Hail to the Chieftains: Paddy Moloney

Candy Schwartz
Photo by Candy Schwartz via Flickr

August 2015

Nobody had ever made a living playing Irish traditional instrumental music so Paddy Moloney followed his mother’s advice and got himself a day job. He worked from nine to five as a clerk at a Dublin building supplies firm and spent his evenings and weekends playing tin whistle and uilleann pipes at community halls and house parties around Ireland. He experimented with different combinations of instruments in trios and quartets until he found a sound he liked well enough to record.

The resulting album, The Chieftains I, was released in 1963 when Moloney was 25. He played pipes while the other quartet members played fiddle, tin whistle, wooden flute, and bodhrán percussion. Four albums and 12 years later, the members of this group that Time magazine called “Ireland’s leading folk band” were finally able to give up their day jobs. “When Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers put out Irish songs that people didn’t know, they did a great job,” said Moloney. “I always felt, ‘Damn it, this music of ours deserves the same. I want to play Carnegie Hall and the Albert Hall.’”

Their breakthrough came when their London agent negotiated a contract for the Chieftains to record the soundtrack music for the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon. The movie was panned by the critics but the soundtrack won the group an Oscar for best original score. Chieftains recordings previously released on a small independent mail-order Irish label were picked up by Island Records and distributed throughout the United Kingdom and North America. Carnegie Hall and the Albert Hall beckoned. The Chieftains were on their way. By that time, the group had grown to seven players, with a second fiddle, gut-stringed Irish harp and concertina augmenting the original sound. They had also added vocals to the mix.

When I talked to Moloney in 1983, the Chieftains had toured internationally and recorded with the likes of Mick Jagger, Art Garfunkel, Paul McCartney and Mike Oldfield. But that’s not to say the group had sold out and turned pop. On the contrary, they had remained resolutely traditional while giving their high-profile guest stars an opportunity to – in some manner – get in touch with their Celtic roots. It was all part of a process in which the Chieftains brought their music from the kitchens and pubs of Ireland to the wider world beyond, and the wider world reciprocated by giving the group rhythms and melodies they could incorporate into their music without losing the fundamental essence of Irish tradition.

So, for example, when the Chieftains kicked up their heels on a hoedown version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” at Willie Nelson’s Opry House in Austin, Texas, they weren’t trying to reinvent themselves as a country band. “It was just a fun thing we did on a ‘Jingle Jangle’ piano for a bit of craic,” said Moloney. “The tune is actually an old Irish song called ‘Did You Wash Your Father’s Shirt, Did You Wash it Clean?’”

I asked him why the Chieftains had found favour with audiences all over the world? “Because the appeal of the music is universal and because we give them the real stuff, the roots and the folk feeling of it all,” said Moloney. “I’ve believed in it ever since I started playing it at the age of five. The music is so powerful, so rich and varied. It’s strong and it really carries. We try to get it across in its true form, just as if we were sitting at home.”

At that point, the band was touring for more than six months a year, which was hard on family life, Moloney said. “It’s a terrible situation for any family. But we’re sort of groomed into it now because it started small, 20 years ago, and just grew and grew. The wives are very understanding, you know.”

Had their lifestyles changed because of their success? “Not really,” said Moloney. “We’re still living in the same sorts of houses and driving the same kinds of cars. I drive a Toyota Land Cruiser, which bounces around all over the place. But I have bought a new house out near Glendalough (30 km south of Dublin), up in the mountains in a place called Annamoe, because they’re knocking down me old house in Dublin for road widening. It’s just an ordinary three-bedroom house but the view is just incredible. I’m going to retire there eventually.”

Moloney was 45 when we did that interview, so he wasn’t quite ready for retirement yet. Next in store for the band was a pending tour of China, which he said would be one of the highlights of his career. “I’m going to a Chinese restaurant tonight to get into practice,” he joked. “But seriously, we’re cashing in on this trip in a big way. I’m bringing along a few extra musicians with the band, and also bringing a film crew to shoot it for television, plus we’re doing a book and an album. And I’ve arranged some pieces of music for some Chinese musicians to play at each concert.”

Moloney never did retire. Twenty nine years later, in 2012, the Chieftains celebrated their 50th anniversary with an album of collaborations with such younger talents as Bon Iver, the Decembrists, Low Anthem, the Civil Wars and Pistol Annies. The following year, they performed Van Morrison’s “Moondance” live with Canada’s guitar-strumming astronaut Chris Hadfield while they were at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Hadfield was aboard the International Space Station. In 2014, they played 18 concerts in the United States and three in Europe. For 2015, they had 18 concert dates lined up for the United States and their website encouraged fans to keep checking back for new dates that would be added.

Moloney, who turned 76 in 2014 and by then was the only original Chieftain still performing, told The New York Times he sometimes thought about retiring, but not very seriously. “Somebody asked my wife one time, is he ever going to retire – this is about 10 years ago – and she said, ‘I think he’s in rehearsal for retirement.’ I think for me, I’ll be going down with my boots on. I can’t be slowing down. There’s work to be done and music to be made, and I love it all.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015


Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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