Mary McDonagh, Irish fiddler and piano player, dead at 87

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Mary McDonagh a nimble-fingered fiddler and piano player, grew up in a Wrigleyville home filled with traditional Irish music. | Family photo

Mary McDonagh jammed with the Neville Brothers, mentored world-famous fiddler Liz Carroll and danced at the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair.

A nimble-fingered fiddler and piano player, she grew up in a Wrigleyville home filled with traditional Irish music, thanks to her father, James Donnelly, a fiddler from Cloone, County Leitrim.

Music was his love, but the CTA paid the bills. Like many Irish immigrants of the 1920s, he landed a job as an L conductor. And like many other Irish “girls,” her mother, Delia O’Malley from Kilmeena, County Mayo, worked as a maid for a well-to-do Chicago family.

Wrigleyville was not a land of beer and honeys in those days. It was a tougher neighborhood, one where Mary and other little kids earned pocket change through a prepubescent protection racket.

“My Aunt Mary and my mother used to watch peoples’ cars when they came to the ballgame,” said her nephew, Jim Nally. “They said, ‘Mister, I’ll watch your car for a dime or a quarter. If you give me a dime or a quarter, your car will be the same as when you left it.’ ”

The last time the Cubs were in the World Series, “Aunt Mary remembered going over in 1945 and seeing people sleeping in line,” Jim Nally said. “People were there the night before the World Series game and were camped out so they could be in line for tickets.”

There was always music in the Donnelly home at Addison and Fremont. After his day’s work, her father would break out the fiddle. Other Irish immigrant newcomers — some of whom bunked with the Donnellys until they gained a foothold in America — would join in.

“All these people had regular day jobs,” Jim Nally said. “Music was their passion.”

Mrs. McDonagh, 87, died July 27 in hospice care at Glenview Terrace. nursing home in Glenview.

Growing up, the “trad” tunes she heard had more in common with American country music than stage-Irish songs like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” with its ties to Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville. Traditional Irish melodies can be hundreds of years old, handed down orally through generations of musicians who thwarted English laws intended to stamp out Irish culture, language and the Catholic religion.

Mary McDonagh with her husband Pat. | Family photo

She studied step-dancing with Pat Roche and performed at the Century of Progress World’s Fair, her nephew said. In the 1940s, she won Chicago’s Morris B. Sachs’ Amateur Hour. In the 1950s, she toured and performed in Ireland.

She graduated from Immaculata High School and married Pat McDonagh, a football player from Ballyglass, County Mayo. “He had hands like baseball mitts,” her nephew said.

In her day job, she worked as a travel agent at Ryan’s Regent Travel & Tours in Edison Park. It kept her in touch with the Irish community and musicians.

“She knew who was coming from Ireland, who was going to Ireland,” said Martin McCormack of the group Switchback.

The travel business enabled her to tour places like Seoul, where she was transfixed by the stringed instruments of Korean music.

On nights and weekends,Mrs. McDonagh played at Irish events and clubs, sometimes with influential Irish musician Terry “Cuz” Teahan. Often, she sat in on the informal Irish musicians’ sessions. Mrs. McDonagh also appeared on Studs Terkel’s WFMT radio program.

“She knew the [old] tunes, really, better than almost everybody,” said world-renowned Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, who appreciated her piano-playing as much as her fiddling. “Good chords, terrific rhythm. Her backing in a session was as good as it got. . . . She was one of the few women sitting in in those sessions. She had a great attitude. She really enjoyed it.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mrs. McDonagh toured the Midwest with the Wailin’ Banshees, a group formed with McCormack, Bertie McMahon and Brian FitzGerald, from the family that owns FitzGerald’s nightclub in Berwyn. She and McMahon then hovered around 60, while FitzGerald and McCormack were in their 20s.

“People referred to her as the ‘Queen Banshee,’ ’’ McCormack said.

“She was equally gifted on the violin and the keyboard,” FitzGerald said. “She had the true Irish flavoring.”

Outgoing and unintimidated, she once jammed with Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers, her nephew said. “They just spent a good deal of time talking about the music and the similarity between the country, Louisiana music, and the Irish music. She thought he had a really beautiful voice.”

She was an early member of Chicago’s Irish Musicians Association, founded more than 50 years ago.

Mrs. McDonagh is survived by many nieces and nephews. At Cooney’s Funeral Home, they tucked her fiddle into her green casket. A funeral Mass is planned for 11:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Juliana Church, 7200 N. Osceola.

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