Tommy Moffit, native of County Roscommon, self-taught accordion player and band leader whose name is synonymous with Irish radio in Philadelphia, died on Tuesday, May 11 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 79.
Until he retired three years ago, Moffit spent 30 years playing three or four nights a week with his Tommy Moffit Band at various locations throughout the area.
“He was a bartender who did music on the side but you would have thought music was his fulltime job,” says his daughter, Catherine Moffit. “He played at the Irish Center, at Emmett’s Place in Oxford Circle, at all the ceilis, in basements. There was a time when if you were Irish, you had Tommy Moffit in your basement one Friday night.”
Moffit first picked up the button accordion when he arrived in the Philadelphia area after the deaths of his parents within three months of one another. He and his sister stayed with their accordion-playing uncle, Tom McDonough, who owned the Erin Pub in Atlantic City. “He learned to play by ear,” says his daughter. “He also taught himself to play a little tin whistle.”
Moffit worked for a time at the Penn Fruit Company, then bought his own bar, Moffit’s Café, at Fifth and Cortland streets in Philadelphia. After he sold that, he worked as a bartender at Bud’s on Rhawn Street. “He was an excellent bartender,” says his friend and former band mate, Vince Gallagher, president of the Irish Center. “That’s where his people skills came out. You could confide in him. If you had something you didn’t want anyone to know about, Tommy Moffit would be the man to talk to because it never went any further. He was a real gentleman. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt anyone. And he helped a lot of people, but he wouldn’t talk about it. He was a private man, but he was also very outgoing. Even after his retirement Tommy was everywhere. The whole world knew him.”
His daughter agrees, though she admits there was a time when being the child of the famous Tommy Moffit wasn’t advantageous. “There was no way any of us could sneak around because everyone knew Tommy Moffit—everybody knew my Dad,” she said, laughing.
It would have been hard not to. He played for “19 years straight” at the Irish Center ceilis, from the time it was the only place to get a drink on a Sunday night. “If you fainted you wouldn’t fall over, it was packed to the gills,” recalls Gallagher. “Tommy used to play till one or two in the morning and people would dance like hell all night long. Then everyone would hang out at the bar and sing for two more hours.”
Moffit was a fixture at Emmett’s, which continued to draw dancers out on weekends as the neighborhood became less and less Irish. At a party celebrating Moffit’s retirement from his Sunday radio show on WTMR 800AM four years ago, some of his regulars included Jewish couples from the nearby adult center. “We’re not Irish but we love Irish music,” said Anita Auerbach at the time. “And Tommy lets us get up and sing.” The Tommy Moffit Band came out of retirement in 2008 when Emmett’s hosted its last ceili; owner Emmett Ruane retired and shuttered this little piece of Irish history in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall.
From 1974 to 2006, when he wasn’t playing Irish traditional music himself, Moffit was playing tracks from Irish music CDs on his Sunday morning radio show which he passed it on to old friend and chosen heir, Marianne MacDonald. “He was digging into his own pocket to keep it going; a lot of people didn’t know about that,” says Gallagher, whose Vince Gallagher’s Irish Radio Hour aired right before Moffit’s. “He loved that radio station and he didn’t want to leave, but it was financially impossible to keep it going.” Today, Gallagher and MacDonald can only continue the tradition by running PBS-style radiothons twice a year. “That show was one of the loves of his life.”
Those who knew him well or slightly all said the same thing about the man from Roscommon: he was a gentleman, a gentle man, with a wry sense of humor, who always made them feel important.
“He had an ability to make everyone he was talking to feel like his closest friend, like you were the only person in the room, ” says Michael Bradley, who became friends with Moffit as the two worked together on the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Bradley is the parade director; Moffit did color commentary in the CBS3 booth on parade day.
Moffit’s ubiquity on the Irish scene almost worked against him when it came to being honored, says Bradley. “In 2006 we were talking about who should be grand marshal and Tommy’s name came up. He’d been around so much, everyone thought he’d already been grand marshal and he hadn’t. He’d sit there year after year as one person after the other was chosen and he didn’t say anything. Of course, when we realized, he was the unanimous choice.”
Bradley, who frequently referred to Moffit as his “godfather,’ says the nickname actually came from his teenaged son, Mickey. “I invited Tommy to my son’s high school graduation party. He couldn’t make it down the stairs, so he stayed up in the living room and one by one people lined up just to talk to him. One of my son’s friends asked him who the guy was everyone was lining up to see. Mickey said, ‘Oh, he’s like the Irish ‘Godfather’—everyone comes to see him. He’s old, but he’s the coolest guy you’ve ever met.’”
Moffit, whose wife, Peggy Harrington, preceded him in death, was a Korean War veteran, father of three–son, Thomas; daughters Catherine and Mary Matraszek—grandfather of five and great-grandfather of two. He was a co-founder of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann of the Delaware Valley and was inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Mid-Atlantic Hall of Fame.
Though he lived in the US most of his life, he “missed his home really bad,” says his daughter. Catherine. “He went home every year until about three years ago. He wanted to go back one last time and we were actually supposed to leave on Sunday for Ireland. That didn’t turn out but. . .you know what, he’s there now, looking down on Roscommon and smiling.”
A viewing will be held Friday night from 6-9 PM at St. Joseph’s Church, 7631 Waters Road, Cheltenham, and after 8:30 AM on Saturday, May 15, at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, 100 Old Soliders Road, Cheltenham, where a funeral mass will follow at 10 AM. Burial will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham.
Mass cards can be sent to the Moffit family in care of Cathy Moffit.
3672 Whitehall Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19114.
Donations in Tommy’s name may be made to:
The Little Sisters of the Poor
Holy Family Home
3800 Chester Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143