Superlatives are too easily applied these days, but Paddy Moloney was truly a music giant.
co-founder and leader of The Chieftains, he helped popularize traditional Irish music here and present it, rich and glorious, to a global audience.
He played a fundamental role in ensuring that the distinct sound of uilleann pipes would endure and from the start he demonstrated an insatiable desire for collaboration.
He has worked with everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Paul McCartney, and performed for Pope John Paul II during the Pontiff’s 1979 visit to Ireland.
Four years later, The Chieftains would become the first Western group to be invited by the Chinese government to play the Great Wall of China.
It was just another amazing chapter in a life that was far from ordinary.
There would be 18 Grammy nominations and six wins in a career that spanned six decades – and Moloney’s passion for music seemed just as strong towards the end of his life as it was when he was. ‘it entered the national consciousness for the first time when Seán Lemass took up residence in Taoiseach.
The Dubliner was only 20 years old when he caught the ear of the great composer Seán Ó Riada.
He joined the trad music group Ceoltóirí Chualann de Ó Riada in 1960 and from the outset proved to be a musician of breathtaking virtuosity.
Ó Riada noted Moloney’s brilliance as a flute player in a long-gone cultural magazine, Hibernia: “The Boy in the Gap demonstrated the virtuoso mastery of the instrument by Paddy Moloney and even the most extreme traditionalist could not have found fault with this splendid display, with broken notes with a crackling luster. “
He had started learning the uilleann pipes – a notoriously difficult indigenous instrument to learn – from the master, Leo Rowsome when he was only eight years old. But he also rose to fame as a tin whistle, button accordion and bodhrán player.
The founding of Claddagh Records in 1959 by the culture-loving aristocrat Garech de Brún would prove to be a defining moment for the trad – and for Moloney.
De Brún, an avid supporter of traditional Irish music, urged Moloney to form a band and release an album on the fledgling label.
Leaders are born.
And it was with the Chieftains, which he co-founded with Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy, that he really made a name for himself.
Their first album arrived in 1964 and in a curious quirk, much like what contemporary Led Zeppelin did, the Chieftains’ first batch of albums would all be eponymous.
Their masterpiece, Heads 4, was released at a time in the mid-1970s when Irish music was booming thanks to Planxty and The Bothy Band.
From 1968 to 1975 he was Managing Director of Claddagh and, under his tenure, oversaw the release of many of the island’s most important traditional albums.
He would have been as keen for the other groups to realize their potential as he was for the Chieftains to make the most of theirs.
And it was the Chieftains that others inevitably admired.
Though fashioned in Dublin and captivated by the ancient sounds of Ireland’s past, the Chieftans enjoyed an appeal far beyond Ireland.
They have been acclaimed around the world – Rolling stone the magazine captured it well by noting that “by their importance and their fame, the Chieftains are the Rolling Stones of their field”.
Unsurprisingly, the Stones and the Chieftains would collaborate.
Mick Jagger had long been a fan and their joint interpretation of the Rocky road to Dublin is a delight for admirers of both groups.
Although The Chieftains and Moloney had long sleeves, it was in the 1970s that they were at their creative peak.
Their haunting and evocative music composes the Irish epic of Stanley Kubrick, Barry lyndon, with the ancient Mná na hÉireann – to an air by Sean Ó Riada – featured in the film.
This helped make the group celebrated around the world and a roll call of top musicians quickly lined up to collaborate with them.
Familiar names that haven’t worked with them are almost easier to list, but few actors can count Madonna, Luciano Pavarotti, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull and Sinead O’Connor among their collaborators. .
Moloney would be particularly proud of the album The Chieftains made with Van Morrison.
Irish heartbeat, released in 1988, fused the talents of Dublin and Belfast like never before.
For their 50th anniversary in 2012, the Chieftains embarked on an ambitious world tour and accompanying album, Voices of the ages, featured several contemporary musicians, including Bon Iver, Paolo Nutini and the Decemberists.
If critics said the album was out of this world, they were right: it featured NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman playing the flute aboard the International Space Station as it circled around Earth. .
They started their Irish Goodbye Tour in 2019, playing European and American matches that year, but subsequent dates for 2020 have had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
Critics noted that despite being in his ninth decade, Moloney’s joy for music and for life had not waned.
Although praised for the brilliance of his musicianship for most of his life, Moloney tended to take greatness lightly.
He was an accessible figure for young musicians and he believed that music was at its best when not hampered by strict conventions and traditions.
He leaves an extraordinary legacy – a life of music which, in Finbar Furey’s words, has made him “a wonderful cultural ambassador for Ireland”.
His substantial work will last as long as the music is made and loved.