The Best Place in the World:

A Glimpse of the Twin Cities Irish Music Community 1920-1970

Most of the people interviewed for our oral history project became involved with Irish music in the 1970s during an exciting period of growth and change. Martin McHugh is our lone interviewee who has been playing Irish music in the Twin Cities since the 1950s. Luckily, Charlie Heymann recorded another Irish immigrant musician, Patrick “Paddy” Hill, in 1977. Here we weave together our oral histories with the Heymann recordings and other documents.

There is still much to uncover about these earlier decades of Irish music in the Twin Cities!

The Best Place in the World:

A Glimpse of the Twin Cities Irish Music Community 1920-1970

Most of the people interviewed for our oral history project became involved with Irish music in the 1970s during an exciting period of growth and change. Martin McHugh is our lone interviewee who has been playing Irish music in the Twin Cities since the 1950s. Luckily, Charlie Heymann recorded another Irish immigrant musician, Patrick “Paddy” Hill, in 1977. Here we weave together our oral histories with the Heymann recordings and other documents.

There is still much to uncover about these earlier decades of Irish music in the Twin Cities!

Paddy Hill and Marty McHugh (c. 1970s)

Patrick Hill, Martin McHugh

Photo contributed by Martin McHugh

Best Place In The World

Poet, singer and fiddle player Patrick "Paddy" Hill (1900-1980) was part of a generation of musicians who kept Irish traditional music alive in the Twin Cities from the 1920s (Hill arrived here in 1923) through the 1970s.

Musician Charlie Heymann had the foresight to record Paddy's songs, poems and stories while the Dayhills were in town playing at MacCafferty's in 1977. The recordings feature chat between Paddy, Paddy's wife Sinda, John Curtin, Tom Dahill, Charlie and Barbara (Dahill) McDonald.

Charlie and Ann Heymann, 1978. Photo: Mary Curtin

In the excerpt below, Patrick Hill talks about what makes the St. Paul Irish community special.

(Smartphone users, click "Listen in browser" to play)

Irish-Minnesotans Attend a Chicago Irish Music Event 

(late 1950s)

Front Row from left: unknown (cut off), Mike Sullivan, Martin McHugh, Johnny Ó Sé, unknown; Back Row: Pat Curtin, Pat Sullivan[?], unknown

Photo contributed by Martin McHugh

Instrument Lineage

Martin McHugh recalls Mike Sullivan (fiddle), Mike's daughter and a third musician playing for dances at "Liberty Hall" in St. Paul. Newspapers from the 1920s mention "champion Irish fiddler" M. F. Sullivan, Catherine Sullivan (piano) and piper Patrick Linehan whose Irish pipes (once "the only set of Irish pipes in the northwest") are likely the uilleann pipes now played by Tom Dahill.

In this excerpt from his oral history interview, Martin McHugh recalls Mike Sullivan, dances at Liberty Hall, and other musicians present when he arrived in the 1950s.

Martin McHugh with the Cooley Brothers and Johnny Ó Sé

(Chicago, late 1950s)

 Seamus Cooley, Joe Cooley, Martin McHugh, Johnny Ó Sé

Photo contributed by Martin McHugh

Chicago

The vast Irish community of Chicago and the musicians it attracts and produces have been important to the Twin Cities Irish music and dance community for a long time.

Not long after immigrating to St. Paul from Roscommon in the 1950s, Martin McHugh visited Chicago with Mike Sullivan (fiddle) and fellow Irish-Minnesotan Pat Curtin (born in Clare). The three men went to Jack Hanley’s House of Happiness at 79th and Bishop on the south side where they met the famous Galway-born accordion player Joe Cooley, his brother Seamus Cooley (flute) and West Kerry accordion player Johnny Ó Sé.

Seated: Mike Sullivan, Martin McHugh, Johnny Ó Sé, Tom Sullivan, unknown
Jack Hanley (owner of Hanley’s House of Happiness), wife [Agnes?] Hanley, Pat Curtin, unknown

An Irish Music Performance (early 1960s)

From left: unknown [possibly Tony Gruchot] (drums), Mike Nash (fiddle), Martin McHugh (accordion), Emmett McCarthy (standing with saxophone), Mike Hughes (fiddle), unknown.

Photo contributed by Martin McHugh

Irish American Club

This photo is likely from a Twin Cities Irish American Club dance from the 1960s--possibly the 1961 event on Payne Ave. described in the newspaper clipping. Music was furnished by the local multi-genre "orchestra" of Tony Gruchot but here four prominent  local Irish musicians are seen sitting in with the band: Mike Nash (fiddle), Martin McHugh (accordion), Emmett McCarthy (saxophone) and Mike Hughes (fiddle).

In this excerpt from his oral history interview, Martin McHugh recalls arriving in St. Paul in the mid-fifties and meeting local musicians including the two fiddlers in the photo: Mike Nash and Mike Hughes.

Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band

(Macalester College, c. 1960s)

Pipers: Charles “Stub” Russell, Gordy Mork, Bill “Moose” McGiver; Bass drummer: George McCracken; Also on the sidelines: Boru member John Russell

Photos contributed by Charles Russell (Jr.)

Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band

The Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band was founded in 1961 (or ’62) and has since played a unique role within the Irish music community of the Twin Cities.

Unusual in the world of pipe bands for its association with Ireland’s pipe band tradition (rather than Scotland’s), the Boru has always been connected to the broader Irish dance and music community.

Florence Hart danced with the Brian Boru in the ’60s and went on to teach a new generation of Irish dancers in the Twin Cities some of their first steps in the 1970s.

From Left: Dancer Florence Hart, Jim Hutchinson, William McRae, Charles Russell, Nelson Whyatt, Jay Willett, Tom Robertson.

In the excerpt below, John McCormick talks about how the Boru got their unique uniforms.

Marty McHugh and Jim O’Gara on St. Patrick’s Day

(O’Gara’s, St. Paul, late 1950s)

Martin McHugh, Jim O’Gara

Photo contributed by Martin McHugh

Saint Patrick's Day at O'Gara's

James Freeman O’Gara opened O’Gara’s Bar in 1941 and the establishment became a home away from home for Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans into the 2010s.

The pub hosted Irish music sessions off and on from the 1970s through the 2000s. It has always been an especially popular stop on St. Patrick’s Day.

Martin McHugh and Patrick Hill at O’Gara’s on St. Patrick’s Day, late 1950s.

Again from Charlie Heymann’s recording, here’s Patrick Hill reciting his poem “After St. Patrick’s Day at O’Gara’s.”