...a hugely influential musician on the Irish music scene for more than six decades, and his vision and determination helped to popularise traditional Irish music the world over
Paddy Moloney, piper, whistle player, composer, arranger, and founder of groundbreaking group, The Chieftains, died on 11th October in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin at the age of 83. He was a hugely influential musician on the Irish music scene for more than six decades, and his vision and determination helped to popularise traditional Irish music the world over.
Paddy was born in Donnycarney, north Dublin, in 1938, to musical parents and a musical family. He talked of listening to Irish music on the radio and gramophone in his early years, and seeing people getting up and dancing to the music the ceili bands played. At the age of six he persuaded his mother to buy him a tin whistle (for one shilling and ninepence) and he taught himself to play by ear. He soon moved on to the Uilleann pipes, and by the age of eight he was being taught by master piper, Leo Rowsome. Still in his early years, he played with many of the great pipers of the day, including Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy. This was at a time when Uilleann pipes were not so commonplace, and over the years Paddy played a huge part in popularising the instrument.
Paddy left school in the 1950s and started working in accounting at Baxendales, a building supplies company in Dublin, and it is there he met Rita O’Reilly whom he was to be married to for 58 years, the love of his life.
He became friends with composer Seán Ó Riada, and in 1960, he was asked by him to perform in Ceoltóirí Chualann, a pioneering group playing Irish traditional music in a different way than it had been previously, arranged with different instruments, and in particular, featuring the work of the harpist and composer, Turlough O’Carolan. Several other members of what was to become The Chieftains were also in this group.
In 1963, Garech de Brún of Claddagh Records invited Paddy to gather together some musicians to record an album, resulting in The Chieftains, which featured Paddy’s pipes and whistle, Michael Tubridy on flute, concertina and whistle, Martin Fay on fiddle, Seán Potts on whistle and Davey Fallon on bodhrán. The albums, The Chieftains 2-10, followed, as well as many collaborative recordings, and over the years several other members became part of the group including, memorably, Derek Bell, Seán Keane, Kevin Conneff and Matt Molloy.
Paddy’s ambition for the band was to play the music in a more arranged setting, using harmony as well as the unison playing more common in Irish music up until then. As the years went by, he began using traditional techniques and taking them in new directions, eventually opening up the music to other genres such as bluegrass, country and rock. At the beginning, Paddy said that The Chieftains’ music wasn’t that popular in Ireland, and that the ‘purists’ had no time for it. But he was committed to his dream, and kept moving forward.
In 1968 he left Baxendales and became managing director of Claddagh Records, which allowed him more time to work with The Chieftains as well as to promote other traditional music releases. In this role, he produced, co-produced or supervised 45 albums, including some really important recordings such as The Liffey Banks by Tommie Potts. After seven years, following a sell-out gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London and being featured on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, The Chieftains became a full-time band and Paddy left his role at Claddagh. The band signed a record deal with Island and began making a name for itself all over the world.
With Paddy, The Chieftains have won six Grammies, played to several US Presidents at the Capitol, to the Queen, to the Pope, and they were one of the first western bands to play in China. They have played with Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, Alison Krauss, James Galway, Willie Nelson, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Mark Knopfler, Nanci Griffith, Sting, The Pogues and many others, and they were actively touring until the pandemic hit in March 2020. Over the years Paddy also featured as a guest musician with such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Luciano Pavarotti and The Muppets.
As a composer, Paddy’s work was featured in many films and TV programmes, including Treasure Island, The Grey Fox, Braveheart and Gangs Of New York as well as the previously mentioned Barry Lyndon.
Announcing his death, the Irish Traditional Music Archive said that Paddy “made an enormous contribution to Irish traditional music, song and dance. Few people can lay claim to having the level of impact Paddy Moloney had on the vibrancy of traditional music throughout the world. What a wonderful musical legacy he has left us.”
Paddy Moloney was a man with an incredible vision, with the understanding to see how that vision might develop, and with the determination to see his plans through. He made things happen that others wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and has changed the face of Irish music forever in the process.
Paddy is survived by his wife, Rita, their sons, Aonghus and Pádraig, and daughter, Aedín.