Maida Sugrue (born Mary McQuinn in ~1937) was raised in the townland of Fiddane, Ballyegan, Nohaval Parish, near Gortatlea, Ballymacelligott, Kerry, on the “Low Road” between Castleisland and Tralee. The McQuinns were a musical family: her father played the concertina and accordion, and her uncle John McQuinn was a well-considered flute, piccolo, and concertina player. Two neighbors, brothers Jim and Matty Sullivan of nearby Maglass, would sometimes visit their home in the evenings to play tunes. Jim saw Maida’s interest in the music and let her try a tune on his fiddle, and upon seeing that her desire to play was in earnest, gave her the loan of his fiddle on which to learn. She soon showed great promise, and when she was about twelve years old the renowned Pádraig O’Keeffe was enlisted to take her on as his pupil.
She recalls Pádraig’s sporadic visits with fondness. Whenever he happened to be travelling through the area he would stop in to the McQuinn home. She remembers him writing out tunes in his own tablature, but he encouraged her to learn standard notation as well. She recalls that he was easy-going and funny and a great teacher. Often he would come late at night when the children were already in bed, and while her mother made him a bite to eat he would play the fiddle. The family all loved his visits and could listen to him playing forever. Lessons with Pádraig continued for about three years.
In her teens, her musicianship was already highly regarded and she took part in many local music and singing competitions. She won the very first “Crock of Gold” competition put on by the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) in Tralee, and she was briefly a featured singer for the original lineup of the Brosna Ceili Band. However, subject to the economics of rural Ireland at that time, she emigrated Chicago in December, 1952. She was “sponsored out” by a cousin who happened to be a sister-in-law of Cuz Teahan. Neither were playing much music at that time, but upon meeting, they bonded over their shared tradition and both having been students of Pádraig. Cuz was delighted to hear stories of and new tunes from his old teacher. Inspired by this new connection, they struck up a musical partnership.
In Cuz’s book The Road to Glountane, he recalls:
Maida is an excellent musician and step dancer. She can sing anything in any style and she knows the Gaelic. You can really hear O’Keeffe’s style in Maida Sugrue’s playing. You might have four or five fiddles and most of them are carbon copies of each other, but when their bows are going down, hers is going up. O’Keeffe started most of his music with an up, and the way he taught was you had to keep your right hand very close to your side. You had to keep your right elbow almost on your hip, and bow with your wrist pressed firm. You press the strings firmly at right-angles with your left hand so there wouldn’t be any vibrations, and keep your thumb away from the finger-board. You hold the fiddle with your chin – not the wrist. If you were persistent in bowing widely, he’d tie a cord around you to hold your arm in close.
Maida also played and sang with the live band that performed on Jack Hegarty’s Irish Hour radio program each week. For a while, after marrying Denny Sugrue in 1957, she became less active in Irish music circles, but when her children were grown she started to perform publicly again. She and Cuz formed a group with two other fiddlers, Úna McGlew and Mary McDonagh, that played in the Chicago area for some time.
In 1985 she recorded Maida: An Irish Country Girl, an LP of songs, a number of which are her own compositions. Sadly, it was a limited run and nigh impossible to find now.
Though now retired from performing, Maida is currently still involved in the Chicago Irish music community, appearing at local events on occasion. She recently attended the Patrick O’Keeffe Festival in Castleisland, to great acclaim. She spoke and played at the Fiddle Meitheal where Paddy Jones, a fellow pupil of Pádraig’s, was delighted to meet her.
Two tracks from the album Traditional Irish Music In America: Chicago. She plays The Queen’s Polka (aka The Top of Maol) and sings Táimse im’ Chodladh (I Am Asleep).