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Ireland's Emissaries: The Chieftains

Updated on November 4, 2014

The Celtic Heartbeat

In 1944, Paddy Moloney's mother bought the young Dublin lad a tin whistle when he was only six years old, little knowing that a tin whistle can travel quite far indeed. Not only did that tin whistle inspire Paddy to pick up the Uillean Pipes (commonly referred to as the Union Pipes) when he was only eight, but that it would induce him to one day form the most enduring Irish band known the world over; the Chieftains. I was able to speak with Paddy recently by phone, and in between one of the many tangents that led hither and yon, he imparted this story to me, which illustrates just how far a tin whistle can go.

“...anyway, that's has nothing to do with the music.” Paddy said, briefly bringing us back on topic...almost. “It does lead to one little thing, though, in case I forget to mention it; a tin whistle of mine was sent up in space and went around in Discovery. One of the astronauts, Cady (Catherine) Coleman is a flute player and is just mad about the Chieftains and our sound. The funny thing about it was, when I sent it from Dublin by courier, it got bent and bashed up a bit, so the engineers in Houston straightened it out and sent it up in space!” Paddy, unwilling to let go of a story before a moral was tacked onto it quickly added, “It went around the world a couple of times and came back perfect, so it's better to send things by spacecraft than by courier!”

Even with that tin whistle traveling into space and back, I wondered if the Chieftains had journeyed farther during their years of endless touring.

“Probably so, because we've been all over the world. I mean China and Japan and we still travel to all these places. The Japanese just love us, even after forty years of appearing there! In the headlines, just a year and a half ago, they called us 'The Chiefs of the Celtic Music.' So, we're still turning out good stuff, from all accounts.” Paddy went on in a headlong rush, switching topics to all of the folks that they have shared the stage with. “We have a big show, apart from the Chieftains, we need a little extra from the young blood, from the people who are guesting with us, and there's no shortage of guests. Through the Down The Old Plank Road series, we got to meet all those wonderful musicians and singers. We have Jeff White, who you might say is the sixth Chieftain, when we made the two albums and he was very helpful to me in selecting stuff and chasing down musicians and singers, because he's Vince Gill's right hand man and he also performs a lot and is a brilliant singer. While we're on that subject, another guest appearing with us is a gal called Deanie Richardson and she's a brilliant fiddle player and she plays mandolin and so she's going to guest with us as well this year and she's a close friend of Jeff's (White), of course they work well together. So we're covering that side of our contribution to music, you know, the link up between our own music and American Folk music and, of course, it's pretty strong. In addition to that, of course...if I'm going too fast for you...(laughs)”

Going The Distance

The distance that the Chieftains themselves have traveled, however, is immeasurable. Not only have they traversed the globe innumerable times, spreading the gospel of Celtic music, they have also reached far back in time to retrieve the sound and the rhythms held fast in the grasp of the past; the reels, jigs and tunes that may have lain forgotten in time. The Chieftains were formed in 1962 when Paddy Moloney (uillean pipes), Martin Fay (fiddle and bones), Seán Potts (tin whistle), Micheal Tubridy (flute), and David Fallon (bodhrán), got together to record what was thought to be a one off album at the time. Through creative arrangements of traditional Irish music, their approach was vibrantly new, yet still held true to the time-honored traditions on which it was based. After forty-seven years, forty-three albums, nineteen Grammy nominations (which garnered six Grammy wins), and a fan base that stretches the world over, the formula quite obviously worked. The Chieftains have been able to enter the world music scene and find either the direct Celtic influences on various cultures or to be able to form a sympathetic union between Irish music and other indigenous culture's musical rhythms, creating a blend that compliments both forms of expression. Although the membership roster within the Chieftains has changed over the years, the music and the vision is still the same. Paddy went on to describe what fans can expect on the Chieftain's latest tour.

“Through the years, we've gotten to meet all those wonderful musicians and singers. We have Jeff White, who you might say is the sixth Chieftain, and he also performs a lot and is a brilliant singer. Another guest appearing with us is a gal called Deanie Richardson, a brilliant fiddle player and she plays mandolin as well this year. So we're covering that side of our contribution to music, you know, the link up between our own music and American Folk music and, of course, it's pretty strong.” Paddy went on to say, “In addition to all of that, we've got two lads from Canada, Jon and Nate (Jon and Nathan Pilatzke), and they are from the Ottawa, Canada and they do OttawaValley style dance. They have their own little dance company called StepCrew and with them, of course, is the lovely Cara Butler, and that's Jean Butler's sister from Riverdance fame, and Cara's been performing with us for fifteen years. Jon (Pilatzke) is a master fiddle player and he's going to be playing all night with us, as well as jumping up and down for a few steps. Everybody in the group will be performing a solo piece, which reminds me also of the harp player...”

Though I knew that the subject eventually had to be broached, I felt a sadness overcome me now that that point had been reached. Derek Bell joined the Chieftains full time in late 1973, filling a void that Paddy Moloney felt was missing, completing the ensemble sound that he had envisioned for the group. Bell played the Irish harp, keyboards and the oboe for the group up until his death due to complications from a surgery in 2002.

“You know that we lost our dear friend, Derek Bell, or 'Ding Dong' Bell as I used to call him...and he was so wonderful.” Paddy said wistfully, using the nickname that Bell had received after being questioned by Soviet police for having a large alarm clock stuffed into his pants pocket while running through customs, trying to catch a plane. Paddy went on to describe the Chieftain's new harpist. “We have with us now and absolute genius on the harp. Her name is Triona Marshall, a lovely young redhead and she just takes the house down with all of her talent...she takes away the thunder from us! (laughs) She's so fantastic. Last but not least, a guest that came out with us last year, and she comes to us from one of the islands off Scotland, the Island of Lewis and they speak Scot-Gaelic there as their main language ans she sings in Gaelic and in English as well. In fact, she's going to do a little number in Spanish on Guadalupe from our album Santiago. Her name is Alyth McCormack and she is beautiful, a great singer and a bit of a dancer as well.”

I was curious as to what future projects Paddy had in mind for the Chieftains. There had been a lull in their usually rabid recording schedule and there had not been an original release since Live From Dublin: A Tribute To Derek Bell in 2005.

“I have to say that I was getting a little depressed over the situation with the whole record industry, the place of the artists and all the downloading...I didn't see much of a point of making an album. I've had this project going, for twenty or twenty-five years, and I've always been edged on by the great Ry Cooder. He's been after me for some time to do this project called San Patricio, which is the Spanish name for St. Patrick.” Paddy went on to fill me in on the historical significance of the link between the Irish and the Spanish. “There was a battalion that fought in the Spanish War in 1847 and that battalion was called San Patricio (Batallón de San Patricio) and it was headed up by a commander named (Brevet Major) John Riley who came from (Clifden) Connemara, CountyGalway in Ireland. He brought with him many of the Irish people into that battalion and they fought until the very end. The Irish, of course, are always great fighters and they stood their ground in a convent in Mexico City, where the last battle took place.”

A lot of the Irish soldiers that survived that battle were later court marshaled and hanged as deserters. Since most of the young men had been conscripted into the American Army immediately upon reaching Ellis Island, they had no real vested interest in the war and many could not reconcile themselves with fighting for predominantly Protestant commanders that ordered them to kill Spanish Catholics. More than a few of the soldiers fled deep within Mexico and points farther south, spreading out across the land, filling it not only with their progeny, but also their heritage of sound, which surface now and again within the strains of “traditional” Mexican music. This influence of form can still be heard today and that it what the Chieftains aim to capture on the CD, San Patricio.

That Irish Influence

With all of the various musical and cultural influences that the Chieftains had been touched by or influenced themselves, some of the stories Paddy shared were almost beyond comprehension.

“Yeah, there's just an abundance of influences. We did a TV show…in Canada for CBC a couple of years ago...oh, a few years ago...but I had these Inuit singers...you know?”

I asked if he meant Inuit throat singers.

“Yeah! The throat singers. They came down and I was able to mix in our song called Kerry Slides into their tunes. They do this dancing and this one lady had a baby on her back and they sang into one another's face and they have these double voices, like two sounds at the same time, which is incredible stuff.” Paddy went on with barely a pause, saying, “Frank Zappa introduced me to them fifteen years ago, or eighteen years ago, I think, and we recorded together over at his house in Los Angeles. I brought a group of them on tour with us for a month, and ah! it was a great time! They had this drum, this bodhrán, and it still had the hairs of the yak on it and the smell of it!...because obviously they had just killed it before they left! (laughs) But they were wonderful guys.”

Before the Chieftains came along in 1962, most Irish folk music was relegated to the purists and this new rock and roll thing had some people worried that the whole of Celtic folk art would fade away into obscurity. I asked Paddy what compelled him to create the Chieftains and why was his heart so strongly bound to the Irish sound.

“I just felt that the music needed to be heard around the world. It's a music that so melodically strong. It has grace, melodies and a tremendous variety of all the stuff that you can come up with. For such a little island stuck out there in the Atlantic, my God! there's no country that compares. The harp music and the lovely old style of singing, called the sean-nós style of singing, and it comes out in all different forms.” Paddy seemed, for once, to run out of words, unable to fully describe the indescribable allure of Celtic music. He added in a hushed tone, “I could be going on forever. I mean, it's been part of our life. Irish music, to me, is necessary for the mind, body and soul.”

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    • JTRyder profile image
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      John Thomas Niswonger 2 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Thanks Tina! I was able to meet with Paddy after one of the Chieftains concerts and he is an amazing man. When I did this interview, I was able to say "Hello!" and then around fifteen minutes later I was able to ask my first question. Paddy definitely has a vivid memory and a penchant for stories!

    • Alfiesgirl LM profile image

      Alfiesgirl LM 2 years ago

      I'l be coming back at a better time to read your HubPages as I got here via something you posted in the forum which I felt deserved an answer but now I'm here and have seen your writing I doubt I am the right person to be offering you advice regarding your style of writing as your style is amazingly easy-to-read yet full of the information which I would want to ask/know about if I were aware it existed... if you get my drift! Your style cannot be anything but what it is & keeping your subjects in line with your own perspective as you do is what makes me want to read more...I'm not even sure if I have heard music from The Chieftans yet but now find myself wanting to!

      Love Today! ~ Tina ~