Music is all the poorer since the death of uilleann piper Paddy Moloney. And our neighbourhood is the poorer too
If his life seemed exotic, travelling the world as a troubadour and hanging out in the recording studio with such luminaries as Mick Jagger, Van Morrison or Willie Nelson, Paddy Moloney kept his feet firmly on the ground.
His official address was a cottage near Annamoe, Co Wicklow, where he was part of a ‘set’ that enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle centred around the local village and the impregnable fastness of Luggala, where his patron, friend and Guinness heir Garech Browne held sway.
But when he wanted to ‘get away from it all’ he retired to his anonymous villa five minutes’ walk from the centre of Blackrock, Co Dublin, far from the hectic lifestyle that characterised his fame as leader of The Chieftains.
There he was at once local — as in always ready with a greeting and a smile — but largely left alone, whether that was when he went shopping in the local supermarket, getting his nightly tipple in the off-licence, or visiting local restaurants.
Internationally famous as an uilleann piper he always carried a tin whistle in his inside pocket. If asked to play a few tunes after a good meal and a bottle of wine with his wife Rita in Chi, a Chinese restaurant within walking distance of their home, he was always ready to oblige – but not to mingle. He probably had enough friends already.
Despite the trappings of musical acclaim, he was so unobtrusive that most of his neighbours didn’t quite realise just how famous he was.
On New Year’s Eve after celebrating in style, as he did, he was known to parade up and down the avenue outside the house, energetically playing the tin whistle to welcome in the new year and salute the neighbours.
More recently a local builder, who knew Paddy casually, picked him up in his van when he saw the leader of The Chieftains standing waiting with others for the No 7 bus outside the shopping centre on the Rock Road.
When he was sitting comfortably the builder said he’d heard that Paddy always carried the whistle, which was duly produced.
“What would you like to hear?” the Chieftain asked as they motored on.
“Why not ‘Kelly the Boy from Killane’,” replied the builder, who was not that familiar with traditional music but knew of his passenger’s fame, and so mentioned the only tune he remembered from his schooldays.
Paddy played until they reached St. Vincent’s Hospital, his destination.
“Did you like that?” Paddy asked, as he unbuckled the seat belt.
“I did, but I didn’t know it went on for so long,” the builder answered and they parted, laughing.
Another friend tells the story of meeting Paddy after they had not seen each other for a couple of years.
“And what is your son Pádraig doing now?” she inquired of his youngest child.
“He’s a rocket scientist,” answered Paddy. The friend began to laugh, but realised that Paddy didn’t find it funny. His son actually is a rocket scientist with Nasa, which partly explains why his tin whistle was taken into space to be played on the International Space Station.
Purists might argue that Paddy Moloney was not the best uilleann piper of his generation, but he developed a unique sound from the pipes and nobody could deny that when it came to promoting traditional Irish music throughout the world, Paddy was in a league of his own.
With a mischievous twinkle in the eye and a gleeful sense of fun, no matter who he was dealing with, he was The Chieftains, although the band went through various guises and every one of its line-ups consisted of top-flight musicians.
Brought up in Donnycarney, he spent his summers with his maternal grandparents in the Slieve Bloom Mountain near Ballyfin in Co Laois. They are made of strong stuff in those blue hills, with a determination get on in life. It was this drive that would eventually lead to an estrangement from his mentor, composer Seán Ó Riada.
Ó Riada’s son Peadar acknowledged this to Seán Rocks on RTÉ Radio’s Arena, after Paddy’s death last Tuesday at the age of 83, that a “strain” developed between the two men after Moloney left his father’s pioneering music group Ceoltóirí Chualann, to found The Chieftains and pursue a more commercial career in traditional music in 1962.
In an interview with the broadcaster Liam Nolan in 1970, Seán Ó Riada said of The Chieftains: “They would not have come into existence without Ceoltóirí Chualann. In fact, I admire what they are doing, but it has tremendous limitations. They are limited to doing this kind of thing and I can’t see any future for them.”
What he may not have factored in to this erroneous prediction, was that Moloney and The Chieftains, would change the direction of traditional
Irish music. His natural ability as a publicist, his connections and his charm, would open the band to a worldwide audience and international acclaim.
Paddy Moloney first met Garech Browne, founder of Claddagh Records, at traditional music session in Tulla, Co Clare, in 1956.
Paddy later admitted that he first thought the long-haired baby-faced youth was a girl, but a friendship developed — and Moloney took to dropping in and playing the pipes in Browne’s mews house on Quinn’s Lane off Pembroke Street in central Dublin.
According to Robert O’Byrne in his book Luggala: The story of a Guinness House, the pair were known by the wits around town as ‘Ballcock and Browne’ a pun on the aviators Alcock and Brown, but also what was considered a witty reference to Moloney, who was then working in plumbing and sanitary-ware providers Baxendale’s of Capel Street.
Years later as ‘piper in residence’ at Luggala, the stately Guinness hunting lodge in the Wicklow mountains, he introduced the unique music of The Chieftains to everyone — from Hollywood royalty and international music promoters to a passing parade of celebrities, poets, writers and painters, homegrown and otherwise.
In his book, O’Byrne writes of a lavish lunch in front of the lake hosted by Garech’s mother, Oonagh Guinness, in 1965 and attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. “It was just a big picnic,” Moloney recalled, “The Chieftains played, and Dolly McMahon sang, followed by Leo Rowsome on pipes.”
In the years that followed, Paddy was always on the guest list for a seemingly endless round of parties at Luggala.
“He would come in after dinner and start playing and you could see these very influential people suddenly saying: ‘Who is this guy?’ They were gob-smacked,” says one habitué of those long and often boozy days and nights at the Wicklow mansion.
The collaboration of The Chieftains, Garech Browne and Claddagh Records resulted in a series of recordings that elevated traditional music from the ballad boom to artistic levels unthinkable to those who had previously only heard come-all-ye’s sung late at night in smoky pubs.
He also created a genre that captured an international audience and his innovative arrangements proved that Irish music did not have to be boring and repetitive.
Moloney was a natural troubadour who constantly travelled the globe playing Irish music and making the connections that led to multiple collaborations with the elite of rock’n’roll and world music — an elite with whom he was comfortably at home, never ever sacrificing a thing of his own personality.
But despite the fame, he was also comfortably at home in Blackrock and Annamoe — a man who enjoyed life’s pleasures and who never had to be asked twice to produce the whistle and play something in that unique style that made a lasting impression on the world.