Paddy Moloney, who died at the age of 83, was one of the most important figures in the revival and popularization of Irish folk music. A gifted musician, composer and arranger, Moloney led the Chieftains for six decades. Over 44 albums and countless live and filmed appearances, the group has become an international watchword for Irish folk music.
Moloney was born in North Dublin in 1938, and the music he heard at home quickly became ubiquitous to him. Naturally musical, he developed an inventiveness in the ornamentation of tunes, which was then structured by singing lessons at school, where he learned the solfa system of musical transcription (using do, re, mi etc au instead of point notation). One of his classmates there was John Sheehan, later Dubliners.
Moloney was about six years old when his mother bought him a tin whistle. A few years later, he persuaded his parents to buy him a set of uillean (“elbow”) pipes, the Irish bagpipes. Air is conducted through the hoses by a set of bellows attached around the waist and an arm (and therefore actuated by the elbow), meaning they are usually played while seated. Soft toned, they are quieter than the Great Highland [Scottish] bagpipes and are best suited to be played indoors.
Irish folk music was not then the universally recognized traditional art form that Moloney would have contributed so much to its future. Its adoption by the nationalist movement had created a preservation of music within narrow, orthodox circles of devotees – national competitions, with their highly regulated approach to performance and repertoire, continue to dominate traditional Irish music – while the number of pipers was decreasing.
Moloney took lessons from Leo Rowsome (1903-1970), whose lifelong dedication to building and playing pipes, as well as training and nurturing young players, were important in ensuring the survival of the instrument. In 1991, Moloney said there were “only a handful” of pipers when he started, but he was encouraged by the proliferation of talented young players. “There are no fears about the art of dying on the bagpipe. “
He quickly entered competitions and proudly remembered being hoisted onto Rowsome’s shoulder when he won four All-Ireland medals for his piping. He was a very accomplished musician, who experimented with many other instruments, but there was no career in traditional music. Leaving school at 16, he rose through the ranks in the offices of a supplier of builders, playing music as a hobby among informal groups of musicians around Dublin.
Its breakthrough was made thanks to the composer Seán Ó Riada, who became musical director of the Abbey Theater in 1955. Ó Riada was interested in classical composition based on traditional music, comparable to the work of Bartók and Dvořák. In 1959 he composed a film on the founding of the Republic of Ireland, Setting Éire, which launched a series of radio shows on Irish musical heritage.
Ó Riada created the group Ceoltóiri Chualann in 1961, with the aim of presenting harmonic arrangements, rather than unison ensembles playing folk songs, dance tunes and slow tunes, and to rekindle interest in the great 18th century harpist / composer Turlough O’Carolan. Moloney, on whistle and pipes, was accompanied by his friend Sean Potts on whistle. They were also joined by Peadar Mercier, playing bodhrán and bone percussion, violinist Sean Keane and flautist Michael Tubridy.
Riada’s classic conception of music gave his sparse arrangements an antique sound. In the absence of the metal-string harp he wanted, Ó Riada played the harpsichord instead.
In addition to bringing together musicians, Ó Riada set the stage for what Moloney would accomplish next. The ambitious and creative Moloney launched the Chieftains in 1962 following an invitation from Guinness heir Garech Browne to arrange and record an album for his new label, Claddagh. The group consisted of Moloney, Potts, Tubridy, Martin Fay (violin) and David Fallon (bodhrán). Keane joined soon after and Mercier took over from Fallon.
Moloney applied his fruitful invention to arrangements and production, pushing further in the direction Riada had set out. The project was initially reserved for recording. The band did not perform publicly together until 1964, although they all continued to perform locally.
Browne was an aristocratic playboy, whose lavish showbiz lifestyle introduced Moloney to many visiting celebrities. Claddagh took off and Browne recruited Moloney to work for him. The whole band had full-time jobs, and performances or recordings had to be scheduled around those. It wasn’t until 1975, after a remarkably successful concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, that their new manager persuaded them to go fully professional.
Moloney then decided that this manager was surplus to needs because Moloney was already managing the group. Gabriel Donohue, later a member of the touring band, praised Moloney’s “kindness and respect for your fellow musicians” and “the business acumen that made paychecks come in for everyone.”
These early albums show Moloney’s rapidly developing arranging skills as well as his talent as a player. It broadened and realized the vision and sound of Ó Riada. A turning point came with Heads 4 (1973), which marked the debut of Derek Bell’s group, born in Belfast.
The classically trained Bell had been oboist and harpist for the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. He brought the harp sound to which Riada had aspired, and his debut was marked by an interpretation of Ó Riada’s composition “Women of Ireland” (“Mná na hÉireann”).
This track appeared on the Stanley Kubrick soundtrack Barry lyndon (1975), opening another door for Moloney and the group. Their music has appeared in numerous films, and its inclusion in Rob Roy (1995) may have encouraged the frequent use of Irish pipes in films set in Scotland.
The arrival of Bell gave Moloney greater reach with his arrangements. Donohue called Bell the “secret weapon” of the group, able to take Moloney’s skeletal sol-fa arrangement, harmonize it, arrange it, and write it down. His knowledge of the harp also allowed further investigation into O’Carolan’s music. This, along with his use of the hammered dulcimer to recreate the ancient timpán, completed what Donohue called the group’s “medieval consort sound”. He consolidated an unspoken romantic nationalism.
This unlocking of creativity also saw Moloney’s own compositions appear in the repertoire. The panoramic “Retreat of Bonaparte”, on The Chefs 6: Bonaparte’s retreat (1975) —their debut album as a professional group — included Moloney’s “The March to Victory” in their assemblage of pieces from or about the Napoleonic campaigns and the Irish exiles involved in them. (The album also featured “The Rights of Man,” a traditional hornpipe named after Thomas Paine’s treatise defending the French Revolution). The group returns to this theme with “The Year of the French” (1982), the orchestral suite by Moloney written to accompany an Irish television series on the uprising of 1798.
Although informed by romantic nationalism, it was not an antique or posed exercise. Among the guests of Heads 6 were Dolores Keane, the singer of the traditional young band De Danann, and a hall filled with dancers. When Potts and Tubridy decided that working life on the road wasn’t for them, Moloney recruited brilliant flautist Matt Molloy, recently from another young rock-influenced group, The Bothy Band.
Heads 6 also featured Kevin Conneff, initially replacing Mercier on bodhrán. Conneff’s love for traditional song would see him become the band’s star singer for years to come.
Their worldwide success saw a further expansion of their interests, with forays into American and Mexican roots music. Their regular incorporation of tunes from other Celtic traditions has resulted in albums like Celtic wedding (1987), an album of Breton music, and collaborations with the Galician piper Carlos Nuñez.
These albums are more durable than the more decidedly popularizing material. Albums like those with concert flautist James Galway and Van Morrison have mostly trodden extremely worn ground.
Musical curiosity has sometimes taken them away from their roots. Some projects were fascinating – in 1984 they were playing in China – but others were too lost. Molloy said he must have been dragged “kicking and shouting” at some of them.
The most extreme was The long black veil (1995), a pop album, with Moloney’s arrangements supporting an unlikely array of guest singers. The tracks vary enormously in quality. Sometimes the band is almost relegated to anonymous session musicians, but sometimes they erupt in full glory, as in Molloy and Keane’s composition “Ferny Hill”.
The popularity of Irish music around the world has been boosted by a handful of important and high-profile acts, with the Dubliners and Pogues seeming to be at a wilder pole than the carefully considered arrangements of the Chieftains, so it’s fun to take them on. find yourself leading the Rolling Stones in a dance with “The Rocky Road to Dublin”. The Stones clearly weren’t naturally comfortable with the brief jig’s 9/8 time signature. A decade earlier, Belfast-born hard rock guitarist Gary Moore was much more comfortable with them playing 12/8 on “Over the Hills and Far Away”.
They returned to more interesting musical experiments, but now they were using the fruits of their earlier work to popularize and promote the highest quality Irish music throughout the world.
A 2008 BBC documentary on the group made it clear that Moloney remained and would remain its driving force. “Everything is really in Paddy’s hands,” Conneff said, while Molloy commented “This will continue, I have no doubt, but at an acceptable level – if Paddy listens! This continued until the end, and Moloney summed up his own achievements and contribution: “I’m not afraid now that this folk music, this great folk art, is dying. “