McHugh, Roger Joseph (1908–87), writer, academic, and republican, was born 24 July 1908 at Sunnyside, Sutton, Co. Dublin, son of Cornelius McHugh, tea taster, and Eveleen McHugh (née Burke). After early education in Athlone, Co. Westmeath, and Synge St. CBS, Dublin, he studied in UCD on a county-council scholarship. Active in student publications and dramatics, he graduated BA with honours in English and modern history (1928), MA (1929), and H.Dip.Ed. (1930). A member of the UCD lecturing staff through the 1930s and 1940s, on earning his doctorate (1947) he was appointed statutory lecturer in English (1947–65). He wrote two plays, each produced at the Abbey theatre, based on historical subjects against the background of the nineteenth-century Fenian movement: ‘Trial at Green Street courthouse’ (produced January 1941, published 1945) and ‘Rossa’ (produced March 1945, published 1948); the latter was awarded the 1945 Abbey theatre prize for an historical play. A contributor of critical essays and theatre reviews to The Bell, in retrospective commentary he would laud the journal's path-breaking importance as an urbane and liberal forum within the cultural malaise of 1940s Ireland. His trenchant critique of the artistic policy and production standards of the Abbey under the management of Ernest Blythe (qv) in the late 1940s resulted in his being banned from attendance. A republican, he was close to leading figures in Sinn Féin and served on several support committees for IRA volunteers imprisoned in Ireland and Britain (some on capital charges) for activities during the 1938–9 bombing campaign and the emergency. After the executions in Birmingham of two such prisoners, Peter Barnes (qv) and James McCormack, he helped launch the short-lived republican political party Córas na Poblachta (February 1940). In July 1941 a cottage owned by McHugh in Glencree, Co. Wicklow, and available as a safe house to IRA volunteers, was used by the army's northern command to interrogate army chief of staff Stephen Hayes (qv), under suspicion of informing to government authorities. McHugh was subsequently arrested in the mass roundup of republican activists, and interned in the Curragh, Co. Kildare.
McHugh was a supporter of Clann na Poblachta from its foundation (1946); after suffering defeat by two votes in a disputed count in a 1952 by-election, he was returned as an NUI member to Seanad Éireann (1954–7). In separate 1956 seanad speeches he supported abolition of the death penalty, and, in response to the Suez crisis, was one of the first public representatives to advocate Ireland's participation in a UN peacekeeping force. A long-serving member of the UCD governing body, and a member of the NUI senate (1954–72), he was an implacable foe of the policy directions of UCD president Michael Tierney (qv). A leading member of the NUI graduates association and of the editorial board of its outspoken organ, University Review, McHugh was the most prominent internal opponent to Tierney's energetically pursued initiative to move UCD from its city centre location to a suburban site in Belfield, arguing for the reciprocal social, cultural, and intellectual benefits to both college and city of a central location. Numbered among the small band of scholars who pioneered critical attention to Irish writing in English as a distinct academic discipline, as UCD professor of English (1965–7) he inaugurated a postgraduate course in Anglo-Irish literature, before serving as the college's first professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama (1967–78). At various times he was visiting professor at universities in the USA, England, Scandinavia, Japan, and the USSR.
McHugh's scholarly publications treated Irish nationalist history, and literary history and criticism. He wrote a biography (1936) of Henry Grattan (qv); edited Carlow in ‘98 (1949), the autobiography of an eyewitness to the 1798 insurrection, William Farrell (reissued as Voice of rebellion: Carlow 1798 (1998)); and edited Dublin in 1916 (1966), a valuable anthology of contemporary accounts of the Easter rising by observers and participants across the political spectrum. The introduction to his edited selection Newman on university education (1944), and his pursuant article ‘The years in Ireland’, published in A tribute to Newman: essays on aspects of his life and thought (1945) (edited by Tierney), initiated a favourable reassessment of the legacy of John Henry Newman (qv) as an educational theorist, and of his contribution to Irish intellectual life. While McHugh allied with Tierney in upholding Newman's idea of liberal education against the recent utilitarian and chauvinistic critique of Timothy Corcoran (qv), he objected to the extent of Tierney's appropriation of Newman to his own purposes. McHugh edited W. B. Yeats: letters to Katharine Tynan (1953), and Ah, sweet dancer (1970), the correspondence of W. B. Yeats (qv) and Margot Ruddock. With Philip Edwards he edited the compendium Jonathan Swift 1667–1967: a Dublin tercentenary tribute (1967). His most important critical work, Short history of Anglo-Irish literature: from its origins to the present day (1982), co-written with Maurice Harmon, became a standard text, representing its subject as a bifurcated tradition, product of the intermixture of two distinct and rival cultures, the Gaelic and the English. He edited anthologies of English and Anglo-Irish poetry and prose, including those for the Irish secondary-level-examinations syllabuses, and contributed articles to encyclopedias, to scholarly journals and compendia, and to numerous Irish and overseas periodicals. A tributary Festschrift published on his retirement (Image and illusion (1979), cited below) includes a frontispiece portrait photograph and a comprehensive bibliography.
Chairman of the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature, McHugh was also member of the American Committee for Irish Studies, the Irish Playwrights Association, the Society of Authors, and the Irish Association for Civil Liberties. Highly opinionated, formidable in public debate, he was scrupulously fair in his personal dealings, and an enthralling dinner-table raconteur. He married (1942) Patricia Kelly; they had three daughters and two sons, and resided on Anglesea Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin. He died 1 January 1987 in Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin, and is buried in Shanganagh cemetery.