The original traditional Irish folk band, as far as anyone who came of age in the 1970s or 1980s is concerned, is The Chieftains. Their sound, built largely on Paddy Moloney's pipes, is otherworldly, almost entirely instrumental, and seems as though it comes out of another age of man's history. That they became an international phenomenon in the '70s and '80s is testament to their virtuoso musicianship.
The Chieftains were first formed in Dublin during 1963, as a semi-professional outfit, from the ranks of the top folk musicians in Ireland. Until that time, and for some years after, the world's (and even Ireland's) perception of Irish folksongs was rooted in either the good-natured boisterousness and topicality of acts such as The Irish Rovers or The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, or the sentimentality of Mary O'Hara. That began to change in Ireland with the advent of Ceoltoiri Cualann, a group formed from the ranks of the best traditional Irish musicians by an RTE field technician, jazzman, and composer named Sean O'Riada, who hailed from County Cork. Ceoltoiri Cualann which specialized in instrumental music, stripped away the pop music inflections from Irish music.
Paddy Moloney came out of Ceoltoiri Cualann to found The Chieftains in 1963, seeking to carry this work several steps further. The earliest recorded incarnation of the group consisted of Moloney (pipes), Sean Potts (tin whistle), Martin Fay (fiddle), David Fallon (bodhran), Mick Tubridy (flute, concertina), and Sean O'Riada. They were a success virtually from the beginning. Their music weaving a spell around audiences in Ireland and later in England, where they quickly became popular as both a performing and recording act.
The 1970s saw the group break big in America. A new, younger generation of Irish-American listeners who enjoyed folk music and whose cultural and musical tastes weren't limited to songs about "the troubles" (i.e. England), had already begun discovering the Chieftains' music in the early/mid-'70s. By that time, the group had elected to go professional, and to expand its line-up. O'Riada and Fallon left after the first album, and Peader Mercier (bodhran) and Sean Keane (fiddle) joined with the second. Following the recording of Chieftains 4, they'd added Ronnie McShane (percussion) and Derek Bell (harp, oboe, timpan), a classically-trained musician. Bell's harp lent the group's sound a final degree of elegance and piquancy.
The group's big breakthrough in America, however, occurred when they provided the music for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 movie Barry Lyndon. The film itself wasn't a hit, but the Chieftains were, especially one track called "Women of Ireland," which began getting played heavily on FM progressive rock stations, and even managed to get onto the playlists of some Top 40 stations. Suddenly, the Chieftains were hot in America.
Ever since the dawn of the CD era, their music has been available on compact disc from the Shanachie Records, while their more recent work has shown up on the BMG label, on both compact disc and home video. The latter have included a Christmas concert and a mixed ensemble performance interweaving the group with orchestras, American folk and country musicians, and rock musicians, and an album (Irish Heartbeat, 1988) recorded with Van Morrison. Additionally, the group has been engaged steadily for film work into the 1990s.
The band recorded in Nashville, incorporating country sounds with Irish. Two albums grew out of these collaborations, “Down the Old Plank Road,” and “Further Down the Old Plank Road.” Other collaborators over the years have included rockers Sinead O’Connor, Roger Daltry, Sting. Bonnie Raitt, and Natalie Merchant, as well as folk musicians Joni Mitchell, Loreena McKennitt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
In recent years, the band has been changed more by attrition than addition. The death of Derek Bell followed on the heels of the retirement of Martin Fay. The last additions to the band were Kevin Conneff on vocals and bodhran in 1976, and Bothy Band flute player Matt Malloy in 1979, with the lineup rounded out with Paddy Moloney and Sean Keane. Instead, the Chieftains brought along dancers and musicians on tour that added to the mix as individual players, rather than joining the group. These included dancer Michael Flatley, Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, American fiddler Eileen Ivers, and American folk singer Nanci Griffith.
With over thirty-six albums to their credit, the band is no where near finding an end to push the expanse of Irish music. Rather, they try to find more and different ways to make the music more inclusive, rather than exclusive.