Celtic Junction Arts Review

The Twin City Irish American Club

Brian Miller

Twin City Irish American Club members behind the bar at the club’s dance hall at 345 ½ University Avenue, St. Paul. From the wedding party of Bill and Bridie Kaphing in February 1955. From left: Jerry Kaphing, Denis Dee, Bill Kaphing, Pat Conroy and Con Sullivan.
Image courtesy Pat and Denis Dee

Twin Cities Irish Social Clubs Before World War II

The flood of Irish immigration to the United States in the late 1800s built Irish enclaves in cities throughout the country. St. Paul and Minneapolis were no exceptions and the Twin Cities Irish organized early on. The Benevolent Society of the United Sons of Erin was incorporated in St. Paul in 1856—before Minnesota was even a state.1 The Ancient Order of Hibernians organized a local chapter in 1879 and both St. Paul and Minneapolis had a series of city-specific Irish social clubs with names that were variations of “The Irish-American Club” or “The Shamrock Club” from the 1880s through the 1910s.

Clipping from old newspaper advertising "St. Patrick's Dance" at St. Paul Coliseum
Advertisement for a Twin City Shamrock Club St. Patrick’s Day dance. Minneapolis Star, 3/17/1932. Downloaded from newspapers.com

Immigration from Ireland eased somewhat in the early 1900s but remained substantial until the onset of the Great Depression. Streetcars and automobiles better connected the Irish of St. Paul and Minneapolis and new social clubs intended to serve both cities appeared in the 1920s, again often branding themselves “Irish-American Club” or “Shamrock Club.” The names also included the broader designation “Twin City” though each tended to focus activities in one city or the other. A “Twin City Irish American Club” was active mainly in Minneapolis in the 1920s. County Mayo-born Michael McNeive, whose granddaughter Mary would be central to the Irish dance revival of the 1970s, joined this club’s leadership in 1927.

The St. Paul-focused “Twin City Shamrock Club” held Mississippi riverboat excursions and St. Patrick’s Day dances starting in the 1910s that featured accomplished Ireland-born fiddle player Mike Sullivan with his band “Mike Sullivan’s Champions” or as a duo with one of his daughters, Ann or Catherine, on piano.2 The Shamrock Club and Sullivan remained active through the mid-1950s and are still remembered by some interviewed for this article who recall two regular Irish dances in St. Paul in that time period.

A New Beginning in St. Paul

Post-World War II Irish emigration to the US paled in comparison to that of the 1920s and earlier. Still, the late ’40s and early ’50s saw a noticeable new wave of Irish coming to America. Ireland’s struggling economy, combined with relative prosperity in the US, created a strong motivation to make the move. In 1948, some of the established Irish in the Twin Cities took action to serve the needs of this new influx.3

In fact, 1948 seems to have been a particularly busy year for young Irish arrivals in Minnesota. Con and Mike Sullivan (no relation to fiddler Mike Sullivan) joined their Mahoney relatives in Minneapolis that March. On the same ship as the Sullivans were the Malone brothers, Tom and Mike, bound to work for the farm owned by their relative John Malone in southwestern Minnesota. The Malones’ cousin Maureen Long came to St. Paul later that year as did Bridget Dee. All of the above hailed from County Kerry. Maureen O’Sullivan and Maureen Devaney arrived from Galway around the same time.

The SS Marine Marlin. From Walter Parfomak: An Immigrant Story

Con Sullivan from Kenmare, County Kerry, was in his late teens when he and his older brother Mike boarded the decommissioned US military ship the Marine Marlin in Cobh, County Cork, on February 29, 1948. Con remembers arriving that March: “It was 30 below. Aunt Mary that sponsored us; she arrived with those muff things that were for your ears! Hats and gloves!” Aunt Mary quickly realized she was unable to take on the responsibility of housing the boys herself but the broader Mahoney clan snapped into action. Uncle Mike picked them up the next morning and took them to get their social security cards and “first papers” so they could get citizenship after five years. They also registered for the draft. The next day, uncle Dick Mahoney took them to Juster Brothers in downtown Minneapolis and bought them suits.

Sullivan brothers at a mechanical cash register.
Con and Mike Sullivan work the register at Northwestern Bank in Minneapolis, 1948. Image courtesy Con Sullivan

Uncle Mike Mahoney and his wife Alice had two daughters of their own around the same age as the new arrivals and Mike and Con moved in with them in north Minneapolis. Pat Dee (née Mahoney) remembers the excitement of having her Irish cousins suddenly join the household: “We had more fun because I could drive. And I took them everywhere.” Fresh off the farm in Kerry, Con and Mike had a lot to learn. Con says, “We were afraid to turn on the stove. We never had a stove.” They soon landed jobs at Northwestern Bank where they were trained in on National cash registers. Con remembers their bewilderment when introduced to the big machines: “We were out of the farm. We knew how to milk a cow. That was it. And there were none of those around!”

While the Sullivans adjusted to big city life, brothers Tom and Mike Malone were destined for their dad’s cousin’s farm in the Slayton-Currie area of southeastern Minnesota. En route to the farm that March, the Malone brothers stopped in St. Paul to attend an Irish dance.4 It was there that Tom met his future wife Kathleen (Kate) McDonough. Tom was 19 and Kate was 14 or 15.

While young Kate left the dance thinking about this new young Kerry man, her family and friends took note of yet another new arrival looking for Irish connections in Minnesota. Kate McDonough’s family was one of St. Paul’s established Irish families that was active in the Shamrock Club and other groups. Her father Patrick McDonough came from Carraroe, County Galway around 1900 to join his four siblings in Minnesota and no doubt benefited from the connections provided by those clubs. Grandson Tim Morin says that Patrick’s own house was a gathering place for “any Irish who would come to St. Paul” since “he spoke Irish.”

Margaret “Sis” McDonough (third from right) with other performers at an International Institute event in the late 1930s.
Image courtesy Morin family

The Morin family remembers Patrick’s other daughter, Margaret “Sis” McDonough, as the one who took action. Tim Morin says that Sis, his mother, “saw that there was no place for them to gather. So she decided to call a couple of different people to be able to see what they could do for these young Irish men that were coming over to have a social club.” An article published a year later in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune quotes McDonough saying: “We wanted to do something for 50 young people from Ireland we knew about. In the old days they could have been entertained in private homes but now homes are too small and there were just too many people. We did the next best thing, we hired a hall.”5

Tim Morin’s father Vince Morin remembered John Curtin as the one who rented Woodruff Hall, an upstairs dance hall at the corner of St. Anthony and Prior in St. Paul, for the first Twin City Irish American Club dances in fall 1948. John came from Aughinish, Co. Clare in 1929 to join his brother Pat who came the year before. Also active in this early stage was Tom Kelly from County Wexford, Tom Crawford from County Galway and Patrick (Paddy) Hill. A prolific poet, songwriter and fiddle player; Hill came from County Tipperary in 1923.

Word of the dances reached the intended audience quickly. Mike Mahoney caught wind of the new club and brought his immigrant Sullivan nephews along with his daughter Pat. Pat Dee recalls:

…my dad was determined to find something going on for them [Con and Mike Sullivan] so he checked in St. Paul and found . . . the hall on Prior and St. Anthony . . . So we went there and the first person we met was Tom Kelly. . . . Tom was a really nice person and he was very enthusiastic. He was a good friend of Paddy Hill’s and that. He was kind of an instigator in getting things going too. And then we met Paddy Hill and . . . that’s when I met Maureen Long. She had just come out. And, I think, Denis’s sister Bridie [Dee] because she came in ’48 too.

Keen to visit the charming young Kate McDonough, Tom Malone began making the 185-mile trek up from the farm in Slayton with brother Mike Malone in a car driven by their new farmhand friend Vince Morin. Born on a farm in Currie, Minnesota and not of Irish descent, Morin would soon take a shine to Kate’s sister Sis McDonough.

The dances continued to gather steam throughout 1949 as the club experimented with different venues. Pat Dee remembers Woodruff as “not a very nice hall” up a “very narrow stairway.” An April 1949 dance was at the Knights of Columbus hall in downtown St. Paul. By fall, the dances were happening weekly on Saturday nights at the Midway Club, just east of Prior Avenue at 1931 University Avenue. Dee remembers the Midway Club, a space used frequently for Northwest Airlines functions in those years, as a much nicer and larger space with a good floor for dancing. Saturday was the usual day and 9 pm was the typical start time.

Denis Dee at a Gaelic football match at Como Park circa 1950. Image courtesy Pat and Denis Dee

In addition to the dances, some of the young immigrants started gathering at Como Park to play Gaelic football on Sunday afternoons. Paddy Hill’s song “The Irish American Club” paints the picture of the club’s early years well:

From the hills of County Kerry to the shores of Londonderry,6
And from Galway Bay to Dublin and their numbers were not small,
Came each youthful boy and maiden, with health and beauty laden,
To uncles, aunts, and cousins who were settled in St. Paul.
We figured then quite clearly, there’d be others coming yearly,
So an Irish club was formed that our legends might survive,
Irish music, dance, and singin’ with mirth the hall was ringin’,
Gaelic football every Sunday we also kept alive.7

Things were in full flight by a Saturday that October when another new immigrant, Martin McHugh, arrived by train at St. Paul’s Union Depot. McHugh came from Castlerea, County Roscommon to join his brother Mike in St. Paul but when he arrived at the station no one was there. McHugh says:

I got a taxi. I went to the address I was supposed to go to and there was nobody home there.. . . There was a babysitter there. The people that owned the house and my brother, they were all at the Irish dance, the Twin Cities Irish American Club, and here I am ringing this doorbell. This young lady came to the door. She was expecting me. . . . I think she made some tea for me and I went to bed. In the morning the people were home from the dance and we’d a big breakfast, went to church. After that, . . . there was another little club here, . . . a G.A.A. club.8 They had a football team here and they were raising funds for that to buy the jerseys and the togs. I went to that one.

Perhaps Mike McHugh alerted the St. Paul musicians that his brother Martin was a skilled button accordion player because, when McHugh arrived at the Sunday Gaelic football gathering, the locals had brought along their instruments. McHugh says, “Paddy Hill was playing the fiddle there and Mike Nash, Mike Hughes . . . They were all fiddlers. I didn’t have an accordion. There was a fellow there from Galway, Tommy Flaherty, and he had an accordion and he was kind enough to let me play it. So I sat in with the boys. Oh, I enjoyed it, it was great.”

The club gave immigrants like McHugh an instant social network that was both fun and useful. McHugh recalls fitting right in. He says, “I didn’t go to work for a week. They were taking me around, showing me the Twin Cities . . . and the following Monday I got a job in the factory. They had the job got for me. Pat Curtin, he knew the attorney for the factory as a matter of fact, his name was Sullivan. He had the job lined up.”

Denis Dee sings at an early Twin City Irish American Club event circa 1950. Image courtesy Pat and Denis Dee

Club events provided a continuity with lives left behind that softened the shock of immigration. From early on, organizers also saw the dances as a method of acculturating the young immigrants to American life. The October 1949 Minneapolis Tribune article said, “The club holds its dances not so much to dance Irish dances and learn the ways of Eire as it does to give Irish newcomers a chance to get acquainted with American dances, customs and ideas.”

They kept coming. Maureen Long’s brothers Pat and Mike left their home on the Dingle Peninsula and arrived in St. Paul in 1950. Yet another Kerry man, Denis Dee, came to join his sister Bridie that year as well. Soon, all were attending club events with Denis singing “Patsy Fagan” and other party pieces at the dances and donning one of the new jerseys purchased by the G.A.A. for Sunday football matches.

The Korean War Years

North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 and subsequent US involvement in that conflict had big repercussions for the new immigrant Irish in the Twin Cities. Over the next couple years, most of the young men that frequented club dances would enlist or be drafted into the US armed forces. The closely knit group was spread all over the globe.

Mike Sullivan was drafted early and went into the US Army’s quartermasters’ corps at a base in Indiana before serving nine months in Korea. His brother Con was drafted in 1951 and did basic training in Missouri before going to the front lines for ten months during which time he rose to the rank of sergeant. Tom Malone went to Korea and, according to son Mark Malone, wrote letters to his sweetheart Kate McDonough and “would send her money that he won in poker games from other soldiers.” Denis Dee went to an Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota. Martin McHugh was moved around from base to base within the United States. McHugh served in Washington, California, Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wisconsin before his discharge after two years.

Brothers Mike and Con Sullivan in Korea. They served with separate units and were able to meet up twice while there. Image courtesy Con Sullivan

Back in St. Paul, the Twin City Irish American Club was formalized by establishing its first constitution in 1951. A 1975 revision of the document says the club’s purpose from the beginning was to “promote and perpetuate Irish culture, to promote and sponsor athletic and social events and to help our members be better citizens.”9 Again, we see the club’s dual function; celebrating Irishness while helping members succeed in American life. The club’s athletic activities are less evident than dances in the archives and local memories though, in addition to Gaelic football, there was hurling at some point as well. The 1950s club held the occasional film showing and did summer picnics but the dances were the focal point.

With many of the younger men sent away, the dances continued at the Midway Club through at least summer 1950. For St. Patrick’s Day in ’51, ’52 and ’53 the club rented Ramaley Hall at 666 Grand Avenue (“another one with a stairway but it was a steep one!”11). A rhymed letter sent from Paddy Hill to Martin McHugh at his army base in Alaska provides a detailed depiction of the massive community effort that went into these events:

Dear Martin-

I thought I’d write and tell you all the news, 
If I’m late I hope you’ll me excuse,
It was nice to get your letters in the past,
I’m glad to know you’re coming home at last,

Well I suppose that you would like to know,
About St Patrick’s dance, well here I go,
Preparing for that night, is quite a chore,
Details must be arranged for weeks before,

Committees must be set up for various jobs,
Policemen hired for to control the mobs,
John Curtin was selected for the door,
Mike Sullivan in charge around the floor,

And then to sell the tickets for the beer,
We appointed Catherine Burke our financier,
To let the public know we’d be their host,
Pat Curtin was selected for that post,

Joe Kennally, Martin Griffen did appear,
In aprons, selling pop, and ice, and beer,
Pat Mahoney was selected as the Queen,
To see the Hall was all decked out in green,

In charge of entertainment, Miss McGing
Engaged the talent for to dance and sing,
Colie McDonough in charge of each event,
The Carnival King and Queen he did present,

He did a master job, the best in town,
But good old Colie, never let us down,
He is always there to give a helping hand,
Our guests and members all agree he’s grand,

Pat Curtin had some pictures in the press,
And circulars to all we did address,
There was radio announcements of the ball,
Inviting crowds to join us at the hall,

Imported here from Irelands sunny shore,
Were prizes to be given at the door,
Joe Kenneally arranged with K.S.T.P.
That Irish music o'er the air would be,

Don Riley and Bob Ryan, did their share,
By sending out that music on the air,
To tell you all were there, would take too long,
The crowd was far beyond six hundred strong,

The whiskey too was plentiful all night,
But best of all we never had a fight,
The committees all worked with heart and hand,
How smoothly things were run was simply grand, 

The atmosphere was Irish round the Hall,
With harps and shamrocks pasted on each wall,
Tony and his band we did engage,
His instruments and drums did fill the stage,

The program too I’d say was very fine,
The seniors though[t] the young ones were divine,
The singing too I really did enjoy,
Young Kelly sang the “Wild Colonial Boy,”

We had a lot of guests from out of town,
And also local fans, of great renown,
Tom Connelly was there with Louie Hill,
They were shaking hands with every Jack and Jill,

Danny Barrett and his wife arrived by plane,
It was good to see this couple back again,
I wish that in St Paul they both could stay,
They will come back again, le cúnamh Dé,

Joe Dowling he was there I knew he would,
He's looking skinny, but he’s feeling good,
Well that’s the news about our Irish Ball,
We really shook the rafters in the Hall,

But once again, our Irish flag was stole,
The culprit left us nothing but the pole.

Yours Truly Paddy Hill.12 

Twin City Irish American Club dinner honoring returned servicemen in 1954, Red Feather Restaurant, 669 University Ave., St. Paul. From left: Joe Dowling, Martin Casey, master of ceremonies Paddy Hill, Pat Conroy, club president Mary McGing, Denis Dee, Con Sullivan, Tom Malone, Stanley Jett (friend visiting from Maryland), Martin McHugh, Mike Sullivan. Image courtesy Pat and Denis Dee

As servicemen returned from 1953 into ’54, the club shifted its regular dances to an upstairs hall at 345 ½ University Avenue in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. Called the “Uni-Dale Commercial Club” in some listings or (in one 1957 newspaper) “the Irish American hall,” this became the Twin City Irish American Club’s base for the next several years. Pat Dee says it was “a very nice hall” with a “good dance floor.” There was a small bar area with tables and chairs separate from the main room and a coat room off to the side. Tim Morin remembers that any beer or liquor had to be brought in by the attendees themselves.

Irish American Club members in the bar area of 345 ½ University in the mid 1950s. Likely at the wedding of Maureen Long and William Bohland. Maureen Devaney and Pete O’Brien on right. Image courtesy Con Sullivan

The Korean War years helped introduce some of the new immigrants to other Irish communities around the US. Martin McHugh attended a party in Tacoma, Washington hosted by relatives of the St. Paul McDonoughs where he played with local musicians. While stationed in Indiana, Mike Sullivan would go in to Irish dances in Chicago on the weekends. After the war, he decided to move there.

Some left behind in St. Paul felt the pull of Irish Chicago as well. Pat Dee remembers her future sister-in-law Bridie Dee moving to Chicago “when the guys all went in the service” because “she was very homesick and Chicago’s like being back in Ireland, back in those days.” Pat Dee also remembers a Mahoney cousin who immigrated first to Boston with intentions of continuing to Minnesota but his wife would not leave the Irish community of Boston. Some that settled in Minnesota, saw some advantages to the small but strong Irish community. Paddy Hill said: “Down there [in Chicago], nearly every county sticks together, you know. There’s a heck of a din in these big places! There is enough of them to stick together. Now here in St. Paul is the best place in the world because all the Irish, no matter what county they’re from, they all got together. There isn’t enough from any one county to stay there. But Chicago is a big spot.”

Mike Sullivan and Martin McHugh with Chicago-based accordion players Joe Cooley and Johnny Ó Sé and others at Hanley’s House of Happiness on the south side. Late 1950s. From left: Joe Cooley, Mike Sullivan, Martin McHugh, Alice Ó Sé, Johnny Ó Sé, others unknown. Image courtesy Martin McHugh

The Music and Dance

In other ways, what was happening in St. Paul was similar to what was happening in cities big and not-so-big around the US. In her book See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance, Susan Gedutis gives a rich account of Boston’s post-World War II Irish dance halls that also catered to a wave of young, single immigrants who came “not so much escaping hardship as seeking opportunity and adventure.”13 Once arrived, they were “torn by dual desires: an eagerness for a new, modern life and a longing for the old, familiar one.”14

Johnny Powell and His Irish Band of the Year, 1950s. Promotional photo taken in the Intercolonial Hall in Boston which Powell also managed with his brother. Johnny Powell is fourth from left. Image courtesy Morin family

In Boston’s dance halls, waltzes were the order of the day followed by polkas and flings. If Irish reels made an appearance, it was only for the Siege of Ennis and, more often than not, there were fox trots or tangos thrown in. Boston’s Irish dance halls catered to their clientele with hybrid bands able to bounce between styles that mixed fiddles and button accordions with saxophones and clarinets.

So went the taste of the Twin Cities’ Irish immigrant crowd and, though there were fewer musicians to choose from, the Twin City Irish American Club presented music to suit the moment. Newspaper announcements of club dances often mention “old time and modern dances.” Pat Dee remembers waltzes as the most popular dance at the club halls. Couple dancing for polkas was also big. Con Sullivan remembers the fox trot and Martin McHugh recalls dancing the bunny hop. As in Boston, the only recognizable Irish céilí dance commonly danced was the easy-to-learn Siege of Ennis. A Minneapolis Star piece on the club’s 1955 St. Patrick’s Day dance at the St. Paul Auditorium’s Stem Hall space said “The ‘Siege of Ennis,’ an Irish folk dance from the 16th century, will be the feature dance at the seventh annual St. Patrick’s day celebration . . . Other Irish folk dances and songs, plus some fox-trotting, are on the program.”15

Pat McDonough’s brother Colie, from Carraroe, was a skilled dance caller—a “big tall man” with a “good loud voice” as Pat Dee says. He called the Siege of Ennis as well as a type of dance not mentioned in the Boston book: square dances. Martin McHugh says Colie McDonough “was a great man calling American square dances” and Pat Dee remembers McDonough calling “Allamande left! Allamande right!”16 Some newspaper listings also advertise square dancing.

The music was often provided by a non-Irish band hired for the night. Tony Gruchot’s17 Orchestra was one such group. At other Twin Cities engagements, Gruchot’s outfit was listed as a “30-piece brass band” but a photo from an Irish American Club event suggests a more pared down version was used. Martin McHugh remembers an Irish American Club riverboat cruise on the Mississippi where a band that played “New Orleans” music was balanced Irish music played by McHugh and friends.

Irish American Club musicians sit in with Tony Gruchot and his Orchestra at a club dance circa 1960. Seated L-R: Mike Nash (fiddle), Martin McHugh (accordion), Mike Hughes (fiddle), unknown (saxophone). Standing: Emmett McCarthy (saxophone). The drummer may be Tony Gruchot. Image courtesy Martin McHugh

This setup, with club regular musicians supplementing a hired band, seems to have happened often. These “club musicians” were a mix of Irish and Irish-Minnesotans. In addition to McHugh, there was Paddy Hill from Tipperary on fiddle and Mike McGivney from Longford on flute and fiddle. Southern Minnesota Irish farming communities provided three fiddlers to the mix: Tony Doherty and Mike Nash from Cedar Lake Township in Scott County and Mike Hughes from out near Benson, Minnesota. McGivney’s daughter and Doherty’s daughters Marge, Mary and Joan also provided piano accompaniment. The Cedar Lake Township area was rife with fiddles and dances in the early 20th century and the Dohertys came to St. Paul with years of experience playing for square dancing and step dancing.18 One club regular added to the horn section at some dances. Emmett McCarthy from Skibbereen, County Cork played saxophone and was pictured in a newspaper announcement as one of “several Irish musicians” that would perform at the club’s 1960 St. Patrick’s Day dance.19

Johnny Powell entertains his relations in St. Paul at the home of Vince Morin and Margaret “Sis” Morin (née McDonough) in fall 1964. To the left of Powell is his uncle Pat McDonough. Frank McDonough (Pat’s son) is on the right. Image courtesy Morin family

One well-remembered visiting musician was Johnny Powell, a cousin of Sis and Kathleen McDonough who lived in Boston. Powell was a renowned accordion player and band leader at the center of the Boston dance hall scene described in the Gedutis book. He co-managed the Intercolonial dance hall and played there three-plus nights a week. According to Paddy Hill, Powell would come to St. Paul once a year to see cousins and would always play a dance or two while in town. Sis’s son Tim Morin recalls one visit: “they rolled up the rug and told the kids to stay upstairs! And the party went on for quite some time. And he was downstairs with the accordion.” St. Paul accordion player Martin McHugh recorded a polka named “Johnny Powell’s” on his 2013 recording The Master’s Choice.20

Though not the main offering of the evening, Irish step dancing was a frequent intermission entertainment at club dances. This is likely where club member-musicians took out their fiddles, accordions and flutes to accompany the steps.21 Groups of step dancers sometimes appear in newspaper articles about the club’s events and are advertised doing a “six-hand reel.” Singing was also featured and many newspaper listings name a singer slated to perform. Sometimes this was a club regular like Denis Dee but it could also be a professional or semi-professional singer from outside the club circle. The group’s first St. Patrick’s Day dance in March 1949 featured Minneapolis tenor Jackie Collins.22 Collins won the Minneapolis Aquatennial singing contest that summer as well as an Arthur Godfrey talent show.23 He appeared sporadically at Irish community events through the 1960s.

Irish American Club dancers rehearse with the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band in March 1963. From left: Rita Berg, Thomas Casey, Maureen Hand, Kathleen Hand, George O’Leary and Bridie O’Leary. Pioneer Press clipping courtesy Charles Russell

Dancing with a Purpose

In addition to St. Patrick’s Day, there were dances celebrating New Year’s Eve, the start of Lent (dances were not held during Lent), Halloween, Thanksgiving and the anniversary of the Republic of Ireland Act (April 18). Newspapers often list “guests of honor” for particular club dances. Frequently, these were past club members who moved away and returned to visit. Immigrants about to make their first visit home to Ireland were also sent off with a dance and, sometimes, the club collected funds to help pay for travel. Henry Scanlon, another immigrant from Kerry who became active in the club around 1960, remembers some of the servicemen in the club getting their flight to Ireland covered. He says: “In those days, if you wanted to go home, the Irish Club . . . would have an event with a ticket! And wasn’t that nice . . . Who in the hell would pay for your flight back home? That’s pretty good. . . . That’s a nice thing to do!”

Club membership dues began in the ’50s and, along with ticket sales, they helped raise money for causes important to the community. Fiddler Tony Doherty, who played at some of the early dances, suffered from a series of health problems that led to lengthy hospital stays. In 1952, the club held a dance in his honor. Tony’s wife Margaret wrote:  “After a few months, Tony was again furnishing music for the Twin City American Irish Club, who, in their kindness had given Tony a purse of two hundred and fifty dollars to help defray his hospital and doctor bills.”24

Rev. Maurice McNiff was superior of the St. Columban Foreign Mission House in St. Paul and was honored by a club dance in 1964 before moving to Texas. The woman, likely a dancer, is unknown. Image courtesy Martin McHugh

The Missionary Society of St. Columban was another beneficiary of club fundraising. Columban priests and other missionaries were listed as honorees of some dances and, in 1959, the club raised funds to remodel the Columban Mission House on Summit Avenue. Eventually, the club established a scholarship to help young people pursue the priesthood. Tim Morin said, “they also had a scholarship for anyone that went off into the seminary and I was a benefit of that. . . I got my tuition paid when I went to Nazareth Hall for high school and that was 90 bucks a year. Another one who went was John Kinney. . . . because Kinney got part of that scholarship too.”

“What with all the dances there were quite a few romances”

The generation that came over from Ireland in the postwar years was primarily young and unmarried. In addition to providing a taste of home, employment opportunities, orientation to American life, a sense of purpose and a good time; dances were an important opportunity to meet a potential mate. Once the boys returned from military service in the mid-’50s, the club’s favorite dance halls hosted many club weddings. Tom Malone married Kathleen (Kate) McDonough whom he met on the dance floor in ’48. His friend Vince Morin from the farm married Margaret “Sis” McDonough and brought her back to farm country for five years. Denis Dee married Pat Mahoney. The Conroy sisters from Galway, Bridget (Bridie) and Barbara, married St. Paulites Bill and Jerry Kaphing.

Guests at a Twin City Irish American Club wedding party (possibly Maureen Long and William Bohland) at 345 ½ University in the mid 1950s. Tom Malone and Kate Malone (née McDonough) on right. Image courtesy Con Sullivan

Paddy Hill’s song about the club includes the lines:

And what with all the dances there was quite a few romances,
The wedding bells kept ringing through the summer and the fall,
And I know the angels blessed them as friends and kin caressed them,
When the ceremony was over and we gathered at the hall.25

These happy unions, a natural outgrowth of everything the club set out to do, eventually led to busy parents with less time, energy or motivation to go dancing every Saturday night. Some of the club’s most devoted dancers stopped coming in the ’60s. Pat Dee remembers the days when “you couldn’t afford much to get out at night because it meant a babysitter and that.”

Some children became part of the action. Pat Dee remembers the John Kennedy family whose four daughters would come to the dances with their dad and work the coat room. Tim Morin remembers being brought, somewhat unwillingly, with his siblings to 345 ½ University for step dancing on Sunday afternoons.

Branching Out

With the number of new immigrants declining in the 1960s and many existing club regulars busy with families, the unique enthusiasm that powered activities from 1948-1960 waned. After some experimenting with a hall at 1001 Payne Avenue in ’61-’62 the club settled in at the Ford Union Hall just outside the front gates of the huge Highland Park Ford Plant in fall of 1962. During these years, the club also held regular picnics, more conducive to small children, in Newell Park in the Midway neighborhood..

A new jolt of energy came from an unexpected source: a bagpipe band. The Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band was started in 1961 by John Ford and Jay Willett and, by January 1963, the group was performing in public. They appeared at a Twin City Irish American Club dance that month. Club regular Emmett McCarthy joined the band as drum major around that time and young Fionnan Vaughan, son of club president Andy Vaughan, worked at learning drums. The band became a fixture as intermission entertainment at dances and events. A March 1963 newspaper photo caption (see above) says “favorite fans of the Brian Boru Irish Pipe band are the dancers from the Twin Cities Irish American Club.”26

The Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band performs at an Irish American Club event circa 1963. Sis McDonough is visible over the right shoulder of the piper with his back to the camera. The location may be the hall on Payne as this is not the Ford Union Hall. Image courtesy Martin McHugh

As hinted at above by Tim Morin, step dance instruction spun out of the club as well. Josie Vaughan came from Dublin in 1956 with her husband Andy (originally from Clare) and three kids. In the early 60s, she directed a group of young dancers called the “Tír na nÓg dancers” which included her daughters Deirdre and Patricia Vaughan along with other children of club members. Irish Club musicians Martin McHugh, Mike Nash and Mike Holmes provided accompaniment for their public performances.

The Tír na nÓg dancers perform at “A Night with the Irish” in Burnsville in 1969. Dancers include Susie Eggenberger, Mary Eggenberger, Robin Reick and Kathy Reick. Martin McHugh is on the accordion. Courtesy Burnsville Historical Society Archives/Dan Patch Historical Society

The Boru band and Tír na nÓg dancers were part of a shift in the ’60s toward events that reached outside an ethnically defined Irish audience. In 1961, club member Joe Kennelly of Burnsville helped start an annual event titled “A Night with the Irish.”27 Along with choirs and school groups, the event featured “Irish-born performers doing traditional songs and dances of the ‘auld sod,’”28 most of whom were sourced from the Twin City Irish American Club. Originally at St. John’s church hall in Savage, the event moved to the larger Burnsville High School auditorium. In 1965, over 100 performers entertained an audience of over 1800 and Bishop-elect James Shannon was master of ceremonies. Emmett McCarthy and the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band “headlined” the entertainment that year and Josie Vaughan’s Tír na nÓg dancers were featured with music from Martin McHugh, Mike Nash and Mike Hughes. Similar lineups continued through the early 1970s.

The Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band performs at “A Night with the Irish” at Burnsville High School auditorium in 1969. Courtesy Burnsville Historical Society Archives/Dan Patch Historical Society

The Brian Boru itself began hosting a St. Patrick’s Day29 event in 1963 that, for at least a couple years, was in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Ritz Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. One newspaper caption about the event circa 1965 says “local Irish folk are ready to live it up tonight to the sound of bagpipes of the Brian Boru Irish pipe band ringing through the Sheraton-Ritz ballroom where the Irish-American club will hold forth.”30

The strong bonds between the Twin City Irish American Club and these new events and groups are clear. The club itself used the title “Night with the Irish” in advertising its 1964 St. Patrick’s Day dance at the Ford Union Hall (which featured the Brian Boru). As time went by, performance groups like the Boru and Tír na nÓg brought Irish music and dance to more Minnesotans with fewer direct connections to Ireland. Art and culture cultivated within the Irish American Club was reaching outside the dance hall walls.

The ’70s and ’80s

The Twin City Irish American Club continued as an organization well into the 1980s. Weekly dances faded away but the club continued to hold occasional events each year. Tim Morin remembers the club retiring their scholarship for seminary students around 1974. The club chartered a flight to Ireland in 1975. Sheila Jordan remembers attending a St. Patrick’s Day event hosted by the club at Fort Snelling in 1976 that featured the distinctly Irish-American showband of New York City-based Irish entertainer Paddy Noonan. Paddy Hill’s poem about the club was printed in the program for the first Minnesota Irish Festival in 1980 and the club had a booth at some of the early festivals. A May 1984 Twin City Irish American Club roster lists 79 member households including several familiar names from the 1950s era. A 1985 club newsletter says a “Turkey Bowl” and Christmas Party were organized in 1984 for the “first time in several years.”

Sheila Jordan remembers some club events in this time period at the Lincoln Del (west) restaurant in St. Louis Park. The move to the western suburbs hints at the fact that those still involved with the club were leaving urban St. Paul and Minneapolis. Once again, the success of the early club’s mission led to change as careers founded on Irish Club connections allowed the upward mobility to follow other Americans to suburbia.

Martin McHugh performs with a group of young musicians at Charlie and Ann Heymann’s wedding, Oddfellows Hall in St. Paul, October 1976. From left: Sam Dillon, Mary MacEachron, Jamie Gans, Martin McHugh, Tom Dahill, Laura MacKenzie. Image courtesy Charlie and Ann Heymann

Meanwhile, a new generation of American-born musicians and dancers with little or no family ties to Ireland were falling in love with the more traditional vein of Irish music and dance that was kept alive in St. Paul by the intermission entertainments, parties and stage shows of the Twin City Irish American Club. Martin McHugh became the guru for this new crowd that has flourished in the Twin Cities ever since.

List of Interviews

Patrick HillRecorded singing, recitation and discussion with Tom Dahill, Barbara Dahill, Charlie Heymann and John Curtin, St. Paul, MN, 1970s.
Martin McHughRecorded interview with Dáithí Sproule, St. Paul, MN, December 12, 2017.
Vince Morin, Tim Morin and Paul MorinRecorded informal interview with Brian Miller, St. Paul, MN, September 26, 2021.
Pat DeeRecorded informal interview with Brian Miller, Minneapolis, MN, November 17, 2021.
Con SullivanRecorded informal interview with Brian Miller, Coon Rapids, MN, April 14, 2022.
Henry ScanlonRecorded informal interview with Brian Miller, Eagan, MN, April 1, 2022.
Mark MaloneEmail correspondence with Brian Miller, 2021-2022.
Sheila JordanEmail correspondence with Brian Miller, 2022.
Mark MaloneEmail correspondence with Brian Miller, 2021-2022.
Sheila JordanEmail correspondence with Brian Miller, 2022.
Jim CutinFacebook Messenger correspondence with Brian Miller, 2022.
Deirdre VaughanComments on Eoin McKiernan Library Facebook page, 2022.


1 A bill to incorporate The Benevolent Society of the United Sons of Erin was introduced to the Minnesota territorial legislature in February 1856 by Mr. Nobles. Minnesota Weekly Times, February 16, 1856.
2 Sullivan was a postal worker in St. Paul and was born around 1881 according to newspaper and census research by Brian Miller.
3 A brief history of the club included in its 1975 constitution says the club started in September 1947 but newspaper accounts from 1949 and interviews with club members indicate fall 1948 as more likely. Twin City Irish American Club Constitution, January 1, 1975, Pat Duffy Papers, Eoin McKiernan Library.
4 This could have been the 1948 Ancient Order of Hibernians St. Patrick’s Day in downtown St. Paul that featured music from Tony Doherty, Marge Doherty, Mike Nash and others that year. See The Doherty Family
5 “Irish Get Acquainted at Saturday Dances,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 11, 1949.
6 A printing of Hill’s song in the 1980 Minnesota Irish Festival program changes “Londonderry” to “lovely Derry” but in a recording of Hill from the late ’70s he sings “Londonderry.”
7 Patrick Hill Tapes, Disc 1, Track 10, Patrick Hill Collection, Eoin McKiernan Library.
8 Gaelic Athletic Association.
9 Twin City Irish American Club Constitution, January 1, 1975, Pat Duffy Papers, Eoin McKiernan Library.
10 Con Sullivan remembers some of the guys doing hurling “Over on Snelling by the water tower.” A letter from John Kinney to Professor Eoin McKiernan dated January 22, 1966 includes the constitution of the “Twin City Gaels Hurling and Football Club” and says the club hoped “to field a football team also this year” and was “sponsoring dances and card games to raise money.” They were also pursuing affiliation with the GAA. Eoin McKiernan Papers, University of St. Thomas O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library archives.
11 Pat Dee in discussion with the author, November 2021.
12 Transcribed from a manuscript held by the O’Shaughnessy Frey Library archives. I have normalized some spelling broken this poem into four line stanzas for ease of reading.  There are no stanza breaks in the manuscript. All proper names are spelled the way Hill spelled them in the manuscript. Patrick Hill Papers, University of St. Thomas O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library archives.
13 Susan Gedutis, See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), p. 41.
14 Gedutis, p. 59.
15 “Dance Planned for St. Patrick’s Day,” Minneapolis Star, March, 16, 1955.
16 Pat Dee to Brian Miller, September 12, 2022.
17 Spelled “Grouchot” in some listings.
18 See The Doherty Family.
19 “Irish Lilt, ”Minneapolis Star, March 15, 1960.
20 The first two polkas in McHugh’s medley, which he calls “Johnny Powell’s” and “Galway Belle,” appear as the B side of Copley Records disc 9-121 by Johnny Powell and his Irish Band of the Year as “The Colleen Bawn” and “The Galway Rogue.” 
21 An April 30, 1949 Minneapolis Star listing advertises “a dance of Irish jigs” as part of the club’s program. Martin McHugh and others remember the club musicians playing for step dancing as part of the dances.
22 “Irish Club Sponsors St. Patrick’s Fete,” Minneapolis Star, March 13, 1949.
23 Unknown Burnsville newspaper, March 3, 1966. (online Burnsville Historical Society Archives collection)
24 Margaret Doherty papers, Eoin McKiernan Library.
25 Patrick Hill Tapes, Disc 1, Track 10, Patrick Hill Collection, Eoin McKiernan Library.
26 “Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band Sprouts,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 17, 1963.
27 Since the early ’50s, the club had organized occasional dances in the Sea Girt Inn or lakeside pavilion at Orchard Lake 25 miles south of St. Paul not far from Kennelly’s Burnsville farm.
28 Unknown Burnsville newspaper, March 3, 1966, online Burnsville Historical Society Archives.
29 As today, “St. Patrick’s Day” events were spread out across multiple days around the time of March 17th itself so that different organizations held non-conflicting events featuring some of the same performers on a given year.
30 “Celts in Kilts Are Pipers for St. Pats,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, c. March 1965, Charles Russell Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band Scrapbook, Eoin McKiernan Library.