By John Fitzgerald
In October we lost a national treasure.
Paddy Moloney sparked a renaissance of interest in Irish music. For decades he and his band had people worldwide singing and dancing to our native tunes. They could turn up anywhere and set those metaphorical sparks flying from the flagstones, tiles, boards, or sidewalks.
From Dublin to Birmingham, and from New York to Beijing, Paddy played to the multitudes. He was equally at home in a small parochial hall in Dingle as playing at the crumbling Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China.
He was more than a musician. He served as an informal cultural ambassador for Ireland in ways that a politician could only dream of. And when the time came to bid farewell to this Vale of Tears, we felt we had lost a Chieftain.
Paddy was born in Donnycarney, Dublin in August 1938; the second of five children. His father John was an accountant with the Irish Glass Bottle Company. Both John Moloney and his wife Catherine (née Conroy) were natives of County Laois and shared a fondness for Irish culture.
When he was six Paddy received his first tin whistle as a gift from his mother. It wasn’t a real one, just a plastic toy. But after a few impromptu lessons he managed to coax sweet notes from the instrument.
A real tin whistle quickly replaced the toy and Paddy played tunes that he learned with lighting speed, showing signs of his future superlative talent.
At eight years of age he tackled the uilleann pipes. These required more practice and dexterity than the tin whistle but Paddy persevered. Under the tutelage of Dublin piper Leo Rowsome, a great player in his day, he mastered the challenge and soon the haunting strains of Ireland’s upgraded and more alluring version of the bagpipes drew listeners in droves to the Moloney household.
Paddy was educated at a Christian Brother’s school where he applied himself with diligence to all the subjects, but music came first, along with a precocious love of the Irish language.
Leo Rowsome continued to offer advice and tuition and Paddy fine-tuned his mastery of the pipes and tin whistle. As he grew into manhood, his instrumental repertoire expanded and he was belting out rousing folk tunes from a button accordion and breathing new life into that quintessentially Irish drum, the bodhrán.
Sure, it had been around for a long time, but Paddy could elicit the unique sounds, rhythms and soul-stirring echoes of our culture from the tightened goatskins. His playing of the bodhrán was in harmony, reviewers enthused, with the nation’s heartbeat.
In 1959, at age 20, Paddy was introduced to the great Seán Ó Riada. The composer recognized his potential immediately and invited Paddy to arrange music for a performance of a play, The Golden Folk, at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Ó Riada was impressed with his handling of this challenge and formed Ceoltóirí Chualann. The ground-breaking band played Irish music in a new chamber orchestra format that tapped into the spirit of our musical traditions.
It worked like a dream, with Paddy and Sean Potts on tin whistle, Michael Tubridy on flute and Ó Riada playing the harpsichord.
This new approach to combining musical styles and instruments would inspire future bands and in particular the one Paddy would make famous.
Also in 1959 Paddy co-founded Claddagh Records, and under that label went on to produce or oversee the release of numerous trad albums.
Paddy’s ambitions grew in parallel with his uncanny harmonic insights and, in 1962, he joined Michael Tubridy and Sean Potts to form a band of their own in Dublin. They aimed to revive Ireland’s age-old melodies and to inject new meaning into the music that seemed to arise from the very soul of our nation. The name they settled on was The Chieftains and from day one Paddy was undisputed Leader of the Band.
Paddy naturally found time for romance and married the love of his life Rita O’ Reilly, whom he met while both of them were working at a building suppliers company. It was a marriage made in Heaven and endured for 58 years, ending only with Paddy’s final farewell, and Rita bore them three outstanding children: Aedín, Pádraig and and Aonghus,.
The Chieftains played across Ireland to thunderous acclaim and soon stepped beyond our shores as word of the band’s magical performances reached the Diaspora. Paddy was equally a master of his art whether playing tin whistle, uilleann pipes, or button accordion and he could swap any of these for his trusty bodhrán which for many came to symbolize the trail-blazing band. But he earned a special place in the history books for his role in the revival of the uilleann pipes in Ireland and elsewhere.
As well as arranging most of the music for the group, Paddy proved an inspirational composer. He added many rousing pieces to the treasure trove of Irish jigs, reels and laments and his competency didn’t go unnoticed in the movie world. Word reached Tinsel Town of the harmonic genius from Donnycarney and he provided music for such films as The Grey Fox, Gangs of New York, and Braveheart.
His appeal transcended musical tastes and perceived barriers and in between performing at venues across Ireland, Britain and America he did session work for the likes of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Mick Jagger, all of whom were captivated by his phenomenal gift.
Though the band’s membership changed over the years Paddy remained at the helm for the almost six decades that the Chieftains enriched our lives. And he proved himself a Chieftain in the true sense of the term, with his boundless energy, outstanding leadership qualities and quiet but assured charisma.
Among the high points of the band’s seemingly non-stop instrumentation were the China visit and the performance at the soon-to-be-demolished Berlin Wall.
In 1983 they won over millions of Chinese who were beguiled by the unfamiliar sounds that Paddy and the lads introduced to that populous nation. The citizens of the People’s Republic forgot their troubles as the band transported them in fancy to happier times and places. They might be living under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao but for those precious hours they could dance to a different tune. Naturally, the Chieftains also entertained Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Ireland.
And what better place to celebrate the harmonics of our freedom-loving Celtic culture than in the shadow of one of the greatest monuments to tyranny on the planet. In 1990 the lads captured the true spirit of liberation and a renewal of hope when they arrived at the Berlin Wall. Just a few months earlier the infamous barrier had been stormed as democracy returned to a divided Germany.
The Chieftains under Paddy’s motivating direction continued to woo audiences worldwide and their music even found its way into Outer Space in 2010 when Paddy’s friend, astronaut Cady Coleman, famously produced a flute and tin whistle inside the International Space Station, the result being an album called The Chieftains in Orbit.
Covid dealt a temporary blow to the band, as it did to the whole arts and entertainment sector, and put a dampener on the eagerly awaited 2022 tour to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Chieftains.
But Paddy Moloney already had more than enough achievements to his credit, including winning six Grammy awards, the 45 albums released by Claddagh Records, and a staunch fan base spanning the globe.
His loss, though keenly felt by his millions of fans, was Heaven’s gain and he’s now, I’d safely say, in a place where the music never dies.