Jimmy McHugh was a Glasgow-domiciled Tyrone-born fiddler who exerted an immense influence on the development of Irish music and culture in the city and beyond, co-founding the first branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to be formed outside Ireland, in Glasgow in 1957. The renowned, Glasgow-based Four Provinces Ceili Band, which he led until his death, became the first such band from outside Ireland to feature on Irish radio when it broadcast on Raidió Teilifís Éireann on Hogmanay 1966.
A prize-winning player who won the All Ireland fiddle championship in 1957, in doing so he became the first person from outside Ireland to win an all-Ireland traditional music competition. He became well acquainted with and respected by some of the great Scottish music names such as accordion heroes Jimmy Shand and Bobby MacLeod and fiddlers Angus Fitchet and Ian Powrie.
Ever since he and his wife, Ann, married, their home has been a “ceili house”, its sessions in more recent years attracting such renowned names from the Scottish scene as Johnny and Phil Cunningham, Dick Gaughan, fellow-Irishman Cathal McConnell, Jimmy Elliot and Billy Maguire.
Since his untimely death in 1999, the Monday sessions he used to lead in Sharkey’s Bar in the Gorbals have continued to this day – now the longest-running Irish pub session in the UK – while every January, the annual Jimmy McHugh Memorial Concert attracts traditional musicians from both sides of the Irish Sea and well beyond. He and his son Brendan established the sessions at the end of the Seventies and they are
Jimmy was born in Co. Tyrone, growing up in Aghyaran, Castlederg, then moving to Glenfinn, Co. Donegal, when he was 12. He took up the fiddle at an early age and would go on to be recognised as one of the finest players of his generation. He had a strong “northern” style of playing though mixed, unusually, with a pronounced Sligo style, owing to his being largely self-taught and learning so many tunes from 78 rpm records by his heroes, the Sligo masters Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Kiloran.
He emigrated to Scotland with other members of his family in 1946, when he was 16. Initially staying with an aunt, he got his first job as a coalman then worked on building sites, becoming a machine driver. Never a full-time musician, he nonetheless spent every spare minute of his time playing the fiddle.
The Four provinces Ceili Band was already established, consisting mainly of players from Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal, when he arrived in Glasgow, and he quickly became friends with them, subsequently becoming a mainstay of the band.
As the McHugh household became a magnet for musicians, visitors during the Sixties might include his friend and renowned fellow-fiddler Sean Maguire, accordionist Joe Burke or Donegal fiddler Danny O’Donnell while, playing in the old Highlanders’ Institute in Elmbank Street, he met and befriended the great Mull accordionist Bobby MacLeod, who would stay, complete with band, if he was recording at the BBC in Glasgow. Occasionally touring with Bobby (a rare Irish musician playing in a Scottish dance band), Jimmy met up with the other leading Scottish band musicians such as Shand, Powrie et al.
In the late Fifties, a time when music was frowned upon in pubs, Jimmy persuaded the proprietor of the Camden Bar in Crown Street to let him and his band practise for a recording, becoming one of the first pub session players in Scotland.
Jimmy made many broadcasts for BBC and STV as well as Irish radio and television and made frequent appearances at traditional music festivals in Scotland as well as Irish fleadhs. His son, Brendan, recalls a particularly memorable gathering at one of the early Kinross festivals, his father playing with Shetland’s Willie Hunter and Peerie Willie Johnson, and Sean Maguire, among others.
Jimmy was also a prolific composer, with more than 40 tunes to his credit, many of which have since become established among players. He was also a committed teacher, tireless and generous with his time. “If someone was struggling with a tune he would encourage them for hours until they succeeded,” says Brendan. “He would stop in the middle of a session and show someone a tune if they wished. People would turn up at the house, day or night and he would always be there for a lesson, a tune or a session.”
He played for his wife’s school of Irish dancing at festivals and competitions, maintaining the traditional role of Irish musicians within their communities. He also played Gaelic football with the Paisley Gaels.
His influence in promoting Irish music spread further when in 1957 – the same year that he won the All-Ireland Fiddle Championship – he co-founded, with Owen Kelly the Glasgow Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the organisation which had been established in Ireland a few years before to promote Irish music. Jimmy had heard about the new organisation while visiting the Fleadh in Ennis the previous year, and the branch he and Owen established in Glasgow was the first outside Ireland. Today Glasgow boasts two branches of CCÉ – St James the Great and the Irish Minstrels.
Sadly, there are no extant commercial recordings of Jimmy’s fiddling. The only commercial recordings he made were with the Four Provinces in 1968, and on a cassette called Glasgow Festival made during the mid-1980s. He also privately recorded some 78s in the late Fifties after he won the All-Ireland, and in the mid-Nineties contributed a couple of solo tracks to an album by the Irish pianist Mary Mulholland. A single track of him playing The Pigeon on the Gate, which he had recorded privately back in the early Fifties, is the closing track in the otherwise live recording of the second concert in his memory, at Glasgow’s Mitchell theatre in 2001.
In his lifetime, Jimmy accumulated a huge collection of 78 rpm records, as well as music books, and manuscripts, reel to reel tapes and cassettes, which were frequently accessed by those seeking old recordings, including the Topic, Shanachie and Green Linnet labels.
Brendan recalls his father as “an absolute encyclopaedia of everything musical. He had a massive knowledge of Irish music and musicians, singers, songs dance and history, and many people would contact him for information, or for the names of tunes or songs. He also soaked up everything about Scottish music, and would spend much time with the likes of Bobby Macleod, piper Alan MacDonald or Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, simply talking and playing.”
Jimmy was still playing in sessions until a week of his death. His memory lives on through his wife Ann, an Irish dancing teacher and adjudicator, his eight children, two of whom, Brendan and Martin, are musicians in their own right (and playing in the Four Provinces Ceili Band), his many compositions and the enduring wider legacy of his music and friendship.