Running up that hill with the sounds of Paddy Moloney in my ears

Ian O’Riordan: The music of the Chieftains was a sort-of soundtrack to my running life

On the old high road out of Laragh back towards Roundwood the autumn daylight cuts a magnificent view down over Annamoe and the once-great military townland of Castlekevin where Paddy Moloney lived much of his life.

In the next glen over from Glendalough, where he was laid to rest on Friday afternoon, the air at Luggala still breathes some of the influence and inspiration which Moloney brought into that lasting sound and first founding of The Chieftains in 1962.

It was down by these woods and waters where Moloney once said you can almost hear the trees playing music and whistling tunes and that is still true at any time of the year. Only maybe at this time especially.

It wasn’t anywhere around here that the music of The Chieftains as arranged and directed by Moloney first became a sort of soundtrack to my running life. It was somewhere else entirely, but this is the place that now brings it all back home.

There is something and everything about this time of year that also brings me back to cross-country running in college in America over 30 years ago already. The first sprinkling of fallen leaves underfoot; the chilled air rallied around by warm lungs; the softening of the ground and hardening of the legs.

Their first album The Chieftains 1 was released in 1964, the year my dad ran in the Tokyo Olympics, and still holds up as strongly today

There was a natural element of homesickness around that period too, and why naturally enough The Chieftains became perfect music to my ears. On the bus journey to and from races, originally on cassette and later on compact disc, their sound carried the pace and the distance and a rhythm that would sometimes become part of the running experience itself. Late Bowie and early Zimmerman always had their say and sound, but no pre-race ritual was complete without Moloney and company.

It perhaps did or didn’t matter that the wind whistle and the uilleann pipes and the bodhrán were to me unplayable instruments because, either way, what Moloney and The Chieftains were able to draw out of them was and still is a kind of magic. Their first album The Chieftains 1 was released in 1964, the year my dad ran in the Tokyo Olympics, and still holds up as strongly today. By turns of the wrist or lips their slow jigs or fast reels can be touchingly void or wondrously uplifting, and the fact that it is almost entirely instrumental is, for me, the critical part of that running sound.


There is an avid argument, often supported here, that nothing as simple or profound as a long-distance run – or walk, for that matter – should be interrupted by any noise put forcibly through the ears. Those like me who have preached before about the connection between running, thinking and writing will mostly keep it that way – but if or when there is the need for some musical inspiration, then let it be instrumental.

If you can fill the unforgiving hour with 60 minutes worth of a distance run to the tune and the sound of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène or perhaps better still Équinoxe, then yours is the earth and everything that’s in it. Oxygène still holds up as one of the best instrumental running themes of the lot, first made more widely popular when Peter Weir chose to place it over the running scenes in his 1981 Australian war drama Gallipoli.

To me the best running music will always be instrumental, including the still best of the lot, also from 1981. In an interview earlier this year to mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Chariots of Fire, producer David Puttnam told the story of how he and director Hugh Hudson had already selected a soundtrack composed of pieces of music by Vangelis, mainly off his 1979 instrumental album Opera Sauvage, including the track L’Enfant for the opening and closing titles.

For Vangelis, whose recently deceased father had run for Greece in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, there was a nagging feeling he could do better, write a more personal piece of music, but by the time he reached Puttnam it was apparently too late.

Still, Vangelis sought him out in a restaurant in London, politely pulled him outside and into the back of his Rolls-Royce and played him a cassette of the Chariots of Fire theme; the rest is cinematic history. Puttnam still had time to mix the front and end titles, the only time the theme is actually played in the film, beginning with the first hum of the synthesiser and low drum machine, then softly touched piano keys, played out as if mimicking the perfect slow-motion action of running and the sheer pleasure that comes with it.


When the film was nominated for seven Oscars at the 34th Academy Awards, it ended up winning four, including best picture, best original screenplay, best costume design, and best original score for that late soundtrack by Vangelis. It had to be instrumental to work over the running: can anyone imagine Chariots of Fire with any lyrics?

The Chieftains also made it into several big screen soundtracks including Braveheart and Gangs of New York and most famously contributed to the Oscar-winning score for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975, which to my ears would have been a similarly neat fit for any of the running scenes in Chariots of Fire. Through The Chieftains and their founding label Claddagh Records there is also a natural link and avenue to similarly perfect instrumental running themes from Leo Rowsome to Seán Ó Riada’s last farewell recorded at Luggala 50 years ago.

Spotify has changed everything, and now almost everyone before every run has a quick pick between Sigur Rós or Rage Against The Machine

It always amazes me how many people still consider running a lonely exercise, or feel the need to put some music in the ears. Alan Sillitoe is partly to blame, his 1959 novella The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner possibly the most misunderstood title in literature. His is the story not of “loneliness” but “aloneness”, which Sillitoe suitably celebrates, like when first getting into the mind of his Borstal boy, Colin Smith, his feeling of running being “like the first and last man on the world, both at once”.

Spotify has changed everything, and now almost everyone before every run has a quick pick between Sigur Rós or Rage Against The Machine, the instrumental or otherwise, or between selecting The Chieftains 2 and running for them hills with Moloney and company still setting the rhythm and the pace.