Mick Moloney obituary: Banjo player and scholar with a driving passion for traditional and folk music

Mick knew the importance of giving back to the communities from whom he received such musical riches

Born: November 15th, 1944

Died: July 27th, 2022

Combining erudite scholarship with a driving passion for traditional and folk music and a lifelong pursuit of social justice, Mick Moloney, who died suddenly on July 27th, has left an immense legacy. A much-lauded professor of music in New York University, he played tenor banjo, guitar and mandolin. He knew the value of a good song and a great tune, and communicated both with unique energy, wit, insight and an indomitable belief in their innate value to the human spirit.

Mick grew up in Castletroy, Limerick, the eldest of seven. His father, Mickey, a Shannon air traffic controller, was from Parteen in Clare, and his mother, Maura (née Cronin) was a primary school principal from Meentogues, outside Rathmore in the heart of Sliabh Luachra. Mick’s love of music was nurtured during early summers spent at his maternal grandparents’ home. He loved Irish folk music and mined its emigrant history, extending its reach beyond the confines of the pubs where it competed for what he called a “fugitive attention” to concert halls, television and recording studios, and crucially, to the academy, where his indefatigable curiosity delved into aspects of its rich history that few had contemplated. In particular, he researched the largely undocumented links between Irish American and Jewish music on the one hand, and Irish American and African American music on the other, as well as Irish musical links with Galicia and Africa. Among his much loved recordings was a song called If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.


Mick Moloney was a folklorist who knew the importance of giving back to the communities from whom he received such musical riches. Music collecting, he said, in an expansive interview with Vincent Woods in 2021 as part of NUIG’s Arts in Action programme, could be a “parasitical pursuit”, but Mick repaid as much and more than he received from the diverse communities whom he loved, from Appalachia to Butte, Montana, and from Galicia to Greenwich Village, and so many other wellsprings of music and song. He put Irish American studies front and centre in New York University, where he was recognised as global distinguished professor.

Mick fell in love with the tenor banjo after hearing Christy Dunne busking on the street in the 1950s. Hungry to hear traditional music, he would often cross the county boundary from Limerick to Clare to hear it in its pure form. He wore his musicianship lightly, moving to Dublin to study economics at UCD before emigrating to the US on a scholarship. He was mentored by Kenneth Goldstein and received his PhD in folklore and folk life in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania. Before leaving for the US, Mick achieved no small success with the close harmony group, The Johnstons, and before that, with the Emmet Folk Group.

In the US he relished the chances he got to meet Irish American musicians, such as Ed Reavy. He championed women musicians, in a world of traditional music that had previously been male dominated. Mick mentored Joanie Madden, who founded Cherish the Ladies, along with countless emerging musicians including Solas’ multi-instrumentalist and composer, Seamus Egan.

He founded The Green Fields of America in 1977, with Robbie O’Connell and Jimmy Keane, and among whose members were Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and Eileen Ivers. Mick saw this as the first touring group to combine music, song and dance.

Mick had a long-standing relationship with the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, and he shared with its founder, Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, a passion for nurturing emerging talent not just within the confines of the Irish tradition, but in the many spaces in between, wherever it engaged with the wider world.

Mick was widely recognised for his renaissance-like contributions to folk music at home and in the US. In 1999 Hillary Clinton presented him with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2013 he received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad from President Michael D Higgins and in 2014 he received a TG4 Gradam Ceoil Award for his outstanding contribution to traditional music.

His lifelong love for traditional and folk music was rewarded by the burgeoning growth in interest in it from audiences across the globe. He was nothing if not a pragmatist in his assessment of the journey our music was on.

“I think protectionism had its place in the past”, he said in an Irish Times interview in 2014. “When I was starting out I think a lot of the field recordings I did were examples of affirmative action and cultural protection because I was in dread that this music would die out in America. But those days have long passed. I think we can feel secure now that the core of the music has been protected, preserved and enhanced, and that it’ll never become a museum piece. It has to continue to evolve, and the practitioners should be the determinants of how that goes. So as long as you get a lot of good people together something wonderful is bound to come out of it.”

His passion for social justice matched his love for music, and over the past two decades, he spent much time in Thailand, where he volunteered as a music teacher and music therapist for children with HIV at the Mercy Center in Bangkok. He also worked in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cuba.

Mick’s charisma never dimmed, and his diary was full at the time of his unexpected passing from natural causes, in his Greenwich Village apartment, surrounded by his beloved musical instruments, and his banjo in particular.

In the course of his life, he had been married to Miriam Murphy, Philomena Murray and Judy Sherman.

He is survived by his son, Fintan and his partner, Sangjan Chailungkas, along with his siblings, Violet, Dermot, Kathleen and Nanette. He was predeceased by his siblings, Ciarán and Brendan.