We had cattle,” he said. “We had sheep, oats, wheat, barley, potatoes of course, turnips, mangels, rhubarb, cabbage…pigs, guinea hens, a couple of big roosters of course, and dogs — and turf. We used to sell our turf.”

The McHughs had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Martin helped with the chores, which included feeding livestock, milking cows, and riding a horse-drawn reaper to cut grasses for hay. He loved to play Gaelic football.

“I’d work a hard day, and evening out to the pitch,” he told Sproule. He recalled his near-despair when his father barred him from play if bad weather had delayed the harvesting.

“I could hear the football, some of the other lads,” he said. “You could hear every kick of the ball. ‘Oh, God, I should be there,’ ” he recalled thinking.

He attended first through seventh grade at the 15-student, three-room Cloonroan National School, a three-mile walk from home. He attended a Christian Brothers School in Castlerea for three more years.

“The brothers were vicious,” he said in an August 2021 interview. “They’d be locked up in this country. The brothers had a cane. You’d hold out your hand and they’d give you a thwack. How could any kid learn, with that fear?”

The McHughs were a musical family. His father played the flute, tin whistle, and everyone took turns on a shared melodeon.

At five or six years old, Martin was already getting up on the bed with the box and trying to squeeze out tunes. “Driving my mother crazy,” he said. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing the box for school dances.

By the end of World War II, three siblings had already emigrated to England or Scotland. His older brother Mike had gone on from London to America, and by the late 1940’s was sending letters back to Cloondahara, gushing with enthusiasm over life in St. Paul. Martin followed, travelling from Roscommon down to Cork to board a Cunard liner for a six-day Atlantic crossing, overnighting with friends in New York, and finally boarding a train westward to Minnesota.

McHugh probably arrived in St. Paul in 1949, he said in the 2021 interview. He took a room in Mike’s apartment. The day after his arrival, he attended a dance sponsored by the Gaelic Athletic League in a hall near the state capital, playing tunes for the crowd on a borrowed button accordion, he said. He had never owned his own box in Ireland, and soon bought the accordion from the man who had lent it.

That was McHugh’s initiation into St. Paul’s Irish community, especially rich at that time with fiddle players. In his earliest months in America McHugh often attended and sometimes played at dances held in venues including Liberty Hall, at Snelling and Selby, and the Irish-American Club at Prior and University.

He earned his first paychecks at a St. Paul factory turning out calendars and greeting cards. He later took jobs as a mail handler at the Union Depot, a seat upholsterer for the Great Northern railroad, and, for many years, as a janitor for the Saint Paul Public Schools.

After the Korean War broke out in June 1950, McHugh was drafted within a few months. He served at U.S. Army bases in Washington, California, Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wisconsin before his discharge after two years of service.

Back in St. Paul, he again began playing his box at Irish dances, usually with one or more fiddle players. During the 1950s, he also made car trips with Minnesota friends to Chicago to hear and play music. The legendary box player Joe Cooley and his brother Seamus were then living in Chicago. When Cooley was hired to play at one storied Southside pub, Hanley’s House of Happiness, he invited McHugh to the stage to sit in with him. The two box players became chums. McHugh was staying in a hotel, but when, after an evening of music, he mentioned that he missed Irish food, the Cooley brothers invited him to their apartment.

“They cooked sausage and black pudding for me,” McHugh said.

As the years passed, traditional music was heard less and less at Irish gatherings in St. Paul. At the Irish-American Club, square dancing — even the bunny hop — began to compete with jigs and reels, McHugh said. When Club members took a Mississippi River cruise, McHugh and other Irish musicians found themselves competing for attention with a Dixieland jazz band. An early 1960’s photo shows McHugh and two fiddlers at a club, seated alongside a swing orchestra and two saxophonists.

The Irish-American Club eventually went out of business. McHugh found himself playing solo in pubs, in some years only around St. Patrick’s Day, with people pestering him to play Danny Boy and other sentimental ballads rather than the dance tunes that were his passion.

A big change came in the early 1970’s. The Dayhills, a touring folk trio then building a repertoire of jigs and reels, met McHugh and began inviting him to the stage during St. Paul gigs. In a 2017 memoir, Tom Dahill recalled a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Commodore Hotel when McHugh joined the Dayhills on stage to play his box to an exuberant crowd.

“The dance floor was full the whole evening,” Dahill wrote.

Word of McHugh’s playing spread through the Twin Cities’ folk community, and soon young musicians were following him around to learn his tunes.

“I was so happy to see them,” McHugh said in the 2017 interview.

MacEachron, MacKenzie and other young players formed a band with McHugh – the Plough and the Stars, later renamed the Northern Star Céilí Band – that played regularly for dances in the Twin Cities, Duluth and in Irish settlements in Wisconsin and Iowa from the mid-1970’s through the early 1980’s. Young dancers formed the Mooncoin Céilí Dancers, performing céilí and traditional dance choreographies, and helping the uninitiated try some Irish steps. Over the next half century, several other Minnesota ensembles formed around McHugh, with his box anchoring the music.

St. Paul’s reputation as a center of traditional music grew when well-known players from Ireland settled in the city, including Sproule and Paddy O’Brien, a champion accordionist. Jode Dowling, a fiddle player who in 1989 was working to expand his repertoire of traditional tunes, said the allure of Minnesota’s Irish music scene persuaded him to accept a job in the Twin Cities when moving from Milwaukee that year, rather than one in San Francisco.

“After moving, I discovered how core Marty was to the Irish community,” Dowling said. “I remember sessions where I’d sit right behind him to capture the notes and the rhythm.”

After McHugh’s retirement in about 2002, he began spending half of each year in Cloondahara on the farm of his youth. There he passed the days playing his box, meeting other traditional players and learning new tunes. The 2020 pandemic interrupted those annual pilgrimages, but he continued to play music in Minnesota until his last days. He performed in a June 2021 concert at St. Paul’s Celtic Junction Arts Center, anchoring an ensemble called “Marty McHugh and Friends.”

In July 2022, he recorded tunes in a Minneapolis studio with MacKenzie and Sproule. And nearly every week over the past couple of years he hosted a session in his living room on Warwick Street in St. Paul, most often with Laura MacKenzie, fiddler Tom Lockney, Dáithí Sproule and sometimes others.

“His recent playing was fantastic,” MacKenzie said. “He was always tickling my ears with some new tune variation.”

For McHugh, those sessions, like thousands of others over the past seven decades, were not only about music but about sharing stories and enjoying life.

“He made us understand,” O’Driscoll said, “that it had to be fun or what was the point?”