“I’m looking out at a very sunny garden here at the moment,” says Paddy Moloney, calling from his home in Dublin, Ireland. “There’s a bunch of flowers in front of me here. Just beautiful.” Soon, though, he will swap this idyllic scene for a rigorous U.S. tour with The Chieftains, the band he founded in 1962 and has fronted ever since. He has earned worldwide fame as one of the most legendary Irish musicians of all time, but this exalted status hasn’t made him snobby—he is warm and exuberant as he nimbly darts from topic to topic, fairly bubbling over with enthusiasm for everything.
Although The Chieftains have circled the world many times, this upcoming tour will be particularly special because the shows are meant as a celebratory career overview. “I’m going to be touching on, more so than usual, some of the music from our 50-odd albums that we have recorded,” Moloney says. “There’s lots of excitement and no time to blink. The show just goes bang bang bang—that’s it!”
This is titled “The Irish Goodbye” tour, which seems to worry fans, judging by their speculation in online forums. But when asked if this really will be the band’s final excursion, Moloney is cheerfully cagey, “Well, I don’t know what the hell that’s about. That’s all I can say about it!” When gently pressed a little bit more, he laughs and exclaims, “Have a look at the Rolling Stones and see how they do it! They’re six months younger than we are. Six months. I mean, they’ve had many a goodbye tour.”
But as careful as he is to dodge any talk of retirement, even Moloney seems a bit amazed that he’s kept The Chieftains going so well for this long. “It’s a bit of magic, somehow. It’s very unusual [to be] my age and going for all these years. It’s not easy with the travel and hotels these days. I wish somebody would sponsor a helicopter or a private plane for us!”
But even when Moloney has faced difficulties, he has persevered with good humor. He recalls a particularly problematic show in Pittsburgh three years ago. “We played three nights with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and it was just hilarious: I had a broken ankle! I didn’t know whether I was going to be up to doing it, to be honest, but they wheeled me out and plopped me down and there I was. At the end of the show it was 150 people on stage, a full symphony orchestra, dancers, and a choir. Oh my goodness, it was just amazing.”
Although Moloney’s admirable work ethic and upbeat attitude undoubtedly helped him successfully lead The Chieftains to international stardom, he shies away from taking direct credit. “We came in at the right time,” is all he’ll say about it. But this modesty might be misplaced, as The Chieftains are generally credited with helping to popularize traditional Irish music more than any other band.
The Chieftains are so well-regarded, in fact, that other superstars have clamored to perform with them. As a result, over the decades, they have shared the stage and made recordings with such luminaries as Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Sinéad O’Connor, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Madonna, Sting, Emmylou Harris, and even Richard Harris, to name only a few. This upcoming tour will be no different, though Moloney declines to specify exactly who they’ve invited to perform with them this time out, preferring to keep that a surprise for the audiences.
Moloney is more forthcoming with other details about these upcoming shows, though. “We always get a full pipe band, which can often have about 25 pipers and drummers, so you can imagine,” he says, delighted. (At their New York City show last year, the large guest piping band caused a minor ruckus when, as he recalls, “they were tuning up outside the theater and I think they turned off the traffic lights and closed the streets!”) He also promises that local choirs will join each show. And as if all that isn’t enough to wrangle into place, he adds, “I think also there’s a television crew going to be following us around the States.” But what would likely seem like a chaotic logistical nightmare to someone else is, judging by Moloney’s glee, just one more adventure to anticipate.
According to Moloney, the band members expect that the Newark, New Jersey and New York City shows will be standouts on this tour. The New York show is actually on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17 at The Town Hall), with the Newark show just before (on March 15 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center). “We get a tremendous welcome in New York,” Moloney says. “We do absolutely love playing the Town Hall because we just love the atmosphere there. You feel you’re in Granny’s parlor back home, having a good time. For New Jersey, that theater has magic acoustics that we love playing.”
Moloney admits that when he gets off this call, he’ll finally start working on putting together the specific program for these shows. Leaving this until less than a month before the tour begins is, he says with a chuckle, “terrifying everybody else: ‘Where is the program?’ Sometimes I only do it just before a show, and it can change dramatically.” He is clearly not worried about the other musicians’ ability to keep up with his ever-shifting plans, though—especially his bandmates, flute player Matt Molloy and vocalist and drummer Kevin Conneff, both of whom have been his bandmates since the seventies.
Moloney’s own history with The Chieftains goes all the way back to 1962, when he founded the band in his native Dublin. By then, he was already well-respected for his skills playing the tin whistle and the Uilleann pipes (a type of traditional Irish bagpipe). “In 1959, 1960, I was playing and winning competitions, but what I really wanted to do was get into the real depth of Irish music, which is a great, great folk art,” he explains.
Moloney came by his musical talent naturally. “I’ve got this God-given gift of being able to pick up on a tune if I hear it once or twice. Pieces of music that would be on the radio, classical pieces, and I’d be whistling them after. That’s when I was six or seven. That’s when my mother bought me a tin whistle. But my grandfather was a flute player. My mother played. Other uncles played the bagpipes. Every one of them played the squeezebox, the accordion. So there was music in the house all the time.”
The Chieftains released their self-titled debut album in 1964. It took them some time to convince critics and audiences to give them proper consideration, as it was still relatively rare for a band to perform traditional Irish music with such ambition. But by the mid-seventies, things were going well enough that the band members finally quit their day jobs and became professional musicians. But it wasn’t an easy to make that leap, Moloney recalls. “Everybody had government jobs, civil servants, that kind of stuff. And we all had families. And we were not spring chickens at that time, even—we were getting on! So it was a big decision to break the link. Pensions went out the window.”
The gamble paid off when they were nominated for an Oscar for their work on the soundtrack for the 1975 Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lydon. By 1976, they were selling out prestigious venues like the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Since then, they’ve gone on to release more than 50 albums, winning six Grammys along the way (and they have received 22 Grammy nominations altogether).
Even with so much success, Moloney says that some honors stand out, in particular, as when The Chieftains were invited to perform for Pope John Paul II when he visited Ireland in 1979. “That was 1.2 million people we played for,” Moloney says. “We were the opening act, of course, he was the headliner! Things like that were great.”
Moloney says it is gratifying to watch people around the world learn to appreciate traditional Irish music, just as he’d hoped they would when he first formed the band. This music has become particularly popular in Japan, he says. “We’ve been going there 30, 40 years. They just love the music. So much so that there’s a group called The Lady Chieftains—they’re in their 20s, 30s, playing flute, whistles, pipes, that kind of thing. We had them play with us onstage the last time; it was just terrific. So there was lots of tears [from them], my shirt was wet with tears! Crying and crying, ‘Don’t go!’ So sweet of them.”
Speculating on why Irish music is so universally beloved, Moloney says that there is “something about the music that touches the hearts of everybody, and I’m so delighted it’s young people these days that really get turned on to the music. I wouldn’t like to go into competition anymore! They’re just amazing, the stuff that’s coming out is terrific. And genuine. Particularly the soloists.”
For his part, Moloney is still eagerly exploring new musical landscapes, even now. “I’m not finished yet! I’m recording tomorrow, in fact,” he says. “Some Breton music, from Brittany, the northwest of France, which is a Celtic region.” He chose to do this recording “because of the great association of Irish music and Breton music—it’s all Celtic stuff.”
Given Moloney’s endless enthusiasm, fans probably shouldn’t worry too much that he’ll decide to retire anytime soon. “To me, music is body and soul,” Moloney says. “It’s essential, music is. I would be lost without it. If I didn’t have music, I don’t know what I’d be. I mean, I was going to be an accountant—but thank God, I just love the music. One can only say it’s been a tremendous musical journey. I would never change it for anything, the way it’s been.”
The Chieftains will play at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey on March 15, and at The Town Hall in New York City on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day).