Paddy Moloney: A chieftain in every sense of the word

Under his charismatic leadership the band strode confidently on the world stage

Paddy Moloney, founder of the Chieftains. The pipes are often associated with soloists but Paddy was always a natural collaborator. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The New York Times

Paddy Moloney, founder of the Chieftains. The pipes are often associated with soloists but Paddy was always a natural collaborator. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The New York Times

 

Paddy Moloney
Born: August 1st, 1938
Died: October 12th, 2021

Paddy Moloney’s legacy is writ large across the Irish traditional music firmament. Uilleann piper and whistle player, founder, composer and arranger with The Chieftains for almost 60 years, he was unquestionably a chieftain or taoiseach in the Celtic mythological sense of that word: a dynamic leader whose intuitive understanding of the relationship between traditional music and its audience forged a path to success that nobody else would have dreamed possible.

Paddy was the second of five children born to two Laois natives, John and Kate Moloney (née Conroy) in Donnycarney. His father came from farming stock and was a quartermaster sergeant in the army, before working in the Irish Glass Bottle Company. Paddy was the first of his family to take up music, on the encouragement of his mother Kate, who bought him his first tin whistle.

He attended the Christian Brothers but his formative education was at the hands of the renowned Dublin piper Leo Rowsome, with whom he learned the pipes from the age of 8. He met his wife Rita when they were both working in Baxendale’s, a building supplies company. Paddy was Rita’s boss but she didn’t put up with his bidding for long, and changed employers. They were happily married for 58 years.

At the age of 20, he first started working with Seán Ó Riada in an ensemble that was a precursor to Ceoltóirí Chualann. In 1959 he founded Claddagh Records with Garech de Brún, and produced or oversaw the production of over 45 albums, including some of the most seminal in the tradition, including Tommie Potts’ The Liffey Banks in 1972.

The Chieftans

Never a man to let the grass grow under his feet, Paddy formed The Chieftains in 1962 with Michael Tubridy and Seán Potts. It was Paddy’s indomitable spirit and determination that led to the band going professional in 1975, a notion hitherto entirely alien in the world of traditional music. But Paddy was not swayed by popular conceits. He followed his own vision and instincts, arranging all of the music, and increasingly composing, (including scoring the music for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), all the while keeping his eagle eye trained on the zeitgeist. The Chieftains’ groundbreaking tour of China in 1983 laid the foundation stones for countless Irish artists who followed in their footsteps.

Theirs was a sound that found wide appeal. The Chieftains mined the heart of the tradition, drawing listeners from all quarters, and awakening a love of Irish music in audiences from Dublin to Nashville, Berlin to Beijing. Paddy always felt a close affinity with American Country and folk music, and gradually his innate sense of adventure led to the unlikeliest of collaborations with everyone from Mick Jagger to James Galway, Van Morrison, Sting, Kate Bush, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris and many others from across the musical spectrum.

At the heart of the band though was a fiery love of the tunes, and for Paddy, it was his unquenchable curiosity about the harmonic possibilities of our native repertoire that fuelled his playing and his arrangements. His exquisite command of the chanter and of the tin whistle frequently anchored tune sets, and although the pipes are often associated with soloists, Paddy was always a natural collaborator. Still, the depth and breadth of his solo capabilities were captured on the Claddagh Records release, The Drones and The Chanters, released in 2000.

Paddy’s ability to attract the finest of musicians to the band, including fiddle player Seán Keane, flute player Matt Molloy and bodhrán player and singer Kevin Conneff was yet another example of his tenacity and charismatic leadership. With six Grammy awards, and 18 nominations, The Chieftains strode confidently on the world stage, playing music that was true to the tradition they came from but was also accessible to a much wider audience. Paddy understood the psychology of bringing traditional music to a global audience, with the result that The Chieftains transcended musical boundaries and inspired many to play traditional music, at home and away.

Musical milestones

Countless musical milestones were achieved: participating in Roger Waters’ The Wall performance in Berlin in 1990, and being the first ensemble to perform a concert in the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

They circumnavigated the globe with Magellan-like ease, steered by Paddy’s indefatigable energy and curiosity about what lurked around the next corner. His bravery and conviction allowed The Chieftains to pursue paths that purists might have scoffed at, but Paddy chose a route that entailed both high risk and high reward. It offered a whole way of life that no other traditional musician could have dreamed of, and he sustained it across six decades. Where else is such steadfast leadership visible, in music, in the arts or indeed, in the world of business?

Music was what defined Paddy Moloney throughout his life, along with a deep love of family. He revelled in playing with his grandchildren, one of whom, Ciarán, is an accomplished tin whistle player. A man of countless affectionate gestures, he enjoyed a long and happy marriage with Rita. Covid restrictions hit Paddy hard though, limiting his ability to plan The Chieftains’ much anticipated 2022 tour to mark the band’s 60th anniversary.

Paddy’s ability to talk about the music he made with great wit belied a laser sharp musical intelligence. When, on an NPR radio programme in 2010 he was asked to name the sexiest instrument, he chose the pipes, claiming that they were “like an octopus: they get every part of you moving”.

Paddy took ill suddenly on Monday last, and died on Tuesday morning in St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Paddy Moloney was born on August 1st, 1938, and died on October 12th 2021. He is survived by his wife, Rita, and his three children Aonghus, Aedín and Pádraig; his daughters in law Áine and Anne; his four grandchildren Ciarán, Aonghus, Fionn and Mieke and his sister Sheila. He was predeceased by his older brother John and his sisters Mary and Esther.