|The Chieftains: A Return to Tradition
An article from 1977 by David Pietrusza
|In taverns dark with age and musty with the aroma of Guinness and Harp, and in concert arenas as
prestigious as Carnegie Hall, a new generation of admirers of traditional Irish music has arisen.
Generally it is a young crowd. Often it is not even Irish, but in the soulful and poignant melodies it
finds something eternal, something which touches upon everyone's origins.
Often the sound is "cerebel,"a collection of ballads challenging the Black and Tans or tearfully
rallying all the counties together. Increasingly though, it is straight-out "traditional" reels and jigs,
slides and Kerry polkas played on a collection of truly medieval instruments, tin whistles, fiddles,
harps, uilleann pipes, hones, and goatskin drums. And the unchallenged champion of this form of
Gaelic music is a seven-man group from Dublin called the Chieftains.
They are, wrote a critic for Britain's Guardian, "superior because of the sheer quality of their playing,
the quality of [leader Paddy] Maloney's arrangements, and the fact that in their music there is room
for everyone to improvise so that no two performances are ever the same. The music varies from
grand, ancient melodies ... played on the pipes, the fiddle or the harp, through to passages as
delicately arranged as if they were for a chamber group, and then boisterous jigs and reels. There is no
folk academic stuffiness about their playing, but a spontaneity and vitality that ensures that the oldest of
songs are treated with contemporary excitement."
For nearly fifteen years these instrumentalists bided their time, built up their repertoire and their
following, turned out five respectably selling albums, scored the sound track for the film Barry
Lyndon--and with a strong streak of practicality kept at their old jobs, unwilling to turn fulltime
The group's leader, Paddy Maloney, a craggy-faced man with a huge Irish grin who pumps away at
the uillean or elbow pipes, and Sean Potts, the band's tin whistle virtuoso, got the whole venture
started when they signed on with Sean O'Riarda's folk orchestra, Ceolteoiri Chaulann, in 1960. Soon
afterwards fiddlers Martin Fay and Sean Keene and Peadar Mercier, who handled the bodhran or
goatskin drum--an instrument resembling a giant tambourine--enlisted and the quintet became the
They produced their first recording in 1964 but they held on to their positions as postmen,
administrators, purchasing agents, and construction foremen, and did not come forth with Chieftains
2 for another five years.
Joining eventually were consulting engineer Michael Tubridy, who specializes in the concertina but
also feels at home with the flute and the tin whistle, and Belfast harpist Derek Bell, the only trained
musician in the assemblage, who strums an ancient lyre in the style of the harps of Queen Mary and
Brian Boru and also doubles on a tiompan or Irish dulcimer and on the more conventional oboe.
It was not until their work on the Academy Award, winning soundtrack of the generally ill-fated Barry
Lyndon that the Chieftains moved beyond the range of Irish music fanciers and began reaching a far
wider audience--an audience so diverse and appreciative that in 1975 Music Maker, the British
equivalent of Billboard, named the group, as not only the folk group of the year but the group of the
year for all categories "for making unfashionable music fashionable."
They are just as unstylish in appearance as in repertoire. "We look terrible on stage in our sweaters
and suits," admits Paddy Maloney. "We don't jump around, we have no gimmicks, and we don't even
have any metallic instruments except the steel strings on the harp. But it seems that people are
listening more to music now. And we don't want to play to folk audiences. We wanted to play to rock
audiences, the lot."
That ambition may at first seem strange, but the Chieftains have succeeded amazingly well with
many varied segments of the music-listening public, from writing the music for the London National
Theatre's first production and playing Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall to touring with Jerry Garcia's
Grateful Dead and rock guitarist Eric Clapton.
With their success a singular change has come over the Chieftains--the replacement of Peadar
Mercier by Dubliner Kevin Conneff. Aside from giving a slightly more youthful cast, the move
accelerates their switch from strictly instrumental performing to occasional vocalizing, a decision
presaged on their latest album, Bonaparte's Retreat, which includes vocals on the title offering by
Nevertheless, it appears that no other great innovations are envisioned by the Chieftains, a musical
aggregation that has arrived this far by a strict adherence to traditional forms. "There is now a
tremendous interest in this kind of music," says Sean Potts, "and we are doing our best to preserve
"We can go back to our old jobs anytime," adds Paddy Maloney, "We know exactly what we want, and
we're not going to do it any other way."