Traditional music hails a Chieftain who began a revolution


Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt . . . few living rock legends have not wanted to play with him and his mates, and the music has taken him from Ballaghaderreen to Boston to Beijing.

Yet there is nowhere that Matt Molloy would rather be tonight than back home in the west for the TG4 National Traditional Music Awards.

"It is from your own; it is from the core; these are my people," he told The Irish Times last week, describing his reaction to his nomination for the honour. Some of those people will take to the Galway Town Hall Theatre stage with him this evening, when both he and the young musician of the year, Aogan Lynch, are presented with cheques and two pieces of sculpture by John Coll.

Almost all of the Chieftain brethren - with whom he has won half-a-dozen Grammys - will be there to applaud their flautist, along with Altan, Liam O'Flynn, Steve Cooney, Arty McGlynn, Noel Hill and Tony Linnane. Last year's award-winner, Tommy Peoples, a close friend of Matt's, will be present, as will Skara Brae and actor Mick Lally.

The tribute to Maitias O Maoildhia - as he is listed in Gaeilge - is the highlight of Feile 2000, the Irish-language arts festival which has been running in Galway over the past week. "I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the music, and play very little," Molloy says.

Born and reared in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, in 1947, Molloy is one of a dynasty. "My father, Jim, and my grandfather played in south Sligo, where there was a great musical tradition until the 1940s when emigration took its toll," he said.

"My father grew up beside the fiddle-player, Paddy Killoran, and they both went to the US together." Matt was a member of a fife and drum band at De la Salle National School in Ballaghaderreen. "I was the youngest, and my father had stopped playing by then, but when he saw that I was really interested he began to teach me reels and jigs and gave me his old flute."

It was on Paddy Killoran's return home from a holiday that a defining moment occurred in the Molloy household. Matt, then 15, performed with the master, whom he had heard so often on his father's 78 r.p.m. collection. On leaving school, he had won almost as many All-Ireland Fleadhs as he had entered, and in 1966 he came first in the Oireachtas senior flute-playing contest.

He trained as an engineer and secured a job with Aer Lingus.

This career had to compete with "a new range of musical opportunities" offered by the capital, according to Merrily Harpur, who has written his biographical notes for tonight's occasion.

The Church Street Club and the Old Shieling in Raheny were among his haunts; in the Old Shieling he met and played with musicians like Tommy Peoples, Liam O'Flynn, Charlie Lennon and Paddy Moloney.

In 1975 he turned professional, leaving the secure Aer Lingus job. He joined The Bothy Band, which he had co-founded; he also recorded his first two solo albums, Matt Molloy and Heathery Breeze.

The Bothy Band changed the face of Irish traditional music in the 1970s. As Harpur writes, it was Molloy's "extensive collection of tunes, and his sequencing of them, that helped The Bothy Band to make Irish music into a transcendental experience for an international audience accustomed to rock 'n' roll, and set the high-water mark for all subsequent traditional groups".

When the band broke up in 1979, Molloy played solo for a while, and spent time with the original Planxty line-up before being wooed by The Chieftains, with whom he has performed ever since.

The music writer Fintan Vallely has said of Molloy: "While his style could be said to be of his home area, it is also highly personal and well-developed.

"His popularity has been inspirational to younger players, so much so that competition adjudicators have long been critical of `Matt Molloy clones' in their judgments. This is a considerable, if inverse, tribute to any player in his or her lifetime," Vallely adds.

"You let the music breathe," Molloy has been known to say. However, James Galway once asked of him: "Who taught you to breathe like that?"

Even during the two decades with The Chieftains, Molloy has recorded several solo albums. And he has his own family business, the famous pub in Westport, Co Mayo, where he plays informally from time to time. He acknowledges that its success depends on his wife, Geraldine, his two sons and two daughters and his bar manager, Seamus Geraghty.

"Usually I go in and make sure the pints are up to standard, slake the thirst, play a few tunes and meet the people. Someone has to do it!" He is not due on the road again until after Christmas, when The Chieftains begin the first of two US tours.

Currently, they have been travelling at home for their forthcoming album which includes sessions with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, in Co Clare, Tommy Peoples, Seamus Begley, Laoise Kelly of the Bumblebees, and some south Sligo players from Molloy's own territory.

"It is getting back to the roots, something we haven't done for a while," he says.

Gradam Ceoil TG4, The TG4 National Traditional Music Award ceremony, will be broadcast on the Irish-language channel next Sunday at 8.50 p.m.