Read an Excerpt
The Authorized Biography
By John Glatt
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 John Glatt
All rights reserved.
Planting the Seeds
In 1792 the Belfast Harpers Society invited folklore collector Edward Bunting to organize a festival of Irish Music. Fearing that the traditional harp music they loved was dying, the Society turned to Bunting in desperation hoping he could turn the tide. A natural promoter, Bunting decided to stage a play-off between ten of Ireland's best harpers as the festival climax.
The festival was a great success, drawing hundreds of musicians from all over Ireland. Dublin people flocked to an array of concerts and performances and there were also musical workshops where aspiring young harpers could get tips from the masters.
When the competition judges finally announced the result of the harp competition the three grand winners were awarded £10 a year each for life. More importantly though for posterity, Bunting and his staff met with each harper in turn to write down all their music in a collection and preserve it for future generations of Irish musicians.
Two hundred years later Bunting's musical descendant Paddy Moloney would feel compelled to repay the debt by commemorating the bi-centenary of the Festival with a gala concert pairing The Chieftains with the modern Belfast Harp Orchestra.
'It's in memory of Edward Bunting,' explained Moloney at the time. 'He was a great collector of Irish music and he'd known all those rogues of harpers as I like to call them.'
Throughout The Chieftains' 33-year career championing traditional music, Moloney had often visited the rich treasure trove of the Bunting collection for material. Now in a delicious irony The Chieftains would record the very same songs preserved by Edward Bunting in a tribute called The Celtic Harp to world acclaim. The Bunting album would bridge two centuries to finally fulfil the Belfast Harpers Society's prayers by taking Irish music soaring to new heights by winning a Grammy award in Hollywood.
But Irish traditional music is ephemeral and without boundaries. Faithfully passed down orally from generation to generation, the music has provided a stirring backdrop for the history of Ireland. It has given the Irish hope and inspiration through eight centuries of colonization, the 1845 holocaust of famine and continuous poverty and hardship.
During the great wave of emigration that followed the Irish famine of the 1840s, when millions abandoned their homeland, Irish sons and daughters faithfully took their music with them and transplanted it across the world where it took roots and grew. Ironically this was at a time when many Irish people turned their backs on their music and culture. It would be another two decades before musical pioneers like The Clancy Brothers, The Chieftains and The Dubliners would popularize traditional music again in Ireland and take it around the world.
* * *
Paddy Moloney was born on August 1st, 1938 in the north Dublin suburb of Donnycarney. His father John, a sergeant in the Irish Army, was a decent bagpiper and his mother Catherine played accordion and sang.
Tragedy hit the Moloneys a year before Paddy's birth when his eight-year-old brother John was knocked over by a motorbike and sidecar, which went out of control killing him and another boy as they were out walking. It was the first motorbike accident in Ireland and made all the Dublin papers. As a child Paddy found himself constantly in the shadow of his late brother, who was always spoken about in the house as if he was still alive, as he grew up with his two elder sisters, Mary and Esther. A younger sister, Sheila, was born in 1941 as John Moloney was preparing himself to serve in the Second World War.
Right from the cradle Paddy, always known as Pat by the family, found himself surrounded by Irish music. His aunt Elizabeth and her children and their friends would regularly come to the Moloney home for musical evenings. Everyone played an instrument or did a special party piece as entertainment and Paddy was often rocked to sleep by the fire to the radio programmes The Ballad Makers, Saturday Night and Round the Fire.
Christmas was a magical time in the Moloney household and Paddy's very first memory at the age of three is of his mother packing the brown case, which she still has, to spend the holidays at his grandparents' little farm, high up in the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Ballyfin, Co. Laois.
Paddy remembers, 'I saw my mother put some jelly into the case and when she wasn't looking I dug in and picked open the cardboard box and ate some. I put it back and thought that was the end of it.'
When they arrived at the farm, his grandmother Julia Conroy helped his mother unpack while a guilty Paddy sheepishly looked on.
Recalls Paddy: 'My grandmother suddenly screamed, "My God, Kate, a mouse has got into your case."
'I didn't say anything. I was terrified that they'd catch me. They kept saying, "Oh, it was a mouse all right." They knew darn well who had done it.'
Twice a year, during Easter and the three-month summer holidays, Paddy and his sisters would stay with Granny Conroy and her husband Stephen, who was a concert flautist. Once the children arrived in the country off came their shoes and socks and they would go barefoot everywhere.
The only time they were expected to dress up was for Mass on Sunday and holy days, which were serious formal family occasions. Out came their best clothes, everyone would be scrubbed clean and the smell of boot polish would permeate the farm house as Paddy and his sisters shone their shoes to perfection.
Then the Conroy's old horse Paddy would be brought out to the front of the cottage and harnessed to a large trap. There would be stifled giggles as the children watched their huge Granny struggling to get into the trap which sunk down measurably under her weight. Eventually when everyone was safely packed into the trap, they rode the five miles downhill to the village church and tethered the horse to a big metal ring on a long wall alongside the other horses.
During the summer holidays so many members of the family would stay at the Conroys that three children would often have to cram into the old settle bed with straw mattress. But after a day running around outside, they all slept like logs.
The first time Paddy ever heard the sound of the pipes was from his uncle Stephen, an excellent bagpiper who had won an all-Ireland competition in his youth. He would arrive early and march up and down the kitchen playing beautifully crafted solo pieces which rang out through the cottage. Sometimes, late at night, Uncle Stephen would go out to a small wood behind the cottage and play soothing lullabies to the infant Paddy and send him into a deep sleep.
At weekends the Conroys would host hooleys or parties in which all the children took part. These were informal and friends and neighbours would turn up with flutes, melodeons, the odd fiddle and spoons. They always started at 8:00 in the evening and the music and dancing often went on until 8:00 in the morning with two tea sittings in the middle of the night. If the hooley happened to finish on Sunday morning everyone would rush off and go straight to Mass.
'We'd dance all night,' Paddy recalls. 'And it was wild dancing. Unbelievable. Finally, at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning there was always old-time waltzes to finish off the dances.'
But on special occasions there would be well organized house dances that everyone heard about in advance by word of mouth. On the appointed night Paddy's seven aunts and uncles and untold numbers of cousins and friends would pile into the cottage for a night of traditional music and dancing. Often so many turned up that the party spilled out into the farmyard.
Although just 60 miles from Dublin, daily life in the Slieve Bloom Mountains was unaffected by the outside world and had remained unchanged for centuries. One of the most popular pastimes was affectionately referred to as 'rambling.' At any time of the day or night a neighbour might arrive at the front door breathlessly exclaiming, 'God save all here,' and just walk in, sit down and join in the stories of what was going on, particularly in the area. Under the unwritten rules of Irish hospitality everyone was always welcome.
Grandfather Conroy often took Paddy off rambling to friends' houses where he played tunes on the flute which the young boy picked up by ear and would put to good use years later. Those days spent with his grandfather were some of the happiest he would ever know and he experienced an inner peace he would never forget.
'These were the best days of my life,' admits Moloney today. 'So simple. Nature. Little places to play. Going down to the little river to wash. Little things like that were so important.'
Paddy and his grandfather regularly visited an eccentric old flute player called Fint Lanham to share tunes. It was well known that Lanham kept his flute in the river weighted down by a large stone, believing it would improve the sound. When Lanham's flute went missing he became convinced that Paddy had stolen it and soon the local Garda sergeant was cycling up the steep hill to the farm on a scorching hot summer's day to investigate. The young boy was terrified that he might go to prison but the highly amused policeman was never in any doubt that this was another of the old man's fantasies. The flute was found behind the Sacred Heart picture hanging on the wall. That was the last time they ever rambled to Lanham's house.
Growing up, Paddy had an inexhaustible curiosity to find out as much as he could about the world. He was lucky to have a willing and exceptional early teacher in his grandmother. Julia Conroy was self-educated and highly respected in the community and known as a great reader. She had a huge collection of books on all subjects and delighted in reading out loud to Paddy and the other neighbouring children.
Although she lived in a remote area high up on a mountain, Julia Conroy had her own distinct worldly philosophy about life. Her views and ideas were an enormous influence on her grandchildren. Indeed, one of the first songs Paddy ever remembers hearing was his grandmother singing her favorite song, Little Maid from Malabar, as she sat on top of an old wooden churn during one of the house parties. Half a century later The Chieftains would record it with Ry Cooder on The Long Black Veil album after renaming it The Coast of Malabar as Paddy feared 'Little Maid' would have a different meaning outside Ireland.
At the age of eight Paddy went to his first wake after the death of a neighbour while he was staying in Co. Laois. 'There was the body laid out on the bed and I was sitting down saying a prayer. Then one of the older mourners kicked me up the arse with his boot and I went flying onto the corpse. That was the sort of irreverent humour they had. I had nightmares for ages. But it was also a wonderful lesson to learn about life and death at such an early age.'
For two weeks every summer Paddy's father John Moloney would turn up in Ballyfin to visit his family during his annual vacation from the army. As money was so tight he used to get up at 5:00 a.m. and cycle the 60 miles to the Slieve Bloom Mountains arriving at 8:00 that night. He was a good father and provider and would often send little parcels containing presents for his children who would always be waiting hopefully at the top of the lane for the postman.
Paddy spent most of his childhood in Donnycarney where the main sources of music were the wireless and an old wind-up HMV gramophone which he still has. As an infant he was allowed to wind up the gramophone when friends and family came around for dances. The Moloney's had a collection of old 78's ranging from piping soloists to John McCormack and pop records of the 1940s as well as old songs like I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.
In those days, although there was little Irish music on the radio, RTE did broadcast an Irish Ballad programme every Saturday night and a half-hour-long live Ceili Band Session on Sunday nights. Although they were on at 9:30 p.m., and Paddy was tucked up in bed upstairs, he and his sister Sheila had no trouble hearing the music through the floor as the radio was always turned up to full volume.
By now Paddy was smitten by traditional music and knew he wanted to be a musician one day. Possessing a rich imagination he often daydreamed about the origins of the music, where it came from and how it found its way to other countries.
'There's an old Irish poem that makes me feel how far back our traditional music goes,' says Moloney. 'Thánaig Long o Valparaiso ("A ship came from Valparaso and they raised the sails in the bay.") I used to conjure up all these great ideas about where the ship came from and the music it brought such as the ballad The Coast of Malabar, and what its connection was with Ireland. It was magical for me.'
Paddy's first musical landmark came when he finally convinced his mother to let him try her single-row melodeon, which was always kept well out of reach on the top of a high dresser in the kitchen. Finally Catherine Moloney gave in to his pleas and her four-year-old son played his first real musical instrument. Just recalling the experience today sends Paddy into ecstatic reminiscences. 'The tune I tried to play was a simple version of Roll Out the Barrel. You see, the first four bars could be played on one note, by pulling it in and out. Oh God, the smell of that melodeon was great.'
Catherine immediately recognized her son had a rare musical gift and from then on did everything she could to develop it. That Christmas Eve she took Paddy to see Santa Claus and then bought him a white tin whistle with a shiny red top for one shilling and nine pence in Bolgers in North Earl Street, Dublin. As soon as they got on the bus to go home, he started to teach himself the scale. As they got off, another passenger, unknown to Paddy, said 'Keep at it, son, and you'll soon get the high D.' The passenger was Leo Rowsome, who was later to became Paddy's pipes teacher.
'It was the greatest treasure I ever had,' says Moloney today.
Now that he had power of expressing the music he heard in his head through an instrument, Paddy Moloney would be unstoppable.
* * *
As he became more accomplished on the tin whistle, Paddy began to realize the potential power of his music and how to use it to his best advantage. Having just started at the St Mary's School in the nearby district of Marino, Paddy, who was far smaller than his classmates, found he could easily counter any potential bullying, and ensure popularity at the same time, simply by playing his whistle, giving recitals and acting out songs.
'I was like the pied piper,' he says. 'I used to get all the gang out in the avenue after school. I'd play the whistle and have everyone marching after me in a procession.'
Paddy's school teacher, Brother Seamus McCaffrey, had a love of traditional music and took the promising student under his wing, teaching him the tonic solfa notation system, which he still relies on. Employing the Mary Poppins' method 'Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do' Paddy could now instantly pick up tunes and write them down even while they were being played.
Musically he was always at or near the top of the class. With his classmates he spent an hour a day on their tonic solfa. When the feared school inspector made his annual visit it would always be young Moloney who was called out to the front of the class to demonstrate tonic solfa to perfection.
Brother McCaffrey, who has since left the brotherhood and got married, encouraged Paddy to join the school band run by Brother Forrestal. And it was when he heard fellow pupil Leon Rowsome playing uilleann pipes Paddy had an epiphany. He knew at once this was the instrument he was born to play.
The uilleann pipes were developed in the 18th century as a more sophisticated indoor version of the old Irish war pipes, once banned by Queen Elizabeth I who saw them as a threat. Worked by a bag filled by a bellows and not a blow pipe, there is a chanter or melody pipe which is fully chromatic and gives a range of two octaves. Regulators and drones can be added to accompany the melody.
Leon's father Leo Rowsome was then known in Ireland as 'The King of the Pipers' and, as well as making uilleann pipes, he led his own quartet of pipers who had a regular half-hour programme on RTE. Once a week after dinner the whole Moloney family would dutifully gather around the radio in the parlour to listen to the Leo Rowsome Pipes Quartet.
Excerpted from The Chieftains by John Glatt. Copyright © 1997 John Glatt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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