KATHLEEN BOYLE is trying to work out why it’s taken so long to make her first appearance on a Jimmy McHugh Memorial Concert. The Glasgow-born pianist and accordionist, who for the past 12 years has been touring across the world with the hugely popular Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies, spent every Monday from the age of 13 years old playing in Jimmy McHugh’s famous session at Sharkey’s Bar on Glasgow’s south side and there was a strong connection between her family and the McHughs.

Jimmy McHugh died in 1999 and every January since 2000 his son Brendan has organised a concert in his memory in Glasgow, inviting some of Ireland’s best musicians to play in what is essentially a weekend festival. As well as the concert, which this year has moved back to its original venue in the Mitchell Theatre, there are all-night tune sessions in Jury’s Inn and a continuation back in Jimmy’s Monday night refuge, Sharkey’s.

“All the Irish musicians know about the concert,” says Boyle down the line from Arizona, where Cherish the Ladies’ pre-Christmas tour is almost coming to an end. “There have been one or two years when the concert’s gone ahead during Celtic Connections and the musicians who are over for the festival have gone out of their way to get to Jury’s for a tune because they knew there would be a lot of great players around. It’s a fantastic tribute to Jimmy and it’s great that Brendan’s been able to continue putting it on for all these years now.”

Loading article content

Boyle’s reason for absence to date is partly down to commitments with Cherish the Ladies, who have a series of concerts in Ireland every January as they make their way towards Celtic Connections. She is, though, very proud that what she now does for a living was partly instilled in her through the connection with the McHugh family.

“My dad’s a great box player and he and his cousin Dinny and another musician from Donegal, Danny Duffy, used to go along to Sharkey’s,” says Boyle. “When I was 13 my dad, who’s self-taught, reckoned it was time for me to join the session. And it was a great way to learn music, very natural. Jimmy would be there, of course, and he’d always take time to sit with me and show me the intricacies of a tune, and then I’d record the tunes that were being played and go home and learn them.”

McHugh, who was once described as a beacon for Irish music in Glasgow by the former Bothy Band fiddler Paddy Glackin, became a big influence on the young Boyle and was able to let her hear her grandfather, Donegal fiddler Neillidh Boyle, whom she never met, by recording the three 78 rpm discs Neillidh made back in Ireland onto a cassette tape.

“It was typical of Jimmy that, as well as the six tracks he recorded of Neillidh, he recorded a Dick Gaughan album onto the other side of the tape so that he could introduce me to someone else he thought I should listen to,” she says. “I’ll always remember that. He had a huge collection of records, LPs as well as 78s, and he was very, very encouraging. If my dad couldn’t make it along to Sharkey’s through work, Jimmy would come and collect me in his camper van so I didn’t miss a session.”

Boyle left school just in time to be among the first intake of students onto the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s traditional music course. The night before her audition she was round at the McHughs’ house so that Jimmy could take her through her final run-through in preparation.

“The Glasgow-Irish community as a whole was really proud that this kid who had been brought up playing Irish music was going on to study at a conservatoire and it didn’t matter that this was a Scottish music course because Jimmy had a huge interest in Scottish music,” she says.

“Jimmy’s best remembered as a fiddle player but he also played a three-row button accordion and he used to have a tune with the great Highland box player Bobby MacLeod from time to time.

"He was also really fond of Shetland music and knew and listened to people like Tom Anderson and Willie Hunter, so just being around him was an education in itself.”

McHugh didn’t live to see his protege join Cherish the Ladies but it seems fair to assume that his response to Boyle’s career move would have been as enthusiastic as the rest of Glasgow’s Irish diaspora.

The band’s arrival as virtual unknowns on the first Celtic Connections programme in 1994, when they opened and all but hijacked (in the nicest possible way) Irish band De Dannan’s concert, has passed into legend. Boyle was still at school at the time and didn’t see that concert, although she remembers being really excited to see accordionist Sharon Shannon at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall at the same festival and caught up with “Cherish” a year or two later when they played one of Celtic Connections’ schools concerts.

“I’d heard quite a lot about them by that time because all the Glasgow Irish community was raving about them,” she says. “It never really occurred to me the first time I saw them that I’d end up playing with them but a few years later Joanie [Madden, the exuberant band leader] got in touch and asked if I’d be interested. She didn’t have to ask twice.”

These days Boyle spends much of the year touring with the band she once admired from a seat in the auditorium. As well as the US and Irish tours either side of the festive season, there are concerts throughout the spring, late summer and autumn. Last year the band toured Japan for the first time and Boyle is looking forward to the band’s first visit to Newfoundland later this year. There’s also the not inconsiderable matter of the annual Cherish the Ladies cruise, which Joanie Madden herself organises and which Boyle describes as “like Celtic Connections on water”.

In her down time Boyle lives partly in Glasgow and partly back in the family homeland in Donegal, where she plays with her father’s band and spends time looking into old music collections or writing new music of her own.

“I find Donegal quite inspiring,” she says. “There’s a different pace to life there compared to Glasgow, although in the summer all you hear are Glasgow accents.

"It’s good to get back to the source of the music as well. In a way, I’ve taken what I learned in these sessions with Jimmy McHugh in Sharkey’s across the world but what I’m always reminded of in playing with Cherish the Ladies is that what we play is essentially dance music. Dancing is a big part of a Cherish the Ladies concert and we have the most phenomenal dancers who make the dancing a percussive and visual spectacle, and it’s great fun playing for them. There’s a lot of travelling and that can be hard but when you get out on to the stage, that makes everything worthwhile.”

The Jimmy McHugh Memorial Concert is at the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow on Saturday, January 13. Cherish the Ladies appear at Celtic Connections 25th Anniversary Concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thursday, January 18.