Still going strong: hail to the Chief Paddy Moloney
The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney pipes up to Barry Egan about going on the tear with Ted Kennedy and getting the billy from Van Morrison
Something of the past, of an Ireland long gone, leaks through when Paddy Moloney talks. It is not nostalgia, more like the 78-year-old is reading aloud the pages of an anthology from deep inside his mind.
His grandfather Stephen Conroy lived in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Young Paddy from Donnycarney recalls visiting him in 1948 to go rambling in the hills. A local old fella named Fint Lanham, says Paddy, "would put his flute in the river with stones on top of it. He said it was very good for the flute! I played it one afternoon.
"The following day your man went round the bend. He came up to my grandfather's house with a guard. He lost his flute and he thought I'd robbed it! 'Who pinched Fint's flute?'" Paddy laughs at the memory, nearly 70 years later. "I was 10 years old. My grandfather said: 'Don't go near that old divil!'" Not heeding his grandfather's advice, Paddy Moloney, founder of The Chieftains in "the late 1950s", was to go near plenty of old divils in his time...
"I was at Paddy's wedding and Paddy tried to throw Brendan out the window, or something mad and ridiculous like that," Paddy Moloney laughs - the Paddy of this tale being Paddy Kavanagh and the Brendan being Brendan Behan.
"There was a disagreement. I didn't see the incident myself but someone at the wedding told me. I wasn't drinking in those days so that's why I remember these things. Paddy was more boisterous than Brendan. They were always at each other's throats."
Before I can get a word in, Monologue Moloney is off on another tale from a bygone era. "I remember on the first Chieftains album [titled The Chieftains] in 1962, Lord Kilbracken coming into the studios on Stephen's Green and all the weirdos that Garech [Browne, the aristo owner of Claddagh Records] had in. And there was one microphone! Lord Kilbracken used to go mad dancing. It used to end up in a bloody session. But we got the album done in five evenings.
"The first album caused a bit of a..." he says, trailing off, meaning that the traditional Irish music purists of that time were properly appalled at the newfangled racket The Chieftains made. "It took them about five years to get over it!" laughs Paddy. "This wasn't a ceili band. This was something that was fresh and new to the scene. The fusion that I was making between harmonies and tin whistles - matching up the pipes and the flute, fiddles and pipes. There was a lot of jealousy because someone like Garech Browne had come along to give us money to make a record!"
Through his titled chum (when Garech first turned up at a gig many years before, Paddy thought he was a girl), young Paddy was to meet a whole variety of characters, like Peter Sellers drinking G&Ts with his "social welfare glasses" on in Garech's flat off Leeson Street in the late 1950s. In 1966, Paddy and his wife Rita - whom he married in 1963 - were renting a cottage in Garech's Luggala estate in the Wicklow Mountains when Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull walked in to say hello to the rising young musician.
"My mother was there and when Mick had gone, she said to: 'Who was that funny fella? That weirdo?'"
"He was in summer gear," explains Paddy. "I played on his solo album," he adds meaning Jagger's Primitive Cool in 1987, "and then he played on The Chieftains' Long Black Veil album" in 1995 with The Rolling Stones, the aforesaid Marianne Faithfull, as well as Sinead O'Connor, Sting, and among others, Van Morrison.
The latter was to collaborate with The Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat in 1988, arguably one of both acts' best albums. In the new documentary, Paddy Moloney: Chieftain - broadcast on RTE One on November 9 - Paddy's wife Rita refers to Van warmly as being both "eccentric" and a bit "difficult" to work with.
How was Van difficult to work with, Paddy? "I loved the challenge," he answers. "He only came along to one rehearsal! I had done all the arrangements! So, he came along at the Clarence Hotel. He came for an afternoon and then I get this message on my answering machine from Van: 'Great shapes, Paddy.' Shapes means tunes! So we went in and we spent one week and it was done."
"She Moved Through The Fair almost went by the wayside when Van put in his yaaas yaaas as I call it," Paddy says in reference to Van's celebrated, and spontaneous, free-associative vocals at the end of certain songs. "Van would be going on and going on and we would be playing along alternating chords not knowing when he was going to stop! We messed up twice."
When do you know as a musician when Van is going to stop? "You have to grasp it. Even today you have to grasp it. I said to him, 'Listen Van, give us the billy when you are coming to the end. Van goes: 'Oh, yeah, the billy.' The billy was the nod."
So did Van give you the nod? "Not at all!" hoots Paddy. "Van comes to the end of the song and he sings 'Billy Billy!'" laughs Paddy. "Van is a very funny fellow! I don't know where that tape is. I wish I had it."
In lots of other ways, the legendary Paddy Moloney has never lost it. He and his group would go wherever the music took them - to perform on the Great Wall of China in 1983 or in Phoenix Park in 1979 for Pope John Paul II. The following January in Rome at a private audience, His Holiness gave young Paddy some rosary beads that he still has at home. Paddy told Gay Byrne on The Meaning Of Life that his talent as a musician was a gift direct from God. "I feel that it is God-given," he says now. "Where else would you get it from?"
God notwithstanding, the genesis of Paddy's talent can possibly be traced back to when he was five. He can remember his mother going into Bolger's on Talbot Street on Christmas Eve and buying him a tin whistle for one shilling and nine pence. He also recalls that his grandfather played the flute, but he never saw him play "because he lost his teeth! I better watch mine!"
Cut to the sea-front in Blackrock, near his home: Paddy is looking out to sea as he recalls a trip up the Himalayas a decade or so ago with the late Derek Bell, who was something of a seeker of religious truth, to find Babaji's Cave. His teeth being still good, Paddy takes out his trusty tin whistle and starts playing it to illustrate part of the story. He and Bell were blue with the cold when they heard a shepherd across the valley on the mountain appearing singing to his sheep.
Paddy, who has a perfect ear, picked up the song, however echo-y across the valley, and played it back to him in one of the most spiritual places in the world. (Paddy still recalls the tune today on the seafront in Blackrock and gives me a blast of it.) The shepherd roared something not quite spiritual back across the Himalayas at Paddy. The guide who was with the two Chieftains translated what the man had shouted across the valley. It was a Himalayan version of: "Would you ever f*ck off and don't be annoying me".
Walking along the sea-front, Paddy remembers going on the tear with Ted Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. "We were out on the town at an old Irish tavern. He got away from the ma," Paddy says meaning Rose, matriarch of the Kennedy family. "Ted invited me to tea the next afternoon at the Kennedy compound. So I went down to meet the mother. She was still with it at 92. She said to me: 'My Joe brought over a piper in 1935.' She said: 'Ted - did you get this man a drink?' 'Yeah, I did, ma.' 'Well - get him another one!' We went into the living room and the champagne was taken out and the carpet was pulled back and I played and the kids got up and did Irish dancing. Then she went over to the piano and she did a beautiful version of Sweet Avalon. I joined in with her on the whistle."
"So, these are memories," Paddy says with understatement. "Great old times. Ted used to come to our concerts quite a bit. I never met JFK, though." He says Rita is always giving out to him for his name-dropping. Then in the next breath, he says how Paul McCartney once gave him some sound advice about the music business: get a good lawyer.
There were times when Paddy survived in the music business on his wits if not quite his fists. "I remember doing a fiddle festival in Finland in 1974 and when it came to get paid your man said he had to deduct or withhold 15 per cent. I told him: 'You're not taking anything off my fee.' There was murder. They were looking at their watches. I was a right little demon. I was banging the table! I said: 'I'm not leaving here. I'm going to disgrace you.' They paid me and then I went on my way. You had to be like that in those days."
These days, Paddy, who has been in rehearsals for retirement for more years than he can recall, has big plans.
"My tin whistle is going to be in space," he explains. "You'll see it in the documentary. You'll see astronaut Cady Foreman playing my tin whistle on-board the International Space Station floating around in space, miles above the earth.
"I just got the footage. Someone asks: 'Where do we go from here?' And I say: 'Outer space!'"
Paddy Moloney - the young fella who didn't pinch Fint's flute in 1948 - roars with laughter, his mind miles above the earth...
'Paddy Moloney: Chieftain' airs on RTE One on November 9 at 9.30pm