The Chieftains At 50

The Chieftains: Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff and Sean Keane.

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
April / May 2012

The Chieftains, Ireland’s top traditional group, celebrate their 50th anniversary with a compilation album featuring many young recording artists.

In traditional Irish music, the road to success is often a long way from home. Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains have traveled that road for half a century, and it has taken them everywhere – from the world’s great concert halls to the Great Wall of China, from Grammy Awards ceremonies to remote towns and hamlets dotting the planet.

Fifty years and fifty-one albums after the band formed in Dublin, and millions of miles later, The Chieftains are still on the road. In 2012, they’re touring North America, Europe and Asia, in support of their latest album, Voice of Ages. They’re racing to airports, checking in and out of hotels, doing sound checks and meeting their fans.

The Chieftains are playing the great concert venues on this tour – New York’s Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center – but like journeymen working away at their trade, they’re also taking buses across prairies and plains for a string of one-night gigs in the American heartland, where people who love Irish music turn out in droves.

I caught up recently by phone with Paddy Moloney at his hotel room in Oklahoma City, getting ready for a concert at the Armstrong Auditorium that night.

Moloney is the band’s uilleann piper and tin whistle player, master of ceremonies and storyteller, arranger and producer; in short, the chief Chieftain. Wooden flute virtuoso Matt Molloy, master fiddler Sean Keane, and singer and bodhran ace Kevin Conneff are the core members of the group, and as always, The Chieftains invite a revolving cast of exceptional musicians and dancers to join them on stage in various cities along the way.

“It’s been a wonderful musical journey, and we’re still at it,” Moloney laughed. “I could never change it. People said ten years ago to my wife Rita, ‘When’s it going to stop?’ Her answer was, ‘They’ve been in ten years of rehearsal for retirement.’”

“Paddy is 73 going on 23,” says Molloy about Moloney’s boundless energy, adding that the band “is his passion. He’s very focused on the road, and works very hard on promoting the band and looking ahead to the next step.”

Birth of the Chieftains

Moloney formed the group with a unique personal vision for what it could be – an ensemble of virtuosic musicians playing set arrangements that enlarged Irish music from the single melodic line played by early ceili bands into something more orchestral and more harmonic without losing the touch of wildness inherent in the music.

“The Chieftains took what was inherent in Irish music and made it like a chamber ensemble,” says Dr. L.E. McCullough, champion tin whistle player, composer and playwright, who first heard The Chieftains at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin in 1971. “They saw the textures and dynamics and drama and how to convey all that, where no one else had.”

“Paddy saw earlier on that music like this was very attractive but only when it was put in context, and he did that brilliantly,” says Brian O’Donovan, Boston’s popular host of “Celtic Sojourn” on WGBH, who grew up listening to The Chieftains as a youngster in Clonakilty, Cork. “He explained social context, the timings around dance tunes and the jokes and heartaches of the people who created it.”

Moloney grew up in Donnycarney, north of Dublin, in a musical household, and was playing the uilleann pipes at age eight under the tutelage of piping master Leo Rowsome. Rowsome taught Moloney the fundamentals of the intricate instrument, and also introduced him to the music of 18th century composer and blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan.

“Leo used to put me up as a soloist, and I thought it was grand that I was up there doing O’Carolan’s concerto with all these other students up there doing classical music.”

The Chieftains officially formed in 1962, taking its name from a short story collection called The Death of a Chieftain by Moloney’s good friend, poet John Montague; the two were co-directors of Claddagh Records back in the day. But Moloney’s quest for the perfect band goes back earlier.

“It goes back to the 1950s, when I played with [The Dubliners banjoist] Barney McKenna; he lived beside me in Donnycarney and used to come to the house three days a week. I had a quartet with [flutist] Michael Turbidy, then lined something up with [tin whistle player] Sean Potts and a traditional singer. The personnel were the most important thing, and then putting together the right sound, until we hit it.”

The 1950s were a pivotal decade for Irish traditional music, which was fast being marginalized by rock ‘n’ roll and modern pop music from Britain and America.

“In those days it wasn’t hip, it wasn’t cool, to play Irish music,” Moloney says. “Rock ‘n’ roll, Bill Haley and the Comets…the dance hall scene was huge in Ireland, all these shabby little dance places and big bands playing, the three-chord trick merchants, I used to call them.  They only had three chords, and they went around the country and did a massive business.”

But there were positive changes in the Irish music scene too. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann [Irish Musicians Association] formed in 1951 as a way of reviving Irish music, and set up chapters and classes all over the country.  Meanwhile, radio stations helped jumpstart the revival.

“You had ‘As I Roved Out,’ with Seamus Ennis on BBC, and Sean McRaymond, going around with the mobile recording,” Moloney says. “Then Ciaran MacMathuna came on the scene, and started ‘The Job of Journeywork.’”

Another emerging presence was Sean O Riada, a Cork-born musician who composed the score to the popular film documentary Mise Eire [I am Ireland] and who had similar notions to Moloney about how to present Irish music in novel new ways.

“I met up with Sean and I thought highly of what he did with Mise Eire. I used to meet him once a week and we had great chats. He wanted to put his band together and I wanted to put my band together; there were two things going at the same time.”

Eventually, Moloney says, “All of the musicians got on their bicycles, as they say, and got these music clubs going, and music festivals and the radio. And the music went beyond the ceili band, more toward solo playing and quartet playing.”

Moloney also credits the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem with reviving Irish music.

“They did a great job in the 1960s for the ballads. They were playing at Carnegie Hall and Albert Hall and the Opera House and I just felt, why not our music?

“And that was one of my aims, to get out there and tell people about this wonderful folk art, and present it in our way.  It wasn’t ‘just sit down on the stage with your head down and play away’ – that wasn’t going to work. It had to be an uplift within the music and the selection of the tunes, and the combination of instruments and harmonies and slow airs, and the stories behind each piece.

“And we did make it. We made it to Albert Hall in 1975, the first traditional band to make it there, playing before 6,000 people. No flashing lights, smoke screens, or anything fancy, just six guys playing away.”

The Chieftains Collaborate

The Chieftains have continually strived to show how much Irish music has in common with other musical traditions.

“Folk music is the thread that everything goes through; it’s the mother of music really,” says Molloy, who played with the Bothy Band and Planxty before joining The Chieftains in 1979. “You can always identify with the folk music of different countries, there’s always something you can hook into, and they into you.”

When he’s not touring, Molloy runs a traditional music Mecca called Matt Molloy’s Pub in Westport, County Mayo. People from all across the world who have seen The Chieftains in concert make the pilgrimage to his pub for a full immersion in the music.

Indeed, one of the distinctive features of The Chieftains has been the band’s ability to remain true to the core of Irish traditions while also stretching the boundaries by collaborating with artists from rock ’n’ roll and pop music to country and bluegrass, and from Basque and Galician to Mexican and Chinese.

Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Diana Krall, Art Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Carlos Nunez are just some of the artists who have recorded with The Chieftains. While a handful of music purists might flinch at these kinds of cross-over themes, the majority of Irish music’s most respected statesmen applaud it.

Fiddle player Tommy McCarthy, who grew up in London as part of a musical family from County Clare, recalls seeing The Chieftains at that famous 1975 concert at Albert Hall. He credits their allegiance to the tradition as the mark of their success.

“They’ve stuck to the same authentic traditional music and instruments – the pipes, fiddles, harps and flutes – that is their sound.  Whether they’re playing with Ry Cooder, Sting or Paul McCartney, that’s their sound, they don’t change it.”

McCarthy and his wife banjoist Louise Costello, owners of the traditional music pub The Burren near Boston, are invited onstage each year at Boston Symphony Hall when The Chieftains come through town.

“They stuck to the tunes but presented them in new and innovative and very attractive ways. And then they opened the tradition and their hearts to other musicians who were drawn to the warmth,” Brian O’Donovan says.

“It’s great marketing, and it’s what musicians have been doing forever,” says L.E. McCullough. “You’ve got to believe music has no boundaries.  There’s always been a synergy among musicians, and The Chieftains have managed to spread the word better than anyone else.”

“I have much admiration and respect for Paddy Moloney and all of The Chieftains, the great carriers of our music and song,” says fiddle champion Séamus Connolly, currently Sullivan Artist in Residence at Boston College.  “After decades of performing and recording with some of the world’s best musicians and singers, they have never forgotten their musical roots.”

The Chieftains’ latest album, Voice of Ages, continues that formula by including a whole new generation of young musicians, from Dublin’s rockabilly queen Imelda May and traditional Irish singer Lisa Hannigan, to American bands like Bon Iver, the Decemberists and the Civil Wars.  Moloney’s friend T-Bone Burnett is co-producer of the album.

One great feature of Voice of Ages is an eleven-minute medley called “The Chieftains Reunion,” which features all of the past living members of the group. It’s a beautiful tribute to where The Chieftains began and where they are now.

For Moloney, the music never stops, and it seems like he won’t either. He describes a new album from Claddagh Records called The Wild Dog Rose, featuring his old friend John Montague. The album aligns Montague’s spoken poetry alongside Irish music performed by Moloney and The Chieftains, James Galway, harpist Triona Marshall and others.

“I’ve got projects popping into my ears all the time,” Moloney explains, “and I need another fifty years to complete what I have!”

3 Responses to “The Chieftains At 50”

  1. michael coffey says:

    Great piece, Mr. Quinlin.The Chieftains have been a huge influence on the world’s music, keeping alive a great tradition that is now healthy. Just listen to Larry Kirwan’s Sirius radio show Celtic Crush to see how vibrant the Chieftain’s work is carried on, though Paddy and Co. are carrying on themselves in great form.

  2. Libby Klos says:

    I have loved the Chieftains since the 1980’s. And I think I have almost all of their CDs, including their latest, “Voice of Ages”. But I long for another CD with just the Chieftains doing more traditional Irish tunes.

Leave a Reply to Libby Klos


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