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Published: October 14th 2021
Paddy Moloney has died aged 83. He was the face of the Chieftains – their co-founder, leader and business manager - and a consummate musician. He composed, arranged and produced music and was a master of the uilleann pipes and tin whistle. So integral was he to the Chieftains’ success, it is difficult to see them continuing without him. His death has been well documented by the media, so I just want to share a few personal thoughts about him and the band he founded.
I see from their website that the Chieftains played their last concert on November 3rd
2020 in Philadelphia. That was their 16th
concert of the year. They were due to play five more American concerts after that, but they were all cancelled because of Covid.
I see also from their website that the final incarnation of the Chieftains comprised just three musicians: Paddy Moloney (uilleann pipes and tin whistle), Matt Molloy (flute) and Kevin Conneff (bodhran and vocals). This is in sharp contrast with the Chieftains in their 1975 prime, when they were either an octet or a septet: Paddy Moloney (as above), Martin Fay and Sean Keane (fiddles), Derek Bell (harp), Peadar Mercier
(bodhran). Ronnie McShane (bones), Michael Tubridy (flute, tin whistle, concertina), Sean Potts (tin whistle). I see from the internet that the 2020 Chieftains recruited various musicians and dancers as part-time band members for the American tour.
I marvel at the combined ages of the three permanent members in 2020: Paddy Moloney aged 82, Matt Molloy 73, Kevin Conneff 75. With Moloney’s death, only two of the Chieftains’ founding members still survive: Sean Keane, their exquisite fiddler, born in 1946, and Michael Tubridy, born in 1935.
Born in 1951 in Reading of Irish parents, I grew up with the Shadows, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. My father listened exclusively to opera and classical composers. It wasn’t until my 20’s that I developed a liking for Irish traditional folk music. Out of all the musical genres I listen to – jazz, classical, rock, folk - I find Irish folk the most emotionally affecting. The slow airs, in particular, move me to tears. The Irish bands I listened to back then were the Dubliners, Planxty, the Bothy Band and the Chieftains. I had the Chieftains’ first eight albums, some of which had splendidly impressionistic covers designed by Edward Delaney. The
first Chieftains’ album was released in 1964, when they were still amateurs; indeed it wasn’t until Chieftains 5, in 1975, that they turned professional.
The Chieftains differed from their Irish rivals - the Dubliners, Planxty and the Bothy Band - because they had different instruments and a different sound. The Dubliners were a popular singing band, more raucous and less musically talented than the other three. The Bothy Band incorporated modern pop rhythms into their traditional Irish music, and Planxty sang songs as well as played (it wasn't until later that the Chieftains made singing part of their repertoire). What united the Chieftains, the Bothy Band and Planxty was their musicianship and the fact that each band had a great uilleann piper. Planxty had possibly the best piper of all - Liam O’Flynn. The Bothy Band had Paddy Keenan. And the Chieftains had Paddy Moloney. Paddy Moloney also played a mean tin whistle. I have a 1993 recording by him and Sean Potts called ‘Tin Whistles
’. But it is as a uilleann piper that he is mostly famous.
Paddy Moloney was a puckish little man, 5’8” tall, with a hawk's nose and a distinctive face. To speak plainly,
he looked like a human leprechaun. He leaves behind a wife and three children and, according to his obituary, a personal fortune of $10 million. This is a princely sum but chickenfeed beside the vast wealth of inferior musicians like Kanye West ($1.3 billion) and Ronnie Wood ($200 million). Only $10 million for a lifetime -1962 to 2021 – of innumerable concerts, of giving pleasure to millions, of leading the greatest Irish traditional band in history.
As a personality, he was self-confident and articulate, some might say rather cocky. According to the BBC documentary, Legends: The Chieftains
, he was not afraid to argue with the Chieftains’ original manager, the formidable Jo Lustig. After Lustig’s departure, he took it upon himself to manage the Chieftains’ business affairs as well as lead them musically. He must have had enormous energy to do all that.
I saw the Chieftains twice in Birmingham, at the Hippodrome Theatre. I remember nothing specific, except that both performances were excellent. This would have been in the mid- to late 70’s, just after they had turned professional and had, I think, their best ever line-up - including that wonderful harpist, Derek Bell, and the demon fiddler,
Sean Keane. After the concert we rubbed shoulders with them in a nearby Davenports pub, the White Lion..
Like Seamus Heaney, Paddy Moloney was an icon, a national treasure – a symbol of Irish culture. His death comes just three days after the death of another great Irish folk musician – the accordion player, Tony McMahon. I am not sure who will carry the torch for Irish traditional music now that these giants have gone. As I say, the future of the Chieftains must be in doubt, especially given the combined age - 148 - of the two surviving members. My great fear is that Irish traditional music will slowly die out and go the same way as traditional jazz. Can it withstand the onslaught of hip-hop and rap? Will young aspiring musicians continue to play the old tunes, or will Irish traditional music become the exclusive preserve of old fogeys like me? Whatever happens, I know I will be listening to Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains until the day I die.
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