Paddy Moloney, Irish piper who led the Chieftains, dies at 83
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Paddy Moloney, Irish piper who led the Chieftains, dies at 83
Paddy Moloney, one of the founders of the Chieftains, at his home in Naples, Fla., Jan. 30, 2012. Moloney, the playful but disciplined frontman and bagpiper of the Chieftains, a band that was at the forefront of the worldwide revival of traditional Irish music played with traditional instruments, died on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Dublin. He was 83. Greg Kahn/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Paddy Moloney, the playful but disciplined frontman and bagpiper of the Chieftains, a band that was at the forefront of the worldwide revival of traditional Irish music played with traditional instruments, died on Monday in Dublin. He was 83.

His daughter Aedin Moloney confirmed the death, at a hospital, but did not specify the cause.

For nearly 60 years the Chieftains toured extensively, released more than two dozen albums and won six Grammy Awards. They were particularly known for their collaborations with artists like Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Nanci Griffith and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Over the Sea to Skye,” the Chieftains’ collaboration with flutist James Galway, peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard classical album chart in 1996.

“Our music is centuries old, but it is very much a living thing,” Moloney told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989. “We don’t use any flashing lights or smoke bombs or acrobats falling off the stage.” He added, “We try to communicate a party feeling, and that’s something that everybody understands.”

In 2012, when he was vice president, President Joe Biden told People magazine that his desire was to sing “Shenandoah” with the Chieftains “if I had any musical talent.” He invited them to perform at his inauguration this year, but COVID-related restrictions kept them from traveling.

Moloney was a master of many instruments: He played the uileann pipes (the national bagpipes of Ireland), the tin whistle, the bodhran (a type of drum) and the button accordion. He was also the band’s lead composer and arranger.

Asked in 2010 on the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” what he thought was the sexiest instrument, he chose the pipes.

“I often call it the octopus,” he said, “and so, I mean, that’s something that gets every part of you moving.”

The Chieftains performed at the Great Wall of China, in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, joining with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd to play “The Wall.”

Their best-known recordings included “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “O’Sullivan’s March,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “The Long Black Veil” (with Jagger). Their 1992 album “Another Country,” a collaboration with country artists like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins, won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

Their other Grammys included one for best pop collaboration with vocals for “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?,” a collaboration with Morrison from their album “The Long Black Veil,” released in 1995, and one for best world album, for “Santiago” (1996), consisting of Spanish and Latin American music.

Moloney had an affinity for country music.

“I always considered Nashville like another part of Ireland, down to the south or something,” he said on the website of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in 2020. “When I’ve come over there and played with musical geniuses like Sam Bush or Jerry Douglas or Earl Scruggs, they pick everything up so easily. You don’t have to duck and dash.”

The last track on “Another Country” — “Finale: Did You Ever Go A-Courtin’, Uncle Joe/Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — features Harris, Ricky Skaggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Rambles, a cultural arts magazine, described it as “the closest you will come to an Irish hooley on record,” a reference to an Irish party with music. The track, the magazine said, sounded like “a few pints were quaffed and the boxty bread was passed around before the assembled greats of music decided to have a musical free-for-all.”

Patrick Moloney was born on Aug. 1, 1938, in Donnycarney, in northern Dublin. His father, John, worked in the accounting department of the Irish Glass Bottle Co. His mother, Catherine (Conroy) Moloney, was a homemaker.

Paddy came from a musical family: One of his grandfathers played the flute, and his Uncle Stephen played in the Ballyfin Pipe Band. Paddy began playing a plastic tin whistle at 6 and began studying the uileann pipes shortly afterward, under the tutelage of a man known as the “King of the Pipers.”

He took to the pipes easily, gave his first public concert when he was 9 and performed on local streets.

“There were five pipers around the Donnycarney area,” he told Ireland’s Own magazine in 2019. “I’d go around the cul-de-sac playing like the pied piper, and my pals would be following behind me.”

After leaving school in the 1950s, he started working at Baxendale & Co., a building supplies company, where he met his future wife, Rita O’Reilly. He joined the traditional Irish band Ceoltóirí Chualann in 1960 and formed the Chieftains in 1962; the name came from the short story “Death of a Chieftain” by Irish author John Montague.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Moloney was an executive of Claddagh Records, of which he was a founder, and produced or oversaw 45 albums in folk, traditional, classical, poetry and spoken word.

The Chieftains — who hit it big in the mid-1970s with sold-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London — were strictly an instrumentalist ensemble at first. But in the 1980s the band pivoted from their early purism, and Moloney emerged as a composer, writing new music steeped in Irish tradition.

The Chieftains began to blend Irish music with styles from the Celtic diaspora in Spain and Canada as well as bluegrass and country from the United States. They collaborated with well-known rock and pop musicians and with an international assortment of musicians as far-flung as Norway, Bulgaria and China.

On his own, Moloney branched into writing and arranging music for films, including “Barry Lyndon” (1975), “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by two sons, Aonghus and Padraig; four grandchildren; and a sister, Sheila.

In 2012, on the 50th anniversary of their founding, the Chieftains teamed up with 12 folk, country, bluegrass, rockabilly and indie rock artists — including Bon Iver, the Decembrists, the Low Anthem and Imelda May — to record the album “Voice of Ages.” They also embarked on a tour that ended at Carnegie Hall on St. Patrick’s Day.

“What’s happening here with these young groups,” Moloney told The New York Times at the time, explaining the album’s concept, “is they’re coming back to the melody, back to the real stuff, the roots and the folk feeling of them all. I can hear any of them singing folk songs.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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