After leading Irish folk supergroup The Chieftains for nearly six decades, from the early years of toiling in obscurity to the triumph of six Grammys and international fame, Paddy Moloney could retire any time he wants. Now 80, he has tried. Or dreamed of trying, anyway. The grind of the road, he admits, is no fun — especially in inclement weather. But he still enjoys playing (alternating among Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion and an Irish drum called a bodhrán), the music still energizes him, and there’s still high demand for what he and his bandmates do. So he soldiers on. And fans everywhere appreciate the effort.
Over in Japan, where the Chieftains have played for 30 years, the group’s concerts (three packed ones in Tokyo last November alone) are attended by members of a devoted Chieftains fan club. Its members, young Japanese women in their 20s and 30s, tote around pipes, flutes, fiddles, harps and bodhrans and call themselves The Lady Chieftains. During the November shows, according to Moloney, they were “crying their eyes out.” “It’s pretty personal,” he says of the Chieftains experience. “This is what Irish music will do for you. And that’s what we do best.”
In an SCP Specials concert March 2 at Symphony Center, a favorite Chieftains stop since the days of Boss Daley, Moloney will lead an aural and visual extravaganza with multiple components: instrumental, vocal, dance and video. “There’s no better place than Chicago,” he says. “They’re tremendous people. I love the city, I love the restaurants, I just love being there.”
For the group’s upcoming visit, he promises some “fresh things,” including his new arrangement of an old tune called “The Rights of Man” to mark the centennial of Dáil Éireann, the lower house and principal chamber of the Irish legislature. The performance also will feature “The Troublemaker’s Jig,” a new piece Moloney composed for an upcoming documentary on the late South African revolutionary and political leader Nelson Mandela. A full choir and a pipe band will be on hand as well.
Moloney is calling from Ireland, where he lives in the County of Wicklow, near bucolic Glendalough, and in Dublin, where he occasionally runs into his friend and fan Paul Hewson — better known as the Irish-born rock god Bono of U2 fame. No big deal. Moloney and his musical mates have long been revered by folk and rock royalty. Besides Bono, other admirers include Mick Jagger, Sinead O’Connor, Roger Daltrey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The ensemble also are esteemed by actual royalty, including Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and the Empress of Japan. And Moloney is a bona-fide icon in his own right, with plenty of evidence to prove it.
As he talks, he’s sitting by a new portrait of him painted by renowned Belfast artist Colin Davidson, whose subjects range from Queen Elizabeth to Ed Sheeran, which might soon hang in London’s National Gallery (if Moloney doesn’t purchase it for home hanging purposes). He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates. This past summer, he was dubbed a Commander of the Order of the Civil Merit by King Philip VI of Spain for his outstanding contributions to Celtic and traditional music.
While honors and accolades are nice, the music is and always has been what matters most. It’s what keeps Moloney rooted. It’s also what keeps him raring to go when the prospect of another flight, another hotel, another town makes him wish he could stay home in Glendalough, communing with bees and butterflies in a meadow on his property.
“I’ve slowed down a bit now, to be honest,” he says. “But once I get on the stage, sit down and start playing, no problem. Once the old pipes and tin whistle start to warm up, it’s great.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.