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Paddy Moloney Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with Paddy Moloney, February 27, 2020

Ahead of the Chieftains' March 2020 concert in Milwaukee, Paddy Moloney chats about their current tour, his early musical career, and his various trips to play Irish music in Milwaukee.

Paddy Moloney Interview Transcript


Barry Stapleton: Is this Paddy Moloney?


Paddy Moloney: Yes, Paddy here.


Stapleton: This is Barry Stapleton from Milwaukee Irish Fest. How are ya?


Moloney: How are you doing? Pretty good, indeed.


Stapleton: Now where are you, you on the West Coast now?


Moloney: On the West Coast, yeah. We’ve been up and down Arizona, and Tucson, we’ve done quite a few, Carmel tonight and Berkley tomorrow. And it goes on and on, as the saying goes. 


But we’ll be hitting the Midwest very shortly, and of course needless to say, we’ll be visiting one of our favorite cities, Milwaukee. 


Stapleton: You’ll be coming back to the snow belt.


Moloney: That’s right! We’ve been going to Milwaukee for so long. In fast, it was the Milwaukee Symphony that we first did a concert with in the United States, you know? And many forms of concerts we’ve given ever since. Lots of other friends joining up with us. We’ve got a great team, it’s going extremely well, the concerts. Tremendous variety. We show a montage of photographs at the opening for about six minutes, you know, just people we’ve recorded with, friends we've met along the road. And then we come out. Quite a mixture of music that we’ve done over the years. And we’ve got some young musicians and dancers, singers with us, apart from Kevin [Conneff], and Matt [Molloy], and myself. We’ve got Alyth McCormack who’s from the West Coast of Scotland, and she sings “The Foggy Dew” believe it or not. A melodious voice and a bit of port a buile, mouth music from the Island of Lewis. And then Triona Marshall, the harp player that’s been with us now for 17 years, I think. She’s an absolute show stopper, let’s put it that way. The two lads, incidentally, the Pilatzke brothers - John and Nathan Pliatzke - who do that style of dancing, the Ottawa Valley style of dancing. It’s quite wild and tremendous, terrific variety, they bring the house down every night. And John is a master fiddle player, now he didn’t start out to play fiddle with the Chieftains, he started out as a dancer with his brother Nathan. But John now leads that fiddle section. And more recently, and in her twenties, a great dancer and a great singer, she plays the saxophone, and her fiddle style is [from] County Clare, that’s Tara Breen. And of course I wouldn’t leave out for one minute, Cara Butler. Cara’s been with us for over 20 years now, and she’s the sister of Jean Butler of Riverdance fame who also danced with the band for six or seven years, as did Michael Flatley of course for six or seven years.


Stapleton: So it’s a family affair.


Moloney: It’s a family affair. And once you get into the Chieftains, you know, people often come as special guests, and the next thing they’re there the next year and the following year. 


Stapleton: So you said you played with the [Milwaukee] Symphony Orchestra, was that the first time you came to America, you think?


Moloney: Not the first time we came, but it was the first orchestral concert.


Stapleton: Oh, okay, great.


Moloney: In, I think, ‘72. Well, I came personally in ‘69, that was my first visit. But 1972 was the first concert we did in New York and had the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono there at the concert. 


Stapleton: And you came to Milwaukee?


Moloney: Yes, that’s right, so there’s been a lot of fantastic things, it’s been an amazing musical journey that we’ve been on. And continue to go on. We’ll be in Canada for three weeks in October, the Celtic Colours.


Stapleton: So Paddy, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back a little bit in your career, and maybe just talk a little bit about the earlier years with Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann, and then the beginning of the Chieftains. You were in both there, I think the Ceoltóirí [Chualann] started in 1960 and the Chieftains in 1962, correct?


Moloney: We actually go back further than that, I was putting the band together in the late ‘50s, mid ‘50s. And I even had Barney McKenna from the Dubliners playing banjo, so he was with us during that time. So it sort of built up from there, and there was plenty of room for two bands. You know like, Sean wanted to put his group together, Ceoltóirí Chualann, and I was in on that with him as well then. And I brought along Sean Potts, Michael Tubridy, as well, to join in that group. So slightly different approach to what we were doing as the Chieftains, but not too far removed. And then we of course went down ourselves, the band the Chieftains, to tour and visit other countries and make more albums. We’ve almost 50 albums, and we’ve won six Grammy’s. 


Stapleton: Yeah, that’s fantastic! And you were also one of the first bands to introduce the bodhran into the music, correct?  


Moloney: That’s correct, yeah. The bodhran came in the mid ‘50s in fact, you know. But I needed to say there were plenty of bodhran players all over the country, it goes back, it’s a traditional instrument. You find in other countries in different forms and all that, you know? Always had the bodhran, like, that’s the bass drive of Kevin playing bodhran for so long, and also singing as well. 


Stapleton: You’ve always challenged yourself musically with all the partnerships, some of them that you’ve mentioned there, and so many different genres and so many different ethnic musics that you’ve delved into. Did you ever do one where you got into the project and you felt like you were over your head or was just going to be a little too much? 


Moloney: No, I loved the challenge, and I never thought I’d be sitting up with an orchestra. We have a symphony that’s starting now with the Pittsburgh Symphony in two weeks’ time, and we’ve done three nights with them already. And to be trying to go to various countries, even to Tokyo, where traditional music has become very popular, traditional Irish music. There’s a group there in fact called the Lady Chieftains, who’ve based themselves on the band, and took a lot of the music that we play and play it their way. And they formed a group with the pipes and the tin whistle and bodhran and harp and fiddle.


Stapleton: So you were also the managing director of Claddagh Records when they got going. Can you speak a little bit about that? 


Moloney: Yeah, indeed, Gareth Brown who passed away there two years ago, and we miss him a lot. He sort of made it possible for us to make the albums, ‘cause we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves. And he was a Guinness heir, and we spread his ashes there last year over the lake in County Wicklow. It was a sad occasion, but he asked me, being friends since our teenage years, he asked if I would take over the management of Claddagh. So I became general manager, managing director of Claddagh Records, and during that period, we brought out about 40 albums the eight years I was there. 


Stapleton: That you produced.


Moloney: Exactly, yeah. Along with himself and John Montague, the poet, who gave us the name The Chieftains. 


Stapleton: And with that in your pocket with knowledge of the industry, what would you say from your beginnings with the Chieftains is the biggest change in the music industry today?


Moloney: Well, I’m delighted to hear and see the return of the real stuff, the soloists, the pipers, and what’s happening with the different groups starting in different parts of the world. And the uilleann pipes have been deemed a very important instrument, I’ve forgotten the title now.


Stapleton: UNESCO [Inscribed in 2017 (12.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity], yeah


Moloney: That’s right, UNESCO. And in fact, more recently, the harp as well has joined. But this is a great honor, and it proves this great folk art of ours of playing Irish music and song has come to the fore in such a huge way by different people. And Riverdance, it’s another great addition to the art of playing Irish music, dance, and song. 

Stapleton: And so when you come, I don’t how many tours you’ve done in the States, but you’ve spent a fair amount of time and the Chieftains playing in the US. Would you say it’s a good percentage of the Chieftains’ tours?


Moloney: It’s one thing that when I started out first with the band, to get the message across it was on a very small scale, very small theaters and all that. But we got great breaks, we came in at the right time, and you know it worked out in such a way that the true message of what Irish music is all about, and just needed to be listened to. And the gathering we’ve got now, you know, people who would never think of coming to a Chieftains concert, you’ll always see them there. You know, there’s a friend of ours, we call him our groupie, he actually owns a bank, but he bought 40 tickets or something for this tour alone. It’s just this great thing that you don’t have to be Irish to listen to our Irish music or to watch the dancing, that sort of thing. Every nationality now, all over the world, from China even, like in ‘83 we played in China, and up in Norway and Finland and Iceland, and places like that. And not forgetting our neighbors next door, the UK, we’ve done many concerts and many tours there as well. So it hasn’t stopped, there’s something in the Irish music that really gets you, you know?


Stapleton: It’s a strong roots music, I agree with you, I think after the folk music became popular in America with you coming over in 1969 was probably like you said, just the right time for everything. 


Moloney: It was. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, they did a great job for the songs and the ballads. I sense myself that there’s plenty of room there for Irish music, and it’s just a matter of getting the message across. 


Stapleton: It does seem that when the balladeers came to America, like you said the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the Fureys, the Wolfe Tones, that was such a popular music and at that time, there wasn’t much Irish traditional music in the States, and then the Chieftains, Altan, and that kind of became almost more popular than the ballads. And now we can kind of sense that the ballads are coming back, so it’s great to see that transformation. 


Moloney: That’s correct, that’s happening. But I think we were first there, we were out there with the music, apart from the Clancys and Tommy, there was certainly a lacking of the traditional music and the instruments that we play, the uilleann pipes and different forms of instruments going back hundreds of years some of them. It’s great to show off and put that sound there you know, like in ‘72 when we played our first Chieftains concerts at the Irish Arts Center in New York. That really kicked off a whole new thing, and the Albert Hall in London in 1975, we sold it out without any singing, flashing lights, or smokescreens there...


Stapleton: Rock n’ Roll, right?!


Moloney: .. or dancing, it was traditional Irish Rock n’ Roll.


Stapleton: So you kind of took traditional music which was more or less in small settings, in a parlor with a couple people playing, - and I don’t want to say commercialized it - but you put it on a stage. Was there push back from that in Ireland, from what you were doing? 


Moloney: There were jealousies, I suppose, flattering in a way. You didn’t always get the invitation to play at a session, you were sort of regarded as an artist, you know what I mean? Playing it’s true form of course, which we continue to do, and it took a while for a lot of people to come around to the fact of how successful we became. And how successful traditional music became and remarks like, “fair play to them, they did it, you can’t just take it away from them.”


Stapleton: Well, Paddy, thanks so much to yourself and the Chieftains for opening the door to so many musicians, and really for all the joy that you bring to the music, it’s always such a pleasure to watch you play, and the joy that you bring to it, I think, is really what the audience feels when they see a Chieftains show. And I know how much you enjoy, like you’ve said, the young people you’ve brought along, the Pliatzke brothers and so many other musicians that you’ve allowed to join you on stage. I can’t help but wonder how they view you and everything that you’ve done for them. 


Moloney: It’s great, and it’s a great team, it’s like a big family now. It’s terrific. 


Stapleton: All right, Paddy, we’ll see you at the Riverside on March 7th in Milwaukee. 


Moloney: Smashing, looking forward to it!

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