A Conversation with the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney

The Chieftains, the powerhouse group that reawakened an interest in traditional Irish music 57 years ago, is headed back to the Kimmel Center on March 11 for their Irish Goodbye tour. What that means exactly is perhaps deliberately left unexplained. Does it mean we’ll never hear from the Chieftains live again? Or is there a hidden meaning altogether?

We recently chatted with the Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney to find out more about that subject, plans for the show, and to look back on more than half a century’s worth of Chieftains music-making.

Here’s what he had to say.

Irish Philly: Well, let me just jump right in here and ask about your return visit to the Kimmel Center and Philadelphia.

Paddy: One of my favorite cities is Philadelphia, I just absolutely love it. It’s magic altogether, it’s a great place to go.

Irish Philly: Well, I do know. The Kimmel Center is an especially great place to play.

Paddy: Oh the Kimmel, well the Kimmel to me is like an egg. And the people are up at the top of that egg looking down at the top of you. And everything just evolves—it’s brilliant. Coming back, I just absolutely adore the place. And we’ve been going there many times and always loved it, always loved the Kimmel. There are great people there, too.

Irish Philly: Yes. Well I have to tell you something. Several years ago, I was a drummer in a bagpipe band, and my band accompanied you guys.

Paddy: Great stuff.

Irish Philly: That was a real thrill for us, let me tell you.

Paddy: Well, we’re going to reenact the same thing again this year. With the march, “The Battle of San Patricio” and “The Andro” at the end, the people dancing around and all that. We’ve also got a choir, one of your local choirs joining in to do the songs we did on The Long Journey Home—Shenandoah, and the song that Elvis Costello wrote the words for, I did the music. And that was the anthem from The Long Journey Home. So, we have that as part of the show that’s going on.

But I should mention, incidentally, that for this particular show, we’re sort of reminiscing a bit in the music. And unlike before, we’re going to show a video of people we’ve worked with other the years, Tom Jones, Pavarotti and all that, the Rolling Stones, Sting and Bono and everybody. And we’re showing a montage of the photographs of people that we’ve worked with in concert as well as on tape. So, that’s a sort of a kick-off to the show and then we come out and do our bit. But I’m hoping to in the this program, to include pieces like from Barry Lyndon and Give Me Your Hand. And going back over the 57 years we’ve been together. Six Grammys, as you know.

Irish Philly: I do know.

Paddy: And I think it was 21 or 22 nominations from 1986 onwards. This year I want to bring out the greatness of some of the musicians that have been playing with us, playing with me and my colleagues of the Chieftains like Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff to do little solo bits—to just demonstrate their unique style of playing and singing and that. I’ll do a bit myself on the pipe, too.

I have a piece of music called Luggala, which is the place that my very good friend is from, a patron of the arts, an heir to the Guinness fortune who passed away a year and a half ago. But he gave us the opportunity to make our first album. So, I’m going to play a lovely piece from where he came from, an 18th century piece, recently discovered. And I did spread his ashes over Glendalough, it’s just in County Wicklow there, it’s a beautiful place, I live very close to it.

Irish Philly: Yes, it is beautiful.

Paddy: So, we had a spreading of the ashes on the lake. They’ve done many films there too, “Hope and Glory” and “Excalibur” and they still do make films there.

Irish Philly: You’ve been making music together for almost 60 years. Could you have believed it?

Paddy: Listen, isn’t it ridiculous? And it’s been going on forever. I mean I’m way up, I’ve hit the 80 mark now, but it’s very difficult to stop. You have to keep going and I still have a lot to offer. I did a documentary there last week on Breton music with Breton friends from the northwest of France, which is a Celtic region. “The Andro,” for instance, is Breton. I got that tune from my very good friend, Polig Monjarret. They just came over to Ireland to hear all the stories and the great times we had together.

But you’re saying it’s so long, how many years? Goodness, gracious me. It’s going on forever. But I tell you, it’s getting bigger and better. I mean we did Japan there two years ago and it’s the Japanese tour—we’ve done many over the 40 years, but it was the best ever. They’ve been knocking on the door wanting us back next year. So, it’s a long way to go but … incidentally, they’ve got a group of young girls that love playing Irish music on the pipes, whistle, flute, bodhran, fiddle. And they’re called The Lady Chieftains.

They are beautiful girls, they’re just going mad to come over and join us on tour. I wish to God I had a private jet to bring them all on or something. That would be great. But it goes to show that the popularity of the music itself has just continued to grow and grow. We may go to Japan next year again, I don’t know.

I mean, we have a big five-week tour coming up in United States and that’s going to be quite a thing. But there’s a great buzz, a great team. We’re going back to the old haunts, Symphony Hall Boston—places like that. And the Kimmel, of course, which is one of my, and I think I’ve described it, that’s probably the best theater for me to play in, I just love it.

And as a matter of fact, when they were redesigning the concert hall here in Dublin, we produced the plans of the Kimmel Center to the board of directors, just for them to have a look at and say, “Look, this is a place that works.” It’s great. So you never know, it might just turn out that way eventually.

Irish Philly: What were you thinking back then when you started out? Were you thinking, “Well, let’s give it a few years and see how things go?”

Paddy: I suppose in a way, I’ve been playing music since I was 6, 7 years of age and building up and having little groups and celli bands and all sorts of combinations of duets and quartets. I won four all-Ireland medals as a piper. I don’t think I’d win these days because the standard is so high, it’s incredible. But my uncle Stephen, he was a great piper with the Ballyfin Pipe Band. So, the sound of pipes from a very early age of 6, 7 or 8 was in my heart, whether it was good, bad or indifferent.

I just loved the pipes. I was kind of the mascot, you might say, for the band when they’d go on a fund-raiser to a town. They put down the big drum in the middle of the square of the town and I’d sit up there in my short trousers, my legs dangling down and playing my uilleann pipes. So, the collection—we would go around for the money. But anyhow, just memories that are coming back to me. I don’t whether they’re relevant to you now at the moment.

Irish Philly: I think they are.

Paddy: You know, they painted a great picture for me and I can still feel and see it all happening. So, they were good times.

And speaking about all this, I’m not forgetting the concert that’s coming. We have the Pilatzke brothers, John and Nathan Pilatzke, who do this extraordinary style of Ottawa Valley style of dancing. It’s crazy, legs going everywhere. I do remember, incidentally, when we played Elvis Costello’s wedding, Paul McCartney was there, too, and he came up and joined them. He was doing this kicking up all over the place.

So, you’ll see a lot of that happen on stage. And Cara Butler, too, Jean Butler’s sister who has been with us now for 22 years. And she brings on the local dancers because we’re going to have some of your local dancers join us on stage. Cara does her own bit of a dance as well. So, it’s a big show but the difference this time will be I’m going to have the likes of John Pilatzke do a bit of a solo fiddle playing that usually brings the house down, he’s brilliant.

There’s also the harp playing of Triona Marshall. We show a video, incidentally, here’s another bit of news for you. We show a video of, I don’t know whether you’ve seen this or not, but we show a video of my tin whistle and Matt’s flute going into space. It went up to the International Space Station. (Astronaut) Cady Coleman is a flute player so it was up there for six months, it did 93 million miles. She sent us a video on St. Patrick’s Day playing “Fanny Power,” which we’re going to play in concert.

And we show the video as well and play along with it eventually. So, that’s going to happen as well, this is all part of the show that we put on.

And, again, we still do the San Patricio march. People love it, they absolutely love it, especially when you pipers come on stage, goodness gracious. They don’t believe this is happening. And then the pipers come back on later and do “The Andro” which is from the album, “The Celtic Wedding,” which incidentally got us our first Grammy nomination in 1986. So we do that and then of course as you know, the crowd gets up and dances. Our dancers go down and mix with them and the choir. So, it’s a big Irish hooley, let’s put it that way. Hooley is a word for house dance, so we’ll be doing that as well.

We’re going to give you a little touch of our music from China as well, just one item it’s called “Full of Joy,” which we did with the Chinese musicians. They played Irish music, they played of their some music with us as well. There’s a tremendous mixture happening all the time right throughout the whole show. Needless to say, our forte is traditional Irish music and you’re going to hear that all the way through, especially at the introduction, the opening medley of pieces of music going back in years, over the 50 albums that we’ve recorded in fact.

Irish Philly: It must be gratifying for you guys at this point to still be out there playing and delighting audiences after all this time. You wouldn’t do it if it weren’t.

Paddy: We wouldn’t be doing it and it is, it’s a great joy. The big hassle is with airplanes and hotels and that sort of stuff.

Getting back to the show, we have the likes of Tara Breen, who is an incredible fiddle player in her 20s and she gets up and dances as well. And then at the end she actually plays the saxophone—reels and jigs on the saxophone!And Alyth Catriona McCormack, who is a beautiful singer from the island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland. She can do lovely songs, like “The Foggy Dew,” which we probably performed with you pipers as well. She’ll sing that song or maybe “Red Is the Rose.” She’s all the way through the show, she’ll come back on and on and off. She takes the choir in hand to sing those songs as well.

So, everybody is participating—it’s a tremendous feeling. I’ve been doing it now for two or three years, this sort of combination of song, dance and music. It’s been working terrific for us. So, it’s hard to stop, we just finished Scotland there in October, three weeks. Best Scottish tour we’ve ever done in our lives. When people start to give you a standing ovation before you come on stage, it’s a good sign.

Irish Philly: How do you account for the Chieftains’ staying power—what’s different or special about what you do at this point?

Paddy: It’s like your grandparents and everybody coming to your house and sitting down and having a great session. That’s the feeling we put across, it doesn’t matter that there’s 500 people there or two and a half thousand. It just has that sort of personal feeling. There’s no flashing lights or smoke screens or things like that. It’s just sitting down and playing solid music. People feel they’re in your parlor back home. The music itself has that great power, that great magic.

Paddy: We’re going to play our music that people love, music they’ve heard for so many years. There’s something terrific in Irish music and song that has that tremendous appeal internationally.

Irish Philly: Well, they’re calling this the Irish Goodbye Tour and I’m trying to figure out what that means. Does that mean no more Chieftains tours after this?

Paddy: I haven’t a clue. But somebody came up with that idea, I don’t know why. When we went to Canada, maybe that’s why we got a standing ovation before we came out. They probably thought this is it. But look it, think about the Rolling Stones, they’re six months younger than we are and how many times do they come back? So, let’s see how she goes.

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