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Paddy Moloney: Chieftains founder who helped revive Irish music

Paddy Moloney, who helped revive traditional Irish music as the founder and guiding force of the Chieftains, a largely instrumental ensemble that resurrected forgotten jigs, reels, airs and ballads over nearly six decades of concerts and recordings, has died aged 83.

Moloney formed the Chieftains in 1962, using a name inspired by Irish poet John Montague. The band recorded more than three dozen albums, won six Grammy Awards, and performed inside the US Capitol and atop the Great Wall of China. When Pope John Paul II visited Dublin in 1979, the Chieftains opened for him at Phoenix Park, playing for an audience of 1.35 million people, described as the largest in history.

By turns sombre, militant, joyful and exuberant, the band stayed close to their traditional roots, even while collaborating with artists including the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Luciano Pavarotti and Sinead O’Connor. The Irish vocalist sang on one of their best-known songs, a mournful version of “The Foggy Dew” that was featured on the 1995 album The Long Black Veil, which sold more than half a million copies in the US.

“They have not simply preserved the musical past but reinvented it,” New York Times music critic Stephen Holden wrote in 1981. “Their basic ensemble ... plays with the exquisite precision of a classical chamber ensemble.” Derek Jewell, a music critic for The Sunday Times, likened them instead to Duke Ellington’s big band, noting that both groups served as joyous musical ambassadors for their home countries, left room for improvisation and occasionally refreshed their sound by adding new members.

Although the lineup shifted, the Chieftains came to include celebrated musicians such as Martin Fay and Sean Keane on the fiddle, Derek Bell on harp, Matt Molloy on flute and Kevin Conneff on vocals and the bodhran, a traditional drum with a goatskin head. Moloney remained a constant, playing the tin whistle and uilleann pipes – a gentler cousin of the Great Highland bagpipes – in addition to writing and arranging the band’s music.

“Without someone like Paddy Moloney, where would traditional music be? Traditional music was in danger of dying out, and now it's never been healthier,” said Liam O’Connor, director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive. He noted that Moloney was an innovative arranger, incorporating harmonies in a musical tradition that was far better known for its melodies, and said Moloney sometimes drew on 18th-century manuscripts to recreate songs that had not been played for 100 years or more.

Moloney began making music at the age of six, after he spotted a tin whistle in a shop window

“As it turned out, that music was as relevant and popular as ever. It just needed an airing.” Paraphrasing Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, he added: “All songs are living ghosts, waiting for a living voice.”

Paddy Moloney was born in Dublin on 1 August 1938, and grew up in Donnycarney, on the city’s north side. His father was a clerk at the Catholic parish church, and his mother was a homemaker. He spent summers at his grandparents’ farm in the village of Ballyfin, where all-night parties were soundtracked by his grandfather's flute or a neighbour’s fiddle.

Moloney began making music at the age of six, after he spotted a tin whistle in a shop window while walking with his mother on Christmas Eve. “I said, ‘Mammy, come on, it’s only one shilling and nine pence,’” he told the Boston Globe last year. “That was one of the best Christmas presents I ever got.”

Within two years, he was studying under uilleann pipe master Leo Rowsome, immersing himself in a fading musical tradition. Moloney later credited Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers with sparking a traditional music revival in the late Fifties and Sixties, although he noted that even in Ireland, “country-western was the big thing”.

“I always felt: ‘Damn it, this music of ours deserves the same. I want to play Carnegie Hall and the Albert Hall,’” he told The New York Times in 2012. “I just had great faith in it and what I was doing with the music at the time.”

Moloney playing the uilleann pipes on a TV show in 1976

To support himself, he worked as an accountant, performing part-time. He played in Ceoltoiri Chualann, an Irish traditional band led by Sean O Riada, before launching his own group with encouragement from Garech Browne, a Guinness brewing heir who co-founded the traditional music company Claddagh Records.

The label released the Chieftains’ 1964 self-titled debut and was run for seven years by Moloney, who produced albums while continuing to play with his band. He and his bandmates were still working day jobs, but he rejected record company suggestions that he transform the group into a Celtic rock band with drums and guitars. “Some of us were putting up telephone poles, others were civil servants and engineers,” he recalled. “We were just biding our time.”

The group became a full-time band in 1975, after being featured on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s period drama Barry Lyndon. They performed a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, signed a record deal with Island and were named group of the year by Britain’s Melody Maker magazine, which praised them “for making unfashionable music fashionable”.

“If it weren't for the Chieftains, the truth about Irish music might have remained a well-kept secret from Americans,” Nancy Lyon wrote in an article that year for The New York Times. She added that the group's “wild jigs and reels, impish hornpipes and raucous slides” helped dispel the myth that Irish music was little more than songs like “MacNamara's Band” and “Danny Boy”.

Moloney and his band were appointed official musical ambassadors for the Republic of Ireland in 1989, at a time when they were seeking to connect traditional Irish songs with other musical traditions. “Playing in China or Japan, they don't understand a word of the garbage I’ll be pouring out at them,” he once told The Washington Post, “but when we start to play, people realise you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy or understand Irish music and this is the essential thing.”

Survivors include his wife, Rita O’Reilly; and three children, Aonghus, Padraig and Aedin.

In addition to their more traditional albums, the Chieftains partnered with Belfast native Van Morrison to record Irish Heartbeat (1988) and worked with country singers such as Ricky Skaggs on Another Country (1992), which featured a fiddle-driven cover of “Cotton-Eyed Joe”. Their last studio album, Voice of Ages (2012), included a contribution from flautist and Nasa astronaut Cady Coleman, who took Molloy’s flute and Moloney's tin whistle aboard the International Space Station to record part of “The Chieftains in Orbit”.

“It’s music that belongs in you, it’s who you are and what you are,” Moloney told The Washington Post in 2002, describing the musical tradition that shaped his career. “You’ve been given this God-given gift of being able to play for people and make them happy. And that's been our mission in life.”

Paddy Moloney, musician, born 1 August 1938, died 11 October 2021

© The Washington Post