A treasured link to the mother island for the Twin Cities traditional Irish music scene has died at age 93.
Martin McHugh, a tuneful squeezebox player and anchor of sessions from living rooms to St. Paul and Minneapolis pubs, emigrated from a farm near Roscommon, Ireland, in the 1940s to St. Paul, an American city still brimming with staunch Irish immigrants who filled dance halls with fiddle, drum and pipe bands.
Over the coming decades, McHugh became a fixture in the local traditional music scene, leading the popular Northern Star Céilí Band and appearing on public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion."
According to a remembrance written by Sam Dillon and posted to McHugh's website, after arriving in Minnesota's capital, McHugh quickly gained footing in the Irish diaspora, attending a dance at the Gaelic Athletic League and regaling the crowd with tunes on a button accordion handed to him.
"Marty was always mainly a session warrior," Dáithí Sproule, a fellow Irish musician and immigrant to the Twin Cities, told Dillon.
As an earlier generation passed on, McHugh remained a constant in the traditional music scene, passing down songs to younger, newer players. During the scene's resurgence in the 1960s and '70s, McHugh was a link to authentic Ireland music for a younger generation hungry for traditional music.
"We called him the elder statesman," Norah Rendell, a musician and executive artistic director for the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, told the Star Tribune. "He was our local connection to the living tradition."
According to Dillon's remembrance, McHugh took a variety of day jobs, working as a mail handler at Union Depot and a janitor for St. Paul Public Schools. He served in the Army in the 1950s. But his passion remained sharing the tunes — the jigs, reels and hornpipes — with new generations of players and listeners.
"We called it 'Martin's music,'" said Laura MacKenzie, an accomplished St. Paul-based folk artist, who learned her first tune, "The Wise Maid," from McHugh. MacKenzie said McHugh knew "hundreds and hundreds" of tunes but often added his own decoration to a melody. "He had these little, subtle variations — like one different note that pops out."
After his retirement, McHugh split his time between his home in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul and the family farm in Cloondahara, Ireland. A reviewer for Philadelphia's Irish Edition newspaper said of McHugh's 2014 album "The Master's Choice," which featured MacKenzie and Sproule: "The rhythms are perfect, the melodies encouraging. It's tough to sit and listen when your body aches to move with the tunes."
Until his death on Oct. 14, McHugh was still learning, passing on new music and playing locally with members in a tight-knit circle of traditional musicians, MacKenzie said.
In the weeks before he died, McHugh still welcomed visitors to his home for jam sessions. Even in his 90s, he ventured out to a regular weekly session of players at Merlins Rest in Minneapolis.
Those who knew him best said he had a hunger to play and share the music he'd known since his boyhood on the farm.
"The real richness was playing authentically and locally," MacKenzie said. "This wasn't a profession. He was a real, traditional musician."