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Mick Moloney obituary: Accomplished musician and folk music academic who had a huge influence in preserving and enhancing traditional music


Mick Moloney plays mandolin at the 'Cherish the Ladies: An Irish Homecoming' concert in New York. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Mick Moloney plays mandolin at the 'Cherish the Ladies: An Irish Homecoming' concert in New York. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Mick Moloney plays mandolin at the 'Cherish the Ladies: An Irish Homecoming' concert in New York. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Mick Moloney was an energetic and accomplished traditional musician, who as a member of The Emmet Folk Group and The Johnstons was to the forefront of what became known as “the Ballad Boom” of the 1960s. It had an enormous influence in preserving and enhancing Irish music at home and abroad.

He later went on to become a leading folk music academic in the United States and, according to his obituary in the New York Times, was “a recording artist, folklorist, concert presenter and professor who championed traditional Irish culture and encouraged female instrumentalists in a male-dominated field”.

When he died at his apartment in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, at the age of 77, he was professor of music at New York University’s prestigious centre for Irish studies, Glucksman Ireland House. Less than a week before he was doing what he still loved most, performing on stage at the Maine Celtic Festival.

“He was an amazing man,” said photographer Roy Esmonde, who collaborated with him throughout the lockdowns on a series of videos called By Memory Inspired: Mick Moloney’s Songbook, in which he played with a variety of musicians and using his vast knowledge of folk music explained the origin and history behind the songs and tunes.

“He was generous to a fault, a very dedicated, passionate and decent person,” said Esmonde, who comes originally from Kilkenny. In the hours after the All-Ireland hurling final, they analysed the game over the phone, with Limerick man Moloney crowing over the Treaty side’s victory.

“He was always on the go. When you rang him, you had to ask where he was, because he could be anywhere in the world,” Esmonde said.

Moloney was found dead in his apartment on Wednesday, July 27, after failing to turn up for an appointment with a publisher to discuss one of his many projects.

Michael Moloney, also known as Mike or Mick, was one of seven children born in Limerick. His father was an air traffic controller at Shannon Airport and his mother a primary school teacher. He studied the guitar and mandolin and graduated to the tenor banjo, which became his favoured instrument and on which he was voted the best player in the world for a number of years.

At a time when there was little traditional music in cities like Dublin and Limerick, the teenage Moloney took himself off to Co Clare to listen to sessions in pubs and to record local musicians, so that he could learn to play their tunes himself.

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He came to Dublin to study economics at UCD, and met up with other musicians influenced by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Around 1966 he teamed up with Dónal Lunny and Brian Bolger to form The Emmet Folk Group, who were moderately successful, but would later become better known as Emmet Spiceland, after he had left.

Around 1969, he and Paul Brady joined The Johnstons, a folk group formed in Slane, Co Meath, by family members, Adrienne, Lucy and Michael Johnston, whose father, Marty, owned a pub in the village. With the arrival of Moloney and Brady, Michael Johnston left, but they went on to have a string of successful albums including The Johnstons, Give a Damn and The Barley Corn.

Moloney played banjo and mandolin and with various members of the group arranged much of the music. As well as playing traditional songs in Ireland, Europe and the US, they also adapted the music of contemporary songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Shay Healy, incorporating the songs into their repertoire.

After leaving the band around 1971, he worked briefly in London, before emigrating to the US in 1973. Based in Germantown, Philadelphia, he continued to make a living as a folk musician through much of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Among his projects was The Green Fields of America, an unconventional touring group of musicians, formed to collect and record the development of ethnic music in the US. The array of musicians and dancers who participated in the project included Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, who went on to find international stardom with the original Riverdance.

In 1992, Moloney received a PhD in folklore and music from the University of Pennsylvania. Between then and his death, he taught folklore and Irish studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Villanova and New York University. But his interests ranged far beyond the confines of Irish folk and tradition.

In the years that followed he became a passionate advocate for Appalachian, Galatian, African and Jewish roots music. Among the albums he produced was If it Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, which included a 1912 song of the same name. He was also an enthusiastic reviver of the old music hall and Tin Pan Alley Irish/American songs, like Ireland Must Be Heaven for My Mother Came from There and My Irish Rosie, which were so beloved of generations of earlier Irish emigrants.

He recalled on Mick Moloney’s Songbook how he became interested in these old songs after being offered a collection of 3,000 pieces of sheet music from that era. He didn’t have the money to buy them, and when he did, they had been bought the week before from under his nose by the actress Grace Kelly. He then amassed his own collection, now in the library of New York University.

“At the heart of the Irish American experiences is a sense of displacement, from one country to another, from a rural to a more complicated way of life,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “There’s that sense of a tug from across the ocean. There’s a profound sense of loss.”

He also championed a new influx of female singers and musicians to traditional music and organised a festival in Manhattan in 1985, a section of which was titled Cherish the Ladies, which eventually led to the formation of a band by the same name. As a musician, arranger, and producer he participated in the recording of some 125 albums during his lifetime.

In 1999 Hillary Clinton, the then US first lady presented him with a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honour in folk and the traditional arts in America. Professor Moloney, as he was officially known, made frequent visits to Ireland, including in May, when he played at the Johnstons Folk Festival in Slane.

Paul Brady said on his website he was “shocked” by his old bandmate’s sudden death. “A fount of musical experience gone,” he lamented.

He was married three times, to Miriam Moloney, the late Philomena Murray from Duleek, Co Meath, and to Judy Sherman, all of which ended in divorce. He is survived by his son Fintan and siblings, Violet Morrissey and Dermot, Kathleen and Nanette Moloney, and his partner in Bangkok, Sangjan Chailungka.

“There are thousands of tunes in the tradition, so when we sit down for rehearsal, our job really isn’t to find material, it’s to exclude material, because, we’d play them all if we could,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. Over his lifetime he played them all.

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