Hugh Gillespie (1906-1986)

Hugh GillespieCompiled by Martin McGinley. Uploaded on 7.10.20

A chapter in the book ‘Donegal Profiles’ by the late Joe McGarrigle (1916-1993), the well-known writer and photographer from Donegal Town. 

If Hugh Giillespie’s fiddle playing is out of this world it could well be because he heard fairy music when he was a young boy tending sheep on his uncle’s farm in a remote countryside near Brockagh. 

“I could hear the most beautiful fiddling coming from a wee knowe and I listened spellbound. Then I crawled over to see who was playing and there was nobody there,” he told me.  

When Hugh ran home and told his uncle of his experience he was told: “It was the fairies you heard and you have been touched by it.” 

Well, whatever the source of Hugh’s great talent he certainly has the power to hold an audience spellbound when he performs.

Perhaps perform is not the right word to use in this context for Hugh Gillespie when he is playing is totally unaware of those around him. He is completely engulfed in a world where his music as an expression of his culture, his sensitivity, his absolute involvement with an inborn tradition. 

It must have been these qualities that attracted the great Michael Coleman [1891 – 1945] to him early in their acquaintance and made him decide to take Hugh under his wing. 

Hugh Gillespie was born Dreenan, Ballybofey, 80 years ago. When he was only three years-old he was taken on an outing to see his grandfather, Hugh McElwee, who lived in Brockagh. That visit was to be a long one for Hugh was to stay there, go to school in the district and live with his grandfather until he emigrated to the States 20 years later. He got his first lesson on the fiddle when he was only seven years old: “My cousin, Eddie McMonagle, who was working in Scotland, brought home a fiddle with him when he came on holidays and it was my plaything from that moment.”

He obviously treated it as more than just a plaything for in a short time he was actually playing for dancers in country house ‘big nights’.

”I must admit that I only had two or three tunes and I kept playing those all night. I just changed the tempo to suit the dance.” he explained. 

In his early years life was uneventful in the remote mountain area in which he lived. He engaged in sheep farming, attending fairs and following the usual pattern of rural life in those days. His fringe involvement with politics while he was still at school was perhaps the only break in this pattern. Being called on to deliver important messages to ‘boys’ on the run gave him an importance that his other schoolmates did not enjoy, and there was a certain spice of adventure in it too. When he grew older he became much more in the fight for independence when he became a member of the IRA.

He recalls with some humour an occasion when he was delivering arms to a local unit and they had to pass through a village where there was often a spot check by the Tans [Black and Tans]. He sought the help of a local fish peddler and they loaded the arms in boxes and placed a layer of fish over them. They then went through the village calling out “fresh fish”, presumably offering their wares for sale. In this way they were able to pass the roadblock because the fish dealer was a well-known character. 

In 1928 Hugh set sail for America. He sailed on the Athenia from Moville. On board he met a man from Derry who had been a member of a flying column and often stayed in Hugh’s area. They became companions on the trip. 

When the ship put into Halifax to take on supplies Hugh and his traveling companion decided to slip ashore for a drink. They slipped over the side on a rope ladder down to the quayside. 

When they made inquiries as to the nearest saloon they were directed to a shebeen. The drink was cheap in the crack was good and so time slipped by. It was several hours later when they return to the ship. They found it was much easier to get off the ship undetected than to get back on again. They were refused permission to board and it was only after much haggling and pleading that they were eventually allowed to embark. 

Hugh’s arrival in the States coincided with the approach of what was to be the country’s greatest-ever economic upheaval. In a matter of months would come the Wall Street crash that brought financial empires crumbling down and threw millions onto the bread line. 

Despite this Hugh, with the help of relatives and friends, was able to get a job in the docks. Ambition overtook caution, however, and Hugh left his employment on the docks for what he considered to be a more prestigious calling, a real estate salesman. His gift of ‘the Blarney’, combined with a shrewd she sales techniques acquired at sheep sales, made him a good salesman, but nothing could overcome the recession of the times and the bottom fell out of the market. 

Hugh was determined that he was not going to be just another number in a social security handout so he set to work for himself as a door-to-door salesman selling tea. His wares, one pound packets of tea in attractive ‘Irish Cottage Tea’ wrappers were packed into a large suitcase which he carried around with him. Business became brisk and he took in a partner. Other lines were added, like free-range chicken eggs ‘fresh from the hens’, vegetables, and, since those were the days of prohibition, a drop of two of home-made beer and whiskey.

The police soon got wind of their illicit distillery but it wasn’t altogether the threat from the police that made them close down their distillery operation, but rather a fear that the mobsters – and there were a number of those in the area would take more ruthless action if they discovered that someone, even a small-time operator, was moving into their territory. 

Hugh also gave up his legitimate door-to-door round to take up a permanent job. His partner persisted, however, and went on to become a millionaire.

By now Hugh was augmenting his earnings by playing the fiddle in the ‘Old Log Cabin’ for £3 a night. He had already met Michael Coleman and they had become firm friends. Coleman’s name was synonymous with the great resurgence of traditional music in the States in the 1930s and he was hailed as the greatest living greatest living exponent of Irish traditional fiddling. He always attracted large audiences to his concerts, he had a wide listening public when he broadcast and his records had excellent sales, particularly among the Irish exiles in America. 

Coleman’s memory, and his great talent, were honoured in his native Killavil, Co. Sligo, a few years ago [1974] and upwards of 1000 people gathered to see the unveiling of a monument to their native son. 

Hugh Gillespie was Coleman’s only student ever and they became inseparable friends. They appeared together in many concerts and cooperated numerous recording sessions. 

They had their own four nights a week spot on radio from Carnegie Hall. Hugh had married in the meantime to a girl from Westmeath, a refined, charming woman who shares his love of music and is content “to be a good listener and entertain his friends”. For those of us who have enjoyed the hospitality of the Gillespie home, I must say it is an accomplishment she has certainly mastered.  

When Michael Coleman died in [1945] Hugh was distraught. They had been like brothers. In recognition of this great friendship, the Coleman family presented him with Michael’s ‘Cosgrove’ fiddle. 

Some years later there were claims by a number of people who said they were in possession of Coleman fiddles but the family rejected those claims saying that the only violins which belonged to Coleman were now in the possession of Hugh Gillespie and a Mrs. McGovern from Sligo, Coleman’s niece. 

During his musical career, Hugh became friendly with many prominent people including John McCormick and Fritz Kreisler, the latter a weekly coffee date. Even Henry Ford found time to demonstrate his own dexterity on the fiddle in a session with Hugh and Coleman at Joe Maguires, in New York. 

Hugh’s album of memorabilia contains many precious items, including letters from Ford himself.

Hugh Gillespie made his first recording in 1937 in New York. A collection of his best has been re-issued by the Topic recording company. A music critic has described Hugh as “even better than Coleman” but modesty and loyalty to his friend makes Hugh reject his claim out of hand. Other critics have said it was a pity that great players like Hugh Gillespie, Killoran and Morrison, had not received the same attention Coleman had. 

Hundreds of students passed through the Gillespie School of Music but the most accomplished of these was his own daughter Rosemary. She made several appearances with her father in concerts and on television. Perhaps it was her close association with talented artists in the top echelon that gave her a feeling of being overshadowed in the traditional scene and caused her to seek a career in a more creative form of art. It was towards this end that she joined the Grafton Academy in Dublin to study dress designing and graduated with honours. 

When Hugh and his wife, May, return to Donegal in 1964 he immediately launched himself into the revival of traditional music, then initiated by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí [Eireann]. He joined the Crossroads branch and was elected chairman. One of his first acts was to take a young musician Frank Kelly under his wing. History was repeating itself. His protege went on to become an All-Ireland champion.

Hugh has spent his life spent a lifetime promoting traditional music, fostering a love of a culture that bonds exiles together in every country in the world. Today, at the venerable age of 80 ,he is still thankfully very much to the fore. Unlike his great friend Michael Coleman, whose people only gave him recognition after his death , Hugo Gillespie is being honored now by traditional musicians and singers from his own county. A traditional music club is to be set up in Crossroads, Killygordon, and will be known as the “Hugh Gillespie Traditional Music Club” in recognition of the great contribution Hugh Gillespie has made to Irish music both at home and abroad. 

——— Accessed 26.9.20

From online notes for the tune Molly On The Shore –

Violinist Kreisler was an acquaintance of Sligo fiddle master Michael Coleman and Donegal fiddler Hugh Gillespie. Notes in the album booklet “Michael Coleman 1891-1945” record that Gillespie recounted an impromptu session that Kreisler did with the two Irish fiddlers in a rehearsal room at WHOM, a New York City radio station. Kreisler accompanied the melody playing of the two with double stops on the lower strings, which Gillespie thought was far better than the pianos or guitars that were their usual accompaniment.


Memories of Hughie Gillespie

A ‘must have’ for any fan of traditional fiddling is the album by Frank Kelly, Crossroad, ‘Memories of Hughie Gillespie’. Frank, an All-Ireland champion and one of the county’s best-known players, is accompanied on guitar by the late Liam Derry, Ballybofey.


Tracks of interest –

Hugh Gillespie plays ‘Master Crowley’s’. Guitar by Mark Callahan. Accessed 29.9.20


Randall Bays plays Gillespie – Accessed 26.9.20


The ‘Classic’ recordings of Hughie Gillespie

Here are the sleeve notes by Tony Engel and Tony Russell for the 1978 LP on Topic, Hugh Gillespie: Classic Recordings of Irish Traditional Fiddle Music (accompanied by Jack McKenna or Mark Callahan, guitar). The original recordings on the record were from the collections of Tony Engle, Hugh Gillespie himself, and another fiddler claimed for Donegal, Jimmy McHugh. Jimmy had an enviable music collection in his home in Glasgow.

America in the middle ‘30s was a renewed and optimistic place; the Depression was fading, and agriculture and business were picking up. One in particular of the industries almost strangled by the Depression, the record business, was quickly regaining its momentum, not only bringing new personalities to the nation’s Victrolas, radios and newspapers, but developing its acquaintance with the musics of ethnic minority groups. Virtually every major record company had separate catalogues for the Mexican, German, Scandinavian and other relatively unassimilated communities. (Not to mention the substantial minorities catered for by the ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ catalogues.) 

Among the richest of these communities, in terms both of musicians and of people who would pay to hear them, were the Irish-Americans. 

Michael Coleman (1891-1945), probably the most famous traditional Irish musician of all, made his name on American stages and American recordings. Among his contemporaries were many other fine Irish-American musicians: Paddy Killoran, James Morrison, Frank Quinn, Dan Sullivan, John McGettigan, the Flanagan Brothers – and one of the greatest traditional fiddlers of all time, Hugh Gillespie. The tracks on this record, from original recordings of 1937-39, demonstrate a peak of musical achievement rarely attained elsewhere. 

Hugh Gillespie was born on September 7, 1906, near Ballybofey in Co. Donegal, Ireland. His father was no mean musician, but it was his uncle Johnny, reckoned as among the great fiddlers, who had the deepest influence on him. Hugh started playing as a small boy, and performed regularly in his locality while he was growing up. When he was about 20 he became involved in sheep-dealing and, at the same time a disagreement with his father, who claimed that Hugh’s sheep were taking pasture away from his cattle. 

On February 4, 1928, Hugh left Donegal for New York, to follow the path that many of his countrymen had already trod and to make enough money to be able to return and set up on his own, (In this he succeeded, and it was at his farm back home in Ballybofey that we interviewed him for these notes, in September 1977.) 

On arriving in New York Hugh went to stay with his uncle. Upstairs in the house lived Neil Smith, who played bones in the band headed by fiddler Packie Dolan. Smith had a few records of the already celebrated Michael Coleman, and immediately Hugh heard them he wanted to meet their maker. In fact, he had not been in New York four days before someone took him round to Coleman’s and introduced him. Coleman asked Hugh to play for him almost at once. After hearing him, he said: ‘You and I are going to be together, because I’m taking you under my wing.’ 

Coleman was true to his word, and the next few years were a busy time for the younger man. His regular job, as an engineer at Consolidated Edison, didn’t prevent him broadcasting daily with Coleman on local radio stations, such as WRL, WINS, WBNX, WRD, WFAB and WHOM. The programmes, usually called something like ‘The Irish Hour’, would commonly be sponsored by clothing and furniture companies and would be divided about 50-50 between music and ads. 

The two fiddlers played without any accompaniment. They would fill numerous requests, which, Hugh recalls, came scarcely ever from Irish people but from nearly every other nationality represented in New York. Payment for these programmes was union scale, $55 an hour per person. It was impossible at that time, says Hugh, to broadcast, record or play in dance halls if one was not a union member. 

As well as his time with Coleman, Hugh Gillespie had spells with various bands over the years, chiefly groups led by his cousin, Jim Gillespie, who played button accordeon. These included such bands as the Star of Erin Orchestra and the Four Provinces Orchestra (not to be confused with the similarly named group of a few years before, which was led by Ed Reavy and worked out of Philadelphia). 

The normal venues for such bands were cabarets (licensed clubs). One of the Four Provinces Orchestra’s regular spots was in a Polish section, where the Varsovienne and Mazurka were in great demand. 

Gillespie made his first recordings in New York in May 1937. He had earlier accompanied Coleman to one of the older man’s own sessions and been introduced to the studio manager. ‘I’d like you to hear him play,’ said Coleman. The demonstration was a success, and a formal recording session was scheduled within a week. 

Four sides were recorded, Master Crowley’s Reels, The Irish Mazurka, The Mullingar Lee/The Star of Munster and McCornick’s Hornpipe, of which the first two are included on this record. Gillespie is accompaniedon guitar by Mark Callahan, a neighbour who occasionally played with him on radio. Callahan had some trouble tuning his guitar at the session and Gillespie, worried that he might break a string, suggested they tune to a full tone below concert pitch, which they did. 

Most Irish musicians at this time were using piano for backup, but Hugh felt that the tone of a guitar suited fiddle music better. He seems not to have been alone in this feeling, for both Coleman and Paddy Killoran, on some of their records of the middle and late ‘30s, used guitar accompanists. 

Gillespie’s subsequent sessions, in June 1938 and June 1939, produced eight sides each, all of which are included on this record except the reel selection The Pigeon on the Gate/The Lady of the House and the hornpipes The Stage/Rights of Man, (both from the 1939 session). On both of these occasions he was accompanied by guitarist Jack (John) McKenna,
a partnership that generated some of the finest traditional music on record. 

McKenna is the ideal foil for Gillespie: while his choice of chords does not always conform to strict standards of musical correctness, he does provide a percussive rhythm that is exceptionally exciting. 

According to Gillespie the 1938 and ‘39 recordings were made at concert pitch, but this does not seem to be true of the former session, since achieving this pitch on playback requires a playing speed of well over 82 rpm. In those days recording speeds were not entirely stable and could vary for a number of reasons: for example, the cutting lathe could alter
in speed as it warmed up in the course of a session.
It would seem that the 1938 sides were played a semitone below concert pitch (which accords with a playback speed close to 78 rpm). The final session was definitely in concert pitch. Hugh remembers that on one session McKenna broke a string and played 

on the remaining five throughout, and although he cannot be sure that this was at the ‘38 session, it does seem likely, and may account in part for the choice of pitch.

 It was always a good idea to devise tune titles that had not previously been used on record, so that anyone ordering a piece by its title would be sure to get just that, and not somebody else’s version of a tune with the same name. Some tunes were named after music-lovers whose houses were always open to musicians to gather and play; hosts like Con Crowley, Paddy Finley and Dick Cosgrove. 

There were in fact two such Crowleys: Gillespie dedicated a couple of his recordings to one of them, while Coleman’s Crowley’s Reels were for the other (and are different tunes from those on Gillespie’s first record). In the selection Jackson’s Favorite/Kips the latter tune was named after the Sligo fiddler Kippeen Scanlon, from whom it came. 

The recordings of Hugh Gillespie have aquite different ‘feel’ from other American-Irish fiddle music of the period. The somewhat unusual choice of guitar rather than piano for accompaniment certainly contributes to this distinctiveness, but probably the decisive factors are Gillespie’s ‘singing’ style and highly personal technique. He learned from Coleman a device he calls ‘back trebling’, and also uses drones and fractional flattening or sharpening of notes to great effect. Such techniques are by no means peculiar to Coleman or Gillespie – indeed, most Irish musicians use them in some degree – but every musician stamps them with his own particular emphases. 

In these recordings of Hugh Gillespie at his peak, the sum of these various elements is a unique and outstanding series of performances. 


Hughie Gillespie track (Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie) –