Obituary: Bernard McHugh, engineer and musician

Highways engineer who played Irish music around the world. Picture: Contributed
Highways engineer who played Irish music around the world. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 21 March, 1943, in Mortlake, Surrey. Died: 12 October, 2014, in Addlestone, Surrey.

Bernard McHugh’s career “day job” was as a London council highways engineer, a much-loved, cheery chap in a luminous vest checking the safety of streets and pavements, latterly in the Borough of Richmond upon Thames and Twickenham. Most business owners and local residents, including the late Lord Attenborough, knew him by his first name.

By night, however, and during council holidays – Christmas, Easter, bank holiday weekends – Bernard McHugh was an Irish rover. Although born in England, he was the child of Irish parents and travelled the world during every moment of his time off to sing, play guitar, banjo (both left-handed) and virtuoso harmonica to Irish diaspora audiences, mostly in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Visually impaired since childhood, with high myopia, his Irish eyes were always smiling but he couldn’t see his audiences as well as they could see him.

Bernard McHugh was one of the first members of the London-based Irish Variety Show, a small troupe of singers, musicians and dancers who pop up in theatres, clubs and Irish pubs around the world to remind folks of Irish origin of their roots, music and culture. Although he was born in Mortlake just outside London, his parents were Irish and he felt Irish to the core.

And so, having learned to play music and having been born with the gift of the blarney, he joined the touring show. Apart from their expenses, the money they earned on the road went to charity, not least to support homeless Irish people in London or Ireland. In London, he played and sang in pubs and clubs, mostly Irish music but also a mean blues harmonica.

Carrying a bag full of harmonicas in various keys, his favourite London “gig” was in the Irish-run Watermans Arms in Richmond upon Thames, where he was equally at home backing blues singers as the opera soprano Clementine Lovell.

McHugh had been one of the 1985 founders of the Irish Variety Show, produced by the Irish comic Barry Collins of Cork, initially to raise money for an Irish homeless project in Cricklewood, north-west London. It started as a one-off event but the troupe is still going, almost 30 years on, with Bernard participating until last year.

“Throughout the years, Bernard was a bedrock of the Irish Variety Show …a virtuoso on the harmonica, “Barry Collins said.

“He toured with the show from the icy winds blowing through Invercargill, New Zealand, one of the southerly towns in the world, up to Wellington where we entertained the New Zealand prime minister of the day, and on to Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne and many one-horse towns all over New South Wales -- his favourite was Wagga Wagga because it sent him into fits of giggles -- and on to North America two or three times a year; from Miami to Boston, all up the east coast, on to Chicago and the Mid-West and finally to California. Bernard did his last show playing to over 1,200 people on St Patrick’s Day 2013 in Sacramento.”

In all, Bernard and the Show, usually consisting of only five or six players, have raised more than $5 million for charitable causes. For that, they were honoured by the then Irish President Mary McAleese for helping the Irish diaspora.

James Bernard McHugh was born in Mortlake, Surrey, in 1943 to Irish immigrant parents, his father from Co Roscommon and his mother from Co Cavan. Suffering from high myopia, he was an outpatient at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, for much of his life. He attended St Mary Magdalene Primary School in Mortlake, and later moved on to what was then known as the Saint Edward the Confessor School in Richmond, now Christ’s School.

From school, he started as a trainee electrician when he was 15 but soon found a job in local government as a highways engineer, working in Ealing, Westminster and Camden before serving in Richmond until his retirement.

He rowed and coxed for Thames Tradesmen Rowing Club, held the post of Steward of Henley Regatta and was highly active in Addlestone Victoria Park Bowls Club and supporting other visually impaired competitors at Knaphill Bowing Club in Woking, Surrey. He lived most of his life near the famous gardens in Kew until moving to Addlestone, Surrey, five years ago.

“I don’t think Bernard separated work and pleasure/music; the two were very much part of him and his perception of life,” his wife June said.

“He equally loved an audience on stage and the interactions with people in his local community.” In his eulogy, one of his sons, Adrian, recalled listening to live music in a pub in Temple Bar, Dublin, after his mum and dad went shopping.

“The pub suddenly started to empty so I went outside to see what was happening. Dad had brought the whole of Temple Bar to a standstill with his harmonica. The ovation was rapturous. I shed tears of pride that day.”

Bernard McHugh was not only a passionate Chelsea fan but was well known to the players and as something of a talisman to other fans. The Chelsea mascot Stamford the Lion used to seek him out and hug him. In a message read at his funeral, former Chelsea player and manager Gianluca Vialli said: “Bernard, I know you are now in a better place but you will be deeply missed. Your lifelong support for Chelsea was remarkable and your encouragement for the Mighty Blues at Stamford Bridge was one of a true fan. Rest in peace.”

Bernard McHugh died in a nursing home near his home in Addlestone. He had a stroke in January, which left him blind, and he also suffered from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, June, and sons Adrian, a nursery school teacher, and Damian, a PGA golf coach in China. The family was hit by further tragedy a week after Bernard’s funeral in Surrey; Damian’s 25-year-old girlfriend Jinny was killed in China when a bullzdozer fell off a transporter onto her car.