Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains still chasing the music of the Celts

Kevin Conneff, Paddy Moloney and Matt Malloy are The Chieftains.

In Japan there is a rather unusual fan club.

It consists of young women who play pipes, flutes, fiddles, harps and bodhrans and call themselves The Lady Chieftains in honour of their Irish heroes.

The Chieftains themselves were recently in Japan on tour and the young women turned out in force. It was an amazing thing to see, said Paddy Moloney, the 81 year old patriarch of the legendary band. The fact that in Tokyo there is such a club speaks to the power of the music, he believes.

On the day of this interview, Moloney had been in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin at one of his two homes. It’s 10 minutes from the valley of  Glendalough which contains a sixth century monastery that sits on the shore of a small lake. Like every good Irish monastery, there’s a hermit somewhere nearby. This one was named Kevin who lived rough more than 1,000 years ago in a small indentation in a cliff overlooking the area. He’s a saint today.

It’s the kind of place you might expect to hear the echo of the Uilleann pipes that Moloney has been playing to such great effect for most of his life.

Then he hopped in his car and headed to Dublin where he has a second home in the Black Rock area of the city to conduct our chat.

“I moved back up to Dublin, the Big Smoke. Rita, my wife, likes the place in Black Rock town. It’s a 10 minute walk.

“So we have both worlds which is brilliant. That’s Ireland for you. There’s no place too far away from anywhere else,” he said. Unless, of course, someone gives you the wrong direction. But, we agreed, sooner or later you get where you want to go on the Emerald Isle.

Speaking of going: This current Chieftains tour is being called the Irish Goodbye.

“I don’t know who dreamed that up, but we’ll go with it for the moment.”

He said, however, that he has no plans to retire, even though he has said in other interviews that touring can be a grind.

“I have said for the past 20 years that I’ll go down with my boots on” and he’s not changed his mind. “It’s a great thing to be a musician for one life’s work.”

The work has taken hm around the world of course to places like Japan, China and South Korea and to places in the Irish diaspora like Canada.

“We did the Chieftains in Canada album (called Fire in the Kitchen) in 1998. It was the most delightful time I ever had.” I bet he tells that to all the boys. Moloney is certainly one for having a good time.

The album featured a who’s who of Celtic music in Canada including Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, the Great Big Sea, Laura Smith, the Barra MacNeils, Rita MacNeil, La Bottine Souriante, Mary Jane Lamond, the Rankins, Leahy and the Ennis Sisters.

He recalled a time when he climbed Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland and looking back at the harbour and out to sea and imaging the cable running under the Atlantic all the way to Kerry.

It’s the connections that the music makes that Moloney chases around the globe. He meets and befriends people everywhere. Sometimes they even join his band.

On one tour of Canada, Moloney was introduced to two lads from up the line in the Ottawa Valley. The Irish roots run deep here, even if the last name is Pilatzke.

“Of course we ended up with two guys from the Ottawa Valley named Jon and Nathan Pilatzke.

“We met them (17 years go) in Toronto after doing a week with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Somebody invited me to see them performing. Jeepers almighty when I saw that dancing I said they were definitely for The Chieftains.

“They have been with us ever since. Nathan lives in Connemara on the west coast near Galway. He teaches dancing at the university college in Limerick.”

Brother Jon is now the lead fiddler in the band. “I’d be lost without him.”

There have been many variations of the Chieftains. People come in and out of the band and time has claimed some others. But at the core today are Moloney, Matt Malloy and Kevin Conneff. There is a larger ensemble that travels with them.

Moloney mentioned young female fiddle player Tara Breen who also sings, dances ad plays the saxophone, which she will pull out at the end of the evening. Triona Marshall plays the harp and keyboards. She’s been with the band for 16 years. She joined after Derek Bell passed away.

Alyth McCormack, from the Island of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, has been singing and dancing with Moloney and the gang for 12 years. She’ll perform songs such as The Foggy Dew.

You can add Will MacMorran, a relative newcomer with three years under his belt on guitar and bagpipes. And head dancer Cara Butler, who has been stepping out for almost 30 years. In all, it’s a major entourage.

In Ottawa, as they are doing in other stops on the road, the concert at the NAC on Oct. 14 will feature the Ottawa Celtic Choir directed by Dr. Ellen MacIsaac, the Connie Blaney Memorial Youth Pipe Band and dancers from the Sue Fay Healy Irish Dance Studio. “We could have 150 people on the stage.”

The pipe band will play some music from the album San Petricio that The Chieftains did with Ry Cooder a few years ago.

As well, the Ottawa show will feature a performance by Séan McCann, the former member of Great Big Sea who lives in the Ottawa area and is now embarked on a solo career.

“That will bring us back to that great recording,” Moloney said.

Moloney and The Chieftains have been chasing Celtic music around the world ever since the original trio of Moloney, Sean Potts and Michael Turbidy formed in Dublin in 1962. They have produced dozens of albums featuring a range of Celtic infused music from places such as Brittany, an album which got the group their first Grammy nomination, and Galicia in northwestern Spain. Their popular album the Long Black Veil was a journey into Appalachia. They have recorded with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, The Corrs, The Decembrists and Madonna. He has recorded with the Sultans of String on a recent album. He seemingly never stops.

“That music still is alive and I am still enjoying it,” Moloney says by way of explanation.

“This is all on the ground stuff. You don’t see it in the headlines. This is all stuff that is happening. It is terrific that music has spread.”

He said he was watching the Irish team playing at the world cup in Japan and while the match proceed he could hear Chieftain’s music playing in the background.

“It’s gone wildfire.”

It is a sad state of affairs that while Moloney is all about exporting his sound to the world, the Brexit debate threatens to upset the whole apple cart.

“I’m so disgusted with the whole situation. You think you have a good neighbour and all of a sudden you are back to the old days.” But that’s not stopping him.

As for getting back into the studio, Moloney sounds a note of optimism and says he thinks he has another two albums in him.

“I am so encouraged now by the young musicians and young people who are coming up.” He said he enjoys, in particular, watching his grandsons playing music.

“It is reviving,” he said. It makes him want to get out there and see what is new. “That’s something you’ve got to get on with.”

The Chieftains entered my consciousness when movie Barry Lyndon came out in 1975.

The film was a major breakthrough for the group. He recalled being brought over to London to meet the director Stanley Kubrick. The meeting was supposed to be five minutes and “it ended up I had 25 minutes with him. I persuaded him.”

The movie did get an Oscar for the original score. The Chieftains themselves have picked up six Grammys over the years, which Moloney displays on a bookshelf in his Dublin home.

He says whenever they do a documentary on the band or on him, he’s asked to display the trophies. So he does.

He’s had his portrait painted by the Belfast artist Colin Davidson, who has captured Queen Elizabeth on canvas. Moloney has three honorary doctorates and he’s a Commander of the Order of the Civil Merit given to him by King Philip VI of Spain for contributions to Celtic and traditional music.

In 2011 Moloney met the Queen during an historic visit to Ireland to mark the Good Friday agreement.

“She spoke with me for 30 seconds and the orchestra was bashing away and I couldn’t hear a word” he said. “Then (Prince Philip) came along and said to me ‘My goodness, how do you do this? He then asked me how old I was. I was 72 at the time and he said, You’re only a young fella’.”

It’s 2019 now and Moloney says “I’m getting on in years. I keep looking back and thinking about things and there is stuff to be talked about and things that I have to do.

“I worry about the legend business.”

He needn’t do that.

The Chieftains and Friends with Séan McCann
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.