Celtic Junction Arts Review
The Doherty Family
Irish Music in Sound and Story from Scott County and St. Paul, Minnesota
During the chilly February of 1958, members of the Doherty family of St. Paul, Minnesota decided to hole up in their parents’ house and make an audio recording of their dad Tony’s fiddle playing along with several musical siblings. They recorded on reel-to-reel tape and later transferred multiple copies to cassette tape for distribution to family members. In 2019, a cassette tape version belonging to descendant Chris Cheney was digitized by the McKiernan Library. The Doherty Family Recordings are now available for listening via the Eoin McKiernan Library section of the Celtic Junction Arts Center website: celticjunction.org/library.
On its own, the recording would be a unique and intriguing collection for the history of Irish music in St. Paul. It is further enriched by an impressively large binder of memoirs written by Tony’s wife Margaret Doherty that provide invaluable context to the family’s music.
Around the time of Tony’s death in 1972, his wife Margaret Doherty (1894-1981) began writing down her memoirs in a cloth-covered journal with hopes of one day passing it on to her grandchildren. Her memory was sharp and she remained committed to the task for several years, even getting several articles published in the “Memories” column in the St. Paul Dispatch and publishing a history of her home parish of St. Catherine’s (Scott County). Her incredible efforts were passed on to her grandchildren as a 413-page binder of photocopied, handwritten pages containing genealogies, family history, stories, prayers, rhymes, advice and more. A copy was lent to the McKiernan Library by grandson Chris Cheney along with the tape.
Margaret’s writings provide detailed context to the family’s music — especially its roots in a farming community southwest of the Twin Cities. What follows is a biographical sketch of Tony Doherty based largely on Margaret’s memoirs.
Tony Doherty was a third generation Irish-American from Cedar Lake Township, Scott County, Minnesota. The township is a 6 mile by 6 mile square of land and small lakes just southwest of the Twin Cities on the southeastern side of the fertile Minnesota River valley. All four of Tony’s grandparents (surnames Doherty, Donlin, Sheehan and Keating) were Irish immigrants who cleared land and set up farms in the area in the late 1850s.
Tony’s paternal grandfather Anthony Doherty and his maternal grandfather Michael Sheehan both came from County Clare. Many other Irish settlers came around the same time and the area maintained a tight knit Irish-American community for many decades. Some attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cedar Lake township. Others, including Tony’s family, attended St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, just over the township line in Spring Lake Township to the north. St. Catherine’s stands today just down the road from the present-day roadside pub, Doherty’s Tavern.1 There was music and dance in the family dating back to this original immigrant generation. Tony’s grandfather Anthony Doherty was remembered as an “excellent step-dancer.”2
Tony’s parents Patrick Henry Doherty (1858-1918) and Mary Ann Doherty (née Sheehan, 1863-1936) grew up in this community, married and raised six children. The focus of the farm work was their livestock, with father Pat in charge of the family’s purebred Poland China hogs and mother Mary Ann taking care of over 300 Bronze turkeys.
Tony’s father Pat also played the fiddle and had a “beautiful voice”3 for singing. While growing up in Cedar Lake, Pat had collaborated with a friend named Thomas O’Keefe who played the flute and wrote poems.4 Pat set O’Keefe’s poems to music and sang them locally. Several other locals of Tony’s father’s generation played fiddle including uncle Mike Sheehan, Mike Deeley and Johnny Driscoll (whose nephew Johnny Birch would later play with Tony). Local step-dancers from this generation included Tony’s mother Mary Ann, aunt Kate O’Keefe, aunt Bea Sheehan, neighbor Bidsy Ryan and “many more.” Step dancing displays were a feature of local barn dances and weddings where fiddlers were in high demand. The Dohertys also hosted neighborhood gatherings on Sunday afternoons that featured music.
Tony, born March 23, 1896, was the fifth of Pat and Mary Ann’s six children. Tony’s wife Margaret tells the following story about how he learned his first tune on the fiddle:
When he was a small boy, his father allowed him to sit on the floor behind the heating stove and scratch away with the fiddle and the bow—after many, many times and a great deal of patience, out came the strains of a waltz that his father, also an “old tyme fiddler” often played. His father playing cards with the family was surprised, while it was but a passage of the waltz, he said “Well Tony you finally did get a tune.” With a great deal of patience, Tony became a famous fiddler, who was able to play any tune he ever heard, all by ear.5
Elsewhere in her writings, Margaret identifies Tony’s first tune as “Mike Deeley’s Waltz.” Tony must have been quite young at the time because Margaret writes that, after buying his own fiddle from Mike O’Hern for $3.00 and acquiring enough repertoire, Tony was just 9 years old in 1905 when he got his first taste of a paid gig:
…he played for a barn dance in the neighborhood with two older fiddlers; he was paid a dollar and fifty cents and ran home ahead of his parents jingling the money in his pocket, all quarters as the admittance for young men was 25c. The girls and parents went in free. At midnight a good lunch of sandwiches home-made, along with cake etc. 6
Margaret’s description of a Cedar Lake barn dance from those days is worth quoting in full:
A new barn was built, or an old one was emptied of last year’s hay. Two young men of the neighborhood would ask the farmer if they could have a dance there; also asking the farmer’s wife if she would prepare the lunch from then on they were responsible for hiring the musicians, readying the dance floor, building a temporary stage and seating area. Sunday evening was the time. After church on Sunday, was the day for enjoyment, the other six days were needed for the farm work. A dance was always a dress up affair, the men came in their vested suits, the mothers and daughters in pretty dresses and slippers. As the band played such tunes as “Over the Waves,” “The Frolic of the Frogs,” “The Lydia Two-Step,” “Where the River Shannon Flows,” “Happy to Meet and Sorry to Part,” “The Unfortunate Cup of Tea,” Etc. The floor filled with dancers. There were plenty of callers for the square dancers; these were filled often by the older folks.
At midnight, a delicious lunch was served with the best of coffee; the top price of coffee was 30c a pound. Now, the two promoters took their hats and took up the collection, whatever one cared to give this took care of the band and the lunch. The food was cleared away and the dancing resumed. The older folks went home and the young people danced into the wee hours. After such a delightful time we were ready for a good weeks’ work on the farm, hoping for another barn dance the following Sunday evening.7
The same year Tony played his first barn dance, his parents bought his older sister Theresa a piano for her 15th birthday. Pianos were rare in the community so it is likely that the Dohertys’ investment increased their family’s reputation as a music family and added a new element to their Sunday afternoon gatherings.
Soon, Tony became a busy dance fiddler. Margaret writes:
From that first earning of a dollar and fifty cents, his parents never gave him spending money. He furnished music for all the country dances and in many of the halls and wedding pavilions. 8
Margaret also describes the typical setup for wedding music in those days:
The home weddings had platforms built on the lawns, a stage was built, an organ from some-one’s home and four or five fiddlers furnished fine music for the afternoon and far out to the wee hours of the morning. Big weddings included St. Catherines and St. Patrick’s parishes, business people from all the surrounding towns and friends, relatives from the Twin Cities; every family had one big wedding at least.9
St. Patrick’s Day was also celebrated with music:
By 2:30 P.M. dinner [was] over [and] chairs [and] benches placed in order for the afternoon matinee… …The young crowd had prepared a Home Talent Show and had faced many storms since Christmas but it was really put on with exceptional talent. In the evening at 8 P.M. there was a repeat with vocal solos and Irish step dancing between the acts. By 11:30, the floor was cleared for dancing, the music by several fiddlers and a piano, and of course your grandpa [Tony] was one of the fiddlers as he had played for dances from the age of nine. The dancing went on until the “wee” hours. Twas a great day for the Irish but people that weren’t Irish came from all the neighboring towns also. “Erin go bragh” Ireland forever.10
Though she discusses her own musical development very little in her memoirs, Tony’s wife Margaret herself was a musician. Born to a separate Doherty family (with Tipperary and Clare roots) at a nearby farm, Margaret Doherty (1894-1981) married Tony in 1917 and the two went on to have 12 children on their own farm in Cedar Lake Township. She provided piano accompaniment to Tony’s fiddle playing at dances and played the organ at St. Catherine’s Church. She recalls in her memoirs:
Savage [Minnesota] started up an Old Tyme Dance Club so Mike Doherty came up, he was chairman of the club and wanted Tony to furnish music so Tony got Johnny Birch to go and I played the piano and Bill Gallaher of Savage also played the violin. They continued those dances for 2 years.11
In the late 1920s,12 Tony entered a fiddle contest in Jordan, Minnesota and won a “loving cup” and the title “Champion Fiddler of the Northwest” with his rendering of the popular contest reel “Devil’s Dream.” Fiddle contests were held in towns across the Upper Midwest in the late 20s as part of a nationwide fad inspired by celebrity tycoon Henry Ford’s heavily publicized effort to revive old fiddle music and square dancing.13 Irish farmers like Doherty had somewhat of a reputation for being good fiddlers. Historian Fred Holmes, in discussing Irishman Thomas Croal who won a similar contest in Wisconsin, wrote “Scarcely is there an Irish community in the state that does not have a typical fiddler, who plays his music by ear and keeps time with the stomp of his heel.”14 Indeed, Tony Dohyerty’s playing is confident and impressive on the recording made 30 years after this contest when his daughter announces that her dad will play his prize-winning tune and he launches into “Devil’s Dream”–the only unaccompanied fiddle performance on the tape.
In 1942, Tony, Margaret and their eleven children left the farm and moved to St. Paul where they lived at 1974 Selby Avenue. The couple, devoutly religious throughout their lives, attended nearby St. Mark’s Church and Tony took a job as a carpenter for the Milwaukee Railroad. He later worked for the Progress Pattern and Foundry Company.
In St. Paul, Tony soon got involved with The Twin Cities Irish American Club that began taking shape soon after his arrival in the years after World War II. Tony became one of several musicians who furnished music for Club events. In a brief history of the Club that appears in the 1996 book From Ireland to Minnesota compiled by the Hibernians of Minnesota it says
The ‘Club’ sponsored weekly dances in the old Knights of Columbus Hall on 9th Street, downtown St. Paul. At first, the committee members dug into their own pockets to pay the hall rent and musicians – like Tony Dougherty [sic] and friends, Mike Sullivan and friends, Pat Hill and his fiddle, Mike McGivney and his flute, Mike Hughes and his brother-in-law, Mike Nash, fiddlers, and later, one of the young Irish that came, Martin McHugh, Irish button accordionist par excellent just to name a few. Marty McHugh and his sister, Kathleen, entertained often with their dual stepdancing. 15
The above mentioned Mike Nash (1893-1982) was also from Cedar Lake Township and had moved into St. Paul. In March 1948, Mike Nash, Tony Doherty and Tony’s daughter Marge posed for a set of photos to promote an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day gig. The “annual St. Patrick’s day dance of Division 4, Ancient Order of Hibernians of Ramsey county” was to be held on the upcoming Wednesday, March 17, 1948 at the Junior Pioneer hall in St. Paul. One of the photos that appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch with a caption referring to the men as “‘old tyme Irish fiddlers’—members of a group of six who will furnish music” for the AOH event along with their accompanist Marge at the piano. An addition to the newspaper clipping below, five other photos from the same shoot survived in a photo album kept by Mike Nash’s descendants. In one, Marge is holding a guitar.
In fact, several of the Dohertys’ children took to music. Marge played piano accordion in addition to piano (and, seemingly, guitar). Daughters Mary and Joan also learned to skillfully back up their father by chording on piano. Daughter Monica was a beautiful singer. Mary, Joan and brother Tony also knew how to do a step or two. Margaret describes family music-making at their home back in Cedar Lake:
Now [Tony’s] violin is in tune and the music is starting. The little ones are so tired they are napping upstairs they do not hear the music, but those that do are threading the light fantastic. Mary does the Irish jig and Joan the Highland fling and Tony [Junior] dances “Jump the Milk-Can” 16
When I had the opportunity to meet one of two surviving siblings17, Pat Doherty, at a Doherty family gathering in 2019, he brought up his brother Tony’s “milk can” dance. Mother Margaret explains its origin in her writings:
When we lived in the country there was a man, who would bring in a five gallon milk-can, putting it in the middle of the room, and to the tunes of the violin he would jump the can over and back. Tony was a little fellow when this was done, but he mastered it too.18
Unfortunately, the 1940s saw the beginning of a series of difficult health problems that would plague Tony until his death in 1972. Music remained important to Tony throughout his life and, even after the move and in spite of his sometimes poor health. Margaret writes that “there was scarcely a day that he didn’t play a couple of tunes.”19
Around 1952, Tony had to visit the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and undergo a harrowing surgery. During his long recovery, the Twin Cities Irish American Club took up a collection of $250 to help the Dohertys cover hospital bills. Tony was back furnishing music for Club events as soon as he was able.
In need of a new job, Tony started hiring himself out as a handyman. Margaret recalls that he enjoyed this work “most of all” and “did inside and outside painting, laid linoleum, fixed steps.”20 In the 1958 recording, Tony says that while building a set of steps he hit his finger “an awful rap with the hammer” and that he “mightn’t be able to play the violin” especially “The Devil’s Dream.” Serendipitously, he sports a bandaged finger in the photos from 1948 as well (see the photo at the beginning of this article).
Tony was 61 years old in February 1958 when the family recording session took place. The tape features Tony on fiddle, daughter Marge on piano and (piano) accordion, daughter Mary on piano and daughter Joan on piano. Daughter Monica sings two songs. There is some talk between performances including brief attempts at interviewing Tony and his wife Margaret and some naming of tune titles and musicians.
His daughters seem to have been the instigators of the project and they coax a few words out of their dad here and there on the tape. At one point Tony says “you gotta be careful what you’re saying around you with that machine, Marge.”21
In fact, a great sense of fun infuses the entire recording. Toward the end of the tape, Marge vamps on her accordion while a male voice does his Lawrence Welk impression and sister Mary acts as narrator to the tape itself:
Well folks, this is Mary. It’s February 23rd, 1958. We’re about to the end of our tape. We’ve had a lot of fun doing this recording. Drank lots of coffee. Smoked lots of cigarettes. 22
The 35 unique instrumental tunes and 2 songs on the tape are a fascinating mix of Irish, Irish-American, American, Scottish and Scandinavian material. There are 15 tunes in 4/4 time including reels, flings, clogs/hornpipes and a schottische. Many of these are tunes like “Harvest Home” and “Ms. McLeod’s” that have long been part of multiple fiddle traditions. Others are more off the beaten track and at least one, “Polly Milking Her Cow,” is a composition of Tony Doherty himself. Thirteen waltzes appear with Irish music hall song melodies like “My Wild Irish Rose” mixed in with Swedish favorites “Lördags valsen” (Saturday Night Waltz) and “Livet i Finnskogarna” (Life in the Finnish Woods). The seven jigs on the recording include the well-travelled “Irish Washerwoman” as well as an obscure unnamed jig.
Monica’s two unaccompanied performances of the Irish music hall hits “When I Dream of Old Erin I’m Dreaming of You” and “The Rose of Tralee” are hauntingly gorgeous. Marge’s music on both piano and accordion is bold and expressive. There is not space here to get into a full analysis of Tony’s fiddle playing but his comfort and rhythmic drive shows the effects of years of playing at dances. The multi-ethnic nature of some of the music exemplifies the multicultural character of the Upper Midwest’s musical traditions. At one point on the tape, the announcer refers to the trio of Tony on fiddle, Marge on accordion and Mary on piano as “The Irish Trio.” The three then proceed to play the Scandinavian “Kristiana Waltz”.
Though recorded in St. Paul, all eleven Doherty children were born on the farm in Cedar Lake Township and Tony played Scott County barn dances and weddings for decades before moving to the city. It may make most sense to think of their/his music more in the context of rural patterns than urban. Indeed, the descriptions of Scott County music making in Margaret’s writings are quite comparable to the fiddle-driven dance traditions written about by Philip Martin in his book Farmhouse Fiddlers. Martin, who surveyed old fiddle players in southwestern Wisconsin, describes “farm neighborhoods” similar to Cedar Lake Township where “Most boys were able to scratch out at least a few dance tunes on the violin, while girls grew up learning to chord on the piano.”23 This pattern of daughters learning piano accompaniment rather than the fiddle like their father shows up in Chief Francis O’Neill’s writings about Irish music in Chicago around 1900 as well and is a notable aspect of the Doherty story. It is also interesting to consider the blend of rural Minnesota and rural Ireland in St. Paul’s mid-century Irish music scene. The musicians at the Irish American Club dances included Irish immigrants like Patrick Hill (Tipperary) and Martin McHugh (Roscommon) alongside Tony Doherty and Mike Nash from Cedar Lake Township as well as Mike Hughes who moved in from another Irish-dominated farm community around Clontarf, Minnesota.
Tony Doherty passed away in 1972—an event that helped spur Margaret into writing the rich memoirs that made this article possible. Thanks to her writing and the family’s sense of duty to posterity, we are able to enjoy their music and story for years to come.
Special thanks to Chris Cheney for generously sharing the recording and memoir book with the Eoin McKiernan Library, allowing us to digitize these remarkable materials and for introducing me to the Doherty family at their annual gathering in 2019. Thanks also to my neighbor Bill Nash for hunting down the Nash family photo album after I asked him about his fiddle playing grandfather–it was those photos that started it all! Thanks to Kristi Nash for help with the Nash and Doherty family genealogies. Thank you to Heather and Dave at the Scott County Historical Society for looking up obituaries, for allowing me to use photos from their collection and for trying (sadly in vain) to find the fiddle contest. Finally, thank you to the Celtic Junction Arts Center for supporting this research.
Endnotes (corrections in bold)
1Chris Cheney told me the tavern was originally owned by a family member but has since changed hands.
2 Margare Doherty, Margaret Doherty collected writings, Manuscript, From Eoin McKiernan Library, Margaret Doherty Manuscript, pg. 64.
3 Doherty, 196.
4 In Margaret Doherty’s memoirs she writes “Pat remained a farmer while Thomas moved away to the city where he went into business.” Doherty, 196.
12Tony remembered this as being in 1928 while Margaret remembered 1925. I am still looking for a newspaper account of this fiddle contest.
13A previous version of this article incorrectly said Ford sponsored some fiddle contests. There is no evidence of that. For a detailed analysis of Ford’s role in inspiring these events see Gifford, Paul, Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality,” (Square Dance History Project, accessed April 14, 2021), Online here.
14Holmes, Fred. Old World Wisconsin, (Eau Claire: E.M. Hale and Company, 1944), 187.
15Hibernians of Minnesoa, compiled by, From Ireland to Minnesota, (St. Paul: Hibernian Life Insurance Fund, 1996), 95.
17A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Pat Doherty is the sole surviving child of Tony and Margaret Doherty. Daughter Helen resides in California.
21Audio Recording, “Doherty Family Recordings” by the Doherty family, 1958, track 23, Eoin McKiernan Library, Celtic Junction Arts Center.
22Doherty Family Recordings, track 42.
23Philip Martin, Farmhouse Fiddlers. (Mount Horeb: Midwest Traditions, Inc.), 25.